Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Closing Notes from Dra. Shaw

My infatuation with travel began when I was 18 living abroad on an AFS scholarship. The experience changed my life in the sense that it opened me to adventure, to different cultures and it piqued my interest in foreign language. I was fortunate to have lived with an amazing AFS family, with whom I’m still in contact (we’re talking almost 40 years later). They taught me a lot about who I am and how to be in the world.

Term III at Elmira College has given me the opportunity to share with my students my love of Hispanic culture, the Spanish language, and the sheer joy of stepping into a totally new world. The trip this year really was special. Perhaps the blend of service work, the opportunity to play with Peruvian children, the chance to spend 4 days close to nature, and the physical challenge of the Inca Trail brought out the best in each member of our group. We were a combination of very diverse people, but we worked well together, and most of all, we enjoyed each other. Just as I was fortunate to be taken care of by wonderful people during my year abroad ages ago, we were also extremely fortunate to be in the care of the likes of Yure Chávez, his family, Donato, Daniel, Felipe, our porters, and William. They made our experience in Peru as authentic as it was pure fun (and even educational!). 

I thank Elmira College for this opportunity, my 8 students for being el supergrupo, Yure & Co. for your attention, and Patricia at Jardín Progreso and Maruja at El Hogar de Menores for opening your doors to us.  

Thank you, readers, for sharing our journey. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bittersweet Free Day

The athletes!

Excited local fans! (that sat right behind us!)

The musical festival at The Plaza de Armas!

Hola Chicos! It’s Erin again, and I get to tell you about our last “real” day in Cusco. Saturday May 26th was our día libre, or Free Day.
This week seemed to fly by, with our work at the jardin, and touring Pisac and Ollantaytambo. We were constantly moving and going. On our free day we were able to sleep in an extra hour! We woke up for breakfast at around 9, and made our way upstairs for a delicious meal made by Señora Juana, Donato’s wife.

After breakfast we made our way to our rooms to pack, and catch up on our journals (which we were all falling steadily behind on). It was a great morning to relax and spend time together, talking and reflecting on the wonderful times we have been having.

Later in the afternoon we all prepared to go to the big fútbol game! We went with Señor Chavez to the stadium down the hill from our home in Cusco. The atmosphere was incredible; there were people all around the stadium selling food and merchandise. The game was between Cusco’s primary club, referred to as Real Garcilaso, and a team from Calvo, Peru.  We sat with a group of Señor Chavez’s friends who were big fans, singing and cheering and yelling at the referees. Cusco won 1 to 0! Fútbol is a huge part of South American culture, and it was great to experience an authentic part of the culture.

After the game we separated into a couple of groups to take advantage of the early afternoon and go shopping! Bryce, Lucas and I went down to the Plaza that we had become so familiar with. There was an art festival going on, and a stage was being set up for a concert, so we decided to come back before dinner to check it out. The art in the square was beautiful; there were statues, paintings, sculptures, textiles, and chalk on pavement masterpieces. It was amazing.

Later on, Emily, Colleen, Allison, Lucas, Bryce, and I went back to the square to see what type of concert was going on. The stage was set up in front of the cathedral and the lights against the beautiful building were breath-taking. The music was more traditional or Peruvian country music, but the experience was still great.
Dr. Shaw took us out to a beautiful dinner at a lovely restaurant called “Baco”. They tried to seat us at two separate tables, but we moved together at a round table; they couldn’t separate our family. Dinner was delicious, but our conversations were the special part of this evening. We all got a little cheesy, expressing our affection for one another, and how much we are going to miss each other. The chemistry of our group has been amazing. We all get along so well and genuinely care for and appreciate each other. It was a beautiful dinner, but a sad one too, because we were slowly realizing that our wonderful experiences couldn’t last forever.

After dinner, Dr. Shaw went back to the house, so we decided to go get her a present. She did so much for us on this trip, and we wanted to show her our appreciation. On the way home, we decided to stop at our favorite place, Paddy’s Pub. We sat together, playing cartas and talking and laughing. Eventually we abandoned our game and continued to laugh and share stories until they flashed the lights for us to leave.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day and night to bring our trip to a close.

“Service Work and Child's Play”

One of the bedrooms at the orphanage

Dra. Shaw, Colleen, and Christina playing with one of the girls!

Allison and Christina posing with the "cuy" at "Victor Victoria's!"

Hello, friends, family, and everyone! This is Christina again, and on behalf of our whole EC Peru ’12 travel group I’d like to thank all of our readers for your continued support and interest.

Friday, May 25th was our last day of volunteering at the kindergarten. We enjoyed a breakfast of plantains, eggs, and more fresh mixed fruit juice, and then left for the jardín in two groups because some people needed a few more minutes to get ready. Dra. Shaw, Colleen and I left early because we wanted to make sure we got to see Profesora Patricia before she left for her meeting. The rest of our group (except Sarah, who wasn’t feeling well) joined us a little later.

We had a lot to get done on Friday morning, and, sadly, no children bouncing around to distract us from our work. We didn’t know on Wednesday during the presentation that they didn’t have class on Friday and that we wouldn’t be seeing our little buddies again, but perhaps that was for the best. Some of us had gotten pretty attached! 

We divided the work in the kindergarten based on our strengths, and we were able to finish all of the projects by lunchtime. We completed our repairs of the exterior office and bathroom walls and painted them, and we repainted all of the playground equipment, the basketball hoops, their central seating structure, and the front gate. After a few photos and a few more unsuccessful attempts to remove the paint from our hands, we said goodbye to the jardín and enjoyed the now-familiar walk back to Yure’s house. It was almost 2pm by the time we got back. Our late lunch consisted of green rice and other delicious, home-cooked foods.

At 3pm, we headed out to visit an orphanage, which was located in roughly the same direction as the jardín. When we first arrived, the director gave us some general information and took us on a tour of the grounds. Thirty-two girls between the ages of 5 and 18 are living there now. They have three large bedrooms, two bathrooms with several stalls each, and only two hot showers. I became pretty familiar with cold showers during my time in Peru, but I can’t imagine having to experience that all of the time, especially during the winter in one of their very poorly insulated bathrooms! Their recreational equipment and buildings looked like they could have used a little help. Some of us wondered why we hadn’t been working here, but we were informed that another volunteer group would be coming to help out the orphanage soon. I’m glad we were still able to help them out in some way with the clothing donations we had collected before we left the States.

During the tour, some of the little girls had started to introduce themselves and join our group. It took us no time to fall in love with them. We were told that many of the children who end up living at the orphanage have been abandoned or seriously abused by their parents. I can’t imagine how anyone could mistreat these precious little people, but I’m relieved that they have been able to escape their unhappy pasts and live here in a safe, loving environment. All of the girls refer to the women who work in the orphanage as their “mamis.” One bulletin board near the front door was decorated for Mother’s Day (El Día Mamá), and the heartfelt messages displayed there just about broke my heart. I was glad I had the opportunity to lighten the mood and play with some of girls before we left.

We played basketball, soccer, and Frisbee, and some other games involving the slide, scooters, cameras, and magic growing marbles. Also, I had the chance to talk to three Canadian girls who had spent the past four weeks volunteering at the orphanage. What a great way for those girls to spend a few weeks after college before entering The Real World! I hope they were able to tear themselves away without too many little stowaways in their bags. It was difficult for us to leave after only spending a few hours there, so I can’t imagine how it would have been after four weeks. Many members of our group walked away with damp eyes after we shut the gate on little cries of “Don’t leave me, friend!”

We all made our way back to Yure’s house by taxi and got ready for dinner. We decided that we were finally going to find the restaurant Victor Victoria, whose promise of “princely Peruvian portions” greatly appealed to the boys. Allison, Emily and I decided that the time had come for us to satisfy our appetites for food as well as adventure, and together we ordered cuy, or guinea pig. As part of our tour of the orphanage, the director had shown us their five guinea pigs, which they save for dinners on special occasions, and now we had the chance to see for ourselves how the dish was. Our dinner came out looking very much like a small rodent, complete with feet and teeth. It certainly wasn’t my new favorite food, but I’m glad I got to try it! Thanks, Peru, for yet another unforgettable memory!

Condors and Pumas and Serpents Oh My!

Erin spending time with the animals at the farm!

Our group in The Sacred Valley!

Christina attempting to pick up a boulder at Ollantaytambo!

Hello, this is Sarah, once again, this time with a look at what could be our our most touristy day: Thursday, May 24th, 2012. We woke up early for a delightful breakfast of banana pancakes, fresh bread and sauco jam, and my personal favorite: mate de quinua. This Peruvian specialty is a hot drink composed of milk, sugar, and quinoa grain that really gets any morning off to an energized start.
Soon afterwards, we piled into our touring van and set out for a day of adventures outside of Cuzco. Our first stop was a little souvenir market on the side of the road on the way to the Pisac Ruins. The vendors had their bazaars lined up in a huge semicircle through which shoppers could meander and be coaxed into buying all sorts of Peruvian handcrafts. Flags, statues, hand woven table cloths, clothing made from alpaca wool, idols, paintings, jewelry, candles, and dolls were just a few of the items for sale.
Stop number two turned out to be what I had been looking forward to all trip- the alpaca farm! Or, more precisely, it was a special reserve and education center containing a whole assortment of animals, including alpacas. An affable young employee took us around the outdoor enclosures and gave us interesting information about all of the Peruvian animals at the center. We saw a vicuna, a cousin of the llama and alpaca whose wool is so luxurious that a single scarf costs at minimum U.S. $200. We also got up close and personal with several condors inside their expansive cage, and witnessed their incredible flying speed and wingspan from mere feet away. The condor is a "near threatened" species of bird, and a national symbol of Peru and several other Andean countries. In Incan times, the condor represented the third stage of existence, or the Upper World (i.e. the afterlife).
Our group also saw several slumbering pumas, who consume more than ten kilos of meat every day. Pumas are also part of the three Inca life stages; they represent the second stage of existence in the Current World. Although we did not see any serpents, I might as well mention them too, since we learned that serpents represent the first stage of existence in the Underworld or pre-conception. All three animals are often seen in a vertical line on many statues around the Andes. I was particularly fascinated to learn that serpents are also traditionally associated in this region with wisdom, since Western norms cast the serpent as the incarnation of sinful temptation in the classic Genesis tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Other intriguing animals included frisky bobcats, hairless Peruvian dogs, parrots, deer, storks, falcons, and aardvark like creatures called coatis. As our time at the animal reserve came to a close, we also got to see hand weaving of baby alpaca fur in progress, and learn about all of the natural plants used to dye cloth every color imaginable in Incan times and modern day.  The ingenuity of artists at work is always a joy to witness.
We continued with our drive through mountains, stopping briefly to take pictures at an outlook about the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Our guide Daniel explained that two years ago, the mighty Urubamba River flooded most of the valley, causing dozens of fatalities and leaving whole towns struggling to recover to this day. The Peruvian government does not exactly have a FEMA to bring disaster relief to affected areas. It seemed so surreal that amidst the staggering beauty of these mountains there could be the same kind of hardship and strife that the victims of Hurricane Katrina suffered, for example.
At last, we reached the Pisac Ruins. This Inca site was once a lively city sitting high above the Sacred Valley, consisting of many interconnected areas and elaborate stonework. On the side of an adjacent cliff face rested over one hundred small tombs hewn into the rock face. It was almost as if the Incas had created a sort of vertical cemetery for their dead. Incas would be buried in their tombs in fetal positions and the pathways to each tomb would be destroyed after burial to prepare and propel the dead onward into the afterlife. Royalty would be buried with hairless Peruvian dogs, whose skin was believed to heal and purify human flesh. Unfortunately, these marvelously constructed tombs also provided the allure for greedy Spanish conquistadors, who raided and destroyed much of the city of Pisac in search of buried gold valuables.
            Some of the most remarkable parts of Pisac included the terraces made of dirt, sand, and rock that have lasted nearly intact for over five hundred years and kept the city's buildings from falling victim to landslides. These terraces were designed to face east towards the sun, and therefore provided excellent surfaces for meeting the city's agricultural needs. The Incas even created ingenious stone channels to store collected crops in "air conditioning" for preservation.  Water flows directly to the area from high up glaciers, and the Incas designed a complex system of fountains to deliver the water all over the city. Approximately two hundred people lived full time in Pisac, although travelers frequently made use of the site as a resting place along their journeys. Evidence suggests that Pisac was a significant holy site as well, for the worship of Inca gods from the mountaintops. As the population in Pisac grew, many began to migrate into the valley and other parts of the mountain to access more resources. The proliferation of Pisac spurred development all over the valley area.
            Today, there are ongoing efforts to restore parts of Pisac damaged by the Spanish conquistadors and natural wear and tear. To make the restorations look as authentic and original as possible, construction crews use many of the same techniques the Incas would have used hundreds of years ago. Our group witnessed workers immersed in a mud pit, churning mud and straw into bricks by foot (not unlike how the Hebrew slaves built a new city brick by brick under the watchful eyes of Egyptian taskmasters). It is interesting to see how some techniques and practices can evolve similarly in completely separate societies.
            By the time we started to drive down from Pisac, everyone was pretty hungry for lunch, which was still quite some distance away. To tide us over, our guides had us stop in the valley for empanadas. Empanadas look like miniature calzones- perfect for snacking. The outer dough consists of wheat, quinoa, and corn. Most of us got the traditional filling, which includes onion, tomato, cheese, oregano, and rosemary. Other options included cheese and basil, ham and cheese, and sweet Banana and raisin. They were absolutely delectable. I do so love Peruvian cuisine!
            After an hour's ride, we finally reached our lunch destination in Ollantaytambo, a bustling town built at a former Inca site. We ate at a buffet style restaurant called Alhambra with seating under huge canopies. Although all of the food was delicious, I have to say that my favorite part was the passion fruit custard for dessert. Once we ate, we walked behind the seating area to the grass and performed our recitation of The Heights of Machu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. This series of poem was written by the Chilean author on his journey up the Inca Trail, and captures the impact that trek had on his life. Before the trip, our class read and discussed the entire series. We chose the last poem and each of us memorized several lines to recite. Since we did not have time for the recitation at Machu Picchu itself, we decided to fit it in on this day. After a few rehearsals, we successfully recited the poem in Spanish on video for Dr. Shaw. You can see the video right from this blog if you care to view our work.
            On our way back to our van, we all did a double take while passing the llama enclosure. Some Discovery Channel type of prurient shenanigans involving several llamas at once was causing quite a cacophonic ruckus. So naturally, mature college students that we are, we simply had to stop, stare in half disbelief and half fascination, and take pictures. I confess that this was probably not our best moment, but a little levity at the expense of beastly impropriety never hurts anyone. Besides, as Dr. Shaw pointed out through her chuckles, when are we ever going to see llamas acting like this again?
            Our last stop for the day was a tour of the Inca Temple at Ollantaytambo. This temple (and the entire town, for that matter) was built in honor of the gods Tunupa and Pinkuylluna whose faces are visible in the adjacent mountains. Their profiles reminded me of how the Old Man of the Mountains in New Hampshire used to look before he eroded away. The Incas believed that the god Tunupa found the place, which is now Ollantaytambo, and set down his 'backpack,' making the land fertile and sacred. During the summer solstice, the sun projects a beam of light directly angling across Tunupa's face. This, among other curious astrological properties, heightened the religious importance of the site to the Incas. Ollantaytambo was settled under Pachacutec's reign as part of his personal estate. The temple was never finished before the Spanish conquest, although the site did provide a temporary capital for Manco Inca, the leader of the last great wave of Incan resistance to Spanish rule. The design of Ollantaytambo is sophisticated, with granaries tucked high in the mountains to keep stored food cooler and all terraces and buildings strengthened against earthquakes by the specific stonework. Without wheels or ropes, Incas built Ollantaytambo through backbreaking labor, literally pulling the rocks uphill by hand. The scale of what they accomplished through decades of sweat and sinew is simply staggering. At the peak of the temple is a huge altar with the head of a condor, puma, and serpent, once again symbolizing those three stages of existence. Perhaps the most fascinating piece of Ollantaytambo is that it is in essence a living museum. People still live in the stone Inca houses at the base of the temple, using the systems of fountains for water just as the Incas did.
            At this point, the sun was starting to set. We walked back through the touristy, windy roads of Ollantaytambo to our van and drove an hour and a half back to Cuzco, admiring the darkening sky, mountains, and small villages passing by. When we arrived back at the house, we all showered, changed into nice clothing, and met our guide Daniel in the Plaza de Armas to hit up a salsa club for the evening. Some of the local youth in the club were "Dancing With the Stars" talented with their salsa moves. We all had a wonderful time relaxing, dancing, and watching the experts perform some smoky, sensual salsa. Perhaps no one had a better time than Dr. Shaw, who has both a PhD in Spanish and a Master’s in dance. She got right out there and salsa danced with the best of them, even earning the respect of some pretty amazing Cuscan dance partners. I think we all have enjoyed getting to see our professor in a more casual, personal light during this trip.
            After 11:00PM, the salsa club became more of a typical American club. All of the locals left and pretty soon the music and the crowd were nearly indistinguishable from anywhere in the States. Wow, what a long and crazy day. It was truly jam packed and filled with a plethora of incredible experiences. Thank you for coming along for the ride. "Chao y hasta el próximo" to all of you.  

“Party Time in el Jardín!”

"Musical Chairs" at the kindergarten!

Party Time!

    Hi there, this is Bryce again.  Today started with a lovely breakfast from our main man of the kitchen, Donato. He made freshly squeezed juice, something Luke especially has grown to look forward to. After that, we headed off the garden with a focused mindset as we had just lost a day of work due to the rain the day before. However, this mindset was soon interrupted upon our arrival at the garden while we stood outside. As we waited to be let in, we could hear music playing, and kids singing, a sure sign of a good day, but one based more in fun than in work.  As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.  

    Apparently they were celebrating a week-long national celebration of early education.  Thus, the first half of our day there was completely consumed by games, songs, and dancing, but honestly, who can argue with that?  It was an absolute joy for all of us to see the kids in this kind of element, and to see how no matter where you are in the world, when you give them the chance, kids are just kids.  Our first game of the day was "musical chairs", and it was so funny to see the kids playing as that was a beloved game for so many of us when we were that age.  Fortunately, we were able to relive that as after the kids were done with their game. We were invited to play as well, an invitation that was quickly accepted by our group and the kids as we took our positions to chants of “Gringos! Gringos! Gringos!”  The game was going smoothly until "Lucas el grande" decided to spread his reign of size terror on a poor chair.  As he sat down when he “thought” the music stopped, the chair had apparently had enough and one of its legs snapped, breaking the seat entirely.  This clearly got quite the rise out of everyone there: kids, teachers, and our group all sharing a laugh at the expense of Lucas and that poor chair.  

    Then, to more loud cheers and music, a clown entered the garden and center stage.  He did everything you would expect out of a clown, a couple simple magic tricks silly jokes, juggling, singing, and using crowd participants including our group.  From our group, Emily and myself were selected as the participants.  He engaged me in a juggle-off, if you will, with rings while he had Emily assist him with those spinning plastic plates that keep revolving once they are placed on top of pointy wood sticks.  I am sure you can visualize this- and just in case you can’t -there is a little something to help: he also made Emily wear a Captain Jack Sparrow (from the Pirates of the Caribbean) hat.  Needless to say, all of these features got a good rise from the kids.  From there, the garden really turned into a dance party with everyone dancing together to songs, some of which we knew from back in the states.  However, there was one solo dance that should be noted and one that personally, lies close to my heart.  A boy who I grew especially close to is named Miguel Jackson, or Michael Jackson.  Suddenly, “Billy Jean” by the pop-star Michael Jackson came on.  One teacher from the garden could not resist as she pulled Miguel to center stage and had him do the moon-walk and a few other iconic Michael Jackson moves.  Obviously, this was another pleasure to see for all of us.  After that, the clown said his goodbyes and it was snack time for everyone and by that I do mean our group as well as each one of us received our own “goody bag” of sorts.  Obviously, with Donato in our lives, that was not our only meal we had at the garden that day.  Once again, he brought lunch right to us, a blend of beef and vegetables, that was just o-so-satisfying.  Once lunch was done, it was time for some work.

    Here, we picked up where left off before, with some sanding, scraping, spackling, more sanding and painting.  It was something else to see really as everyone had a personal drive to complete their given task at hand, but to do it well at the same time.  There was a common feeling that it would be great to get it all done but we had to do it right as no one wanted their hands responsible for a lack-luster job.  Also, the fact that we would only have one more day on the job after this only added to our drive.  At the same time, it didn’t hurt that our man Donato came through once again and got the boom box back from the party so that we could have some musical inspiration to match the pulse of our sandpaper or paintbrush.  Later, in the early evening, we decided to wrap it up for the day.  Per usual, there were high fives all around to keep spirits up and celebrate another good day of work.

    Upon our arrival back at the house, a small hike in and of itself, there was time for showers and some rest before we ventured out into the city to find some dinner.  Before we left, a destination we had tried to find before, Inca House, was decided upon.  This time, we had much more success finding it, and it was well worth it.  One reason was the atmosphere, another the company, another the food, and still another, and one that cannot be forgotten, free pisco sour, just another little something to put a little smile on all of our faces.  Then, Colleen and Christina went to get change and that venture turned into a full blown conversation with some other American tourists who were also enjoying what the Inca House had to offer.  Stories were exchanged about our travels thus far and travel for the future as well.  After that, goodbyes were said to both that group and the Inca House but before we made it home, a quick hello had to be made to Paddy’s Pub, the highest 100% Irish owned pub in the world standing at 11,156 feet above sea level.  

    It may not have been the most eventful day in comparison with some others and our hike, but it was for sure a full one and a day complimented once again by the little surprises that make each trip as special as they are, a characteristic that has easily held true during our time here in Peru!

TLC + Culture!

One of many nativity scenes found at El Museo de Arte Popular!

Vibrant colors are very characteristic of Peruvian artwork

"Noah's Ark"
Hey everyone! It’s Emily again reporting back about our post-Machu Picchu adventures. The first day after our hike was filled with necessary relaxation.  After breakfast we slept, showered, and caught up on our daily journals! During lunch time, Dr. Shaw mentioned how she would be visiting some local museums in Cusco during the afternoon. Even though we were still exhausted from our trek up the Inca Trail, we were all eager to soak in the Peruvian culture!

The first museum we visited was called El Museo de Arte Popular. This museum was filled with colorful and vibrant depictions of the nativity scene and rituals of daily Incan life. It was interesting to see this juxtaposition of themes.
One of the piece that resonated with me from this museum was “Viernes Santo (Disciplina Antingua)”. In this collection of figures, there were three separate sculptures that were meant to represent “Good Friday.” The first sculpture was a doctor performing a Cesarean-section. The second sculpture was a traditionally-dressed Inca man carrying Jesus’ cross. The third sculpture was of a woman beating a child who was being carried on his father’s back. Dr. Shaw and I stood there for awhile trying to dissect the meaning of this artwork. The second and middle sculpture of the Incan man seemed self-explanatory since he was blatantly bearing Jesus’ cross. However, the other two sculptures were a little less obvious. I was guessing that the one with the man holding his son on his back was a representation of God holding Jesus on his back while the woman (the world) beat Jesus to death. 

During our classes on campus about Peru, I had studied the Cusco School (Escuela Cuzqueña) and learned how this art form is an expression of the fusion of European and Incan cultures. The Cusco School began in the 1600s, and among other things, helped the Catholic clergy in Peru convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Since the indigenous population had no written language, the visual arts were a particularly ingenious way of conveying key scenes from the Bible. The Cusco School used images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and scenes from Jesus’ ministry to enforce the importance of Catholicism. At the second museum- El Museo Historíco Regional- we saw paintings from the Cusco School. The tour guide informed us that Marcos Zapata in his painting of “The Last Supper” -influenced by Da Vinci’s infamous painting- had painted Judas to resemble Franco Pizzaro (the Spanish conquistadors’ leader). Since Judas is associated with betrayal in the story of Jesus' resurrection, you can see the reference to how the indigenous felt about Spanish rule on their land. This is just one example of how they resisted the imposition of Spanish culture and beliefs. Zapata also included an essential element of Peruvian culture in this painting by including a guinea pig (cuy) at the center of the table and glasses of chicha (a purple fermented corn drink) for each member at the table. Though this painting hangs in the Cathedral at the Plaza de Armas, and not at El Museo Histórico Regional, our guide spoke about it because of its importance. 

In addition to paintings from the Cusco School, El Museo Historíco Regional definitely gave us a well-rounded look at overall Peruvian and Incan culture. The first room that we entered was filled with many weapons discovered in the Incan ruins all around Peru. Our tour guide mentioned that the Incas had perfected all of the weapons of the previous, pre-Incan groups; the Incas were an ingenious group of people who knew how to pull from their resources within nature. The Incas were the ones who discovered a way to engineer the potato so it was no longer poisonous. In the other rooms of the museum we saw paintings of the famous Santiago Matamoros (the slayer of the Moors), José Gabriel Condorcanqui or Tupac Amaru II, and Garcilaso de la Vega (Peruvian historian and writer). Tupac Amaru II was one of the most interesting of the famous Peruvians since he led a rebellion against the Spanish because of their unjust laws such as the "mita," which required the Incas to perform forced labor and pay taxes to the Spanish. Tupac Amaru was executed in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco in 1781 for conspiring against Spanish rule.  

“The Destination that Turned into an Experience”

Think of the most beautiful thing you have seen/experienced.  Now, that feeling that that moment gives you, that is exactly what we felt today during our early, actually, very early trek to and arrival at Machu Picchu.  Our day started with a lovely 3:20 am wake up call so that we would be able to get a good spot in line at the checkpoint all hikers must pass through before completing this four day journey.  Amazingly, even at this hour, we were greeted with a pancake breakfast thanks, once again, to our main man and “el rey de la cocina,” Donato.  From there, we made the small walk to the line for the checkpoint with some time to kill as the gate did not open until 5:30 am and we got there a little before 4:30 am.  So, what is there to do in the mountains to kill time that early in the morning?  Play a few rounds of our favorite card game, strategy, of course.  Only this time, we were using ponchos as our “card table.” Then, with an unbelievable feeling of pure anticipation pulsing through the crowd, the checkpoint opened and the line began to move.  From there, once we made it through the checkpoint, it felt like a mad dash all the way to Sun Gate (one of the two main entrances to Machu Picchu created by the Inca).  Felipe took the lead on this one at a rapid pace and we all tried to maintain that pace, even passing other groups that had stopped to take a break.  Without trying to boast, I can say that Lucas and I were able to stay right behind our man Felipe for the entire hour hike to the Sun Gate, even conquering with relative ease on all fours, the deemed “gringo killer,” an extremely steep staircase.  From there, Lucas, Felipe and myself waited for the others after grabbing the first glimpse down to Machu Picchu; however, I can say that it was so much fun and just an absolute joy to see the rest of our group finish one by one and to see their faces with a sense of accomplishment as all of us had just defeated the Inca Trail.

There, standing at the Sun Gate, there was time for hugs and our first photos, hopefully by now you have seen at least one of the photos taken by someone in our group, as well as a time to offer a huge thank you to Daniel and Felipe for everything they had helped us through and simply, for just being them.  Honestly, I highly doubt that we could have hand-selected a better pair of guides.  From there, we had an hour decline down to the actual ruins, and once again, this trek did not disappoint.  In fact, there was a whole series of clouds meandering through the valley, like a huge fog machine at a concert.  At times it would completely cover Machu Picchu offering a first-hand example of just one way how this site remained hidden during the Conquistador’s conquest.  At other times, these clouds just served to add to the overall mystique of our entire morning, a mystique that could be physically felt as we passed the "rock of the mountain."  This was a rock that the Inca carved from the mountain that embodied the spirit of the mountain and it might sound a little strange, but you could definitely feel its presence there.  On top of all this majesty that the natural world of Peru had to offer, we finally arrived at a different type of majesty, one we had been working towards for three and a half days, the one, the only, Machu Picchu!

View of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate!

Felipe, Bryce, and Daniel at the Sun Gate!

During our time before we officially entered the site, there was a funny moment.  As you may or may not know, hiking is not the only way to arrive at Machu Picchu.  A much more leisurely mode, but at the same time much less rewarding, is to take a train to Aguas Calientes, then a bus up to the site where you will meet a our guide and start your tour of the site.  Well, while we were going to use the bathroom and check our bags before the tour, we became part of another group’s tour, as the tour guide pointed out, “now passing you on the left is a group that just finished hiking the Inca Trail…”  Obviously, we couldn’t but help get a good grin out of that and personally, I couldn’t help but milk the moment for all it was worth and give that group a nice big wave.  But then, it was time for our tour of Machu Picchu, lead of course by Daniel, to begin.  This of course, as Daniel liked to call it, involved quite a “story time.”
Hola Machu Picchu!

In 1911 Yale professor Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in his quest to find Vilcabamba, the lost city of the Incas. He was as unaware of Machu Picchu as the Spaniards were in the 1500s, and at first he thought he had found Vilcabamba. Later he realized he had found what he named Machu Picchu, a site that the Spaniards had overlooked and hence did not appear in any of their chronicles.  A couple of situations added together could have made it very difficult for the conquistadors to come across Machu Picchu. First, the Incas from Ollantaytambo were able to warn those in Machu Picchu of the pending Spanish invasion. Thus, the Incas living there were able to flee, taking with them the most valuable treasures and possessions, such as the mummy of the king, with them. This, hundreds of years later, led to a disheartened Bingham as he only found the most basic remnants left at the site.  The second situation that helped Machu Picchu remain untouched by the Spanish is the climate in which it was built.  It is located in the high jungle of Peru where the cloud forest rolls through (as we were fortunate enough to see first hand) and as a result, it is always humid and warm, a perfect combination for vegetation to grow.  Thus, if it is not cared for, it will not take long for Machu Picchu to be covered by vegetation, a natural blanket if you will.  Also, when the Inca fled, they destroyed the entrances to the site, such as the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge, in order to block access to Machu Picchu.  However, for a while it was believed that the Incaa did leave something behind: their sick.  During Bingham’s excavation of the site, he found tombs, and the bodies in those tombs all shared the commonality of syphilis.  Later archaeologists who found other tombs with bodies that had not suffered from this illness disproved this theory.  So, why did these Incas stay/ get left behind?  The answer to this is subject to theory.  
We made it! Our group at Machu Picchu!

Now, for a little on Macchu Picchu’s origin.  The Inca needed to make more power centers than in just Cusco as their empire was ever expanding.  As a result, somewhere between 1460 and 1470, Pachaputec (one of the most important Inca kings) ordered that Machu Picchu be constructed and for a couple of reasons.  First, with its location, it was naturally protected by the mountain range and the jungle, so it was naturally fortified.  The other reason people believe he ordered this site to be built was to serve as more of a retirement location after his reign.  Now, the name “Machu Picchu” is not what the Incas themselves probably called it as its name was given by Bingham himself because of the two mountains, Machu Picchu and Wachu Picchu, that surround the site.  Thus, the two names stand for the big mountain/ small mountain, old mountain/ young mountain, father mountain/ son mountain.  Another interesting geographical tidbit is that Machu Picchu is made almost into an island by the swerving Urubamba river. 

Christina and Machu Picchu!

From there, we moved on to our actual moving tour of the site, where we learned more about the physical site itself.  First, it was built from the bottom up and was done so by about 1,000 slaves.  Slaves under the Inca were warriors of conquered tribes who were bound by slavery for fifteen years, but then they were made free men and could live in the Empire as they pleased.  The capacity for the site was for around 400 people and was constructed with more than five different types of walls, all varying by the nature of importance of what lied behind those walls.  These different sections of the city were blocked off from one another by doors that were “locked” with multiple trees all pointed in different directions.  Carrying on with this theme of stones, Machu Picchu serves as another example of an unfinished site as there are examples of stones cut away from the quarry located just off the site as well as unfinished works on the site, such as a “pipe” system for water to flow from one area to another.  However, the most important of rocks on site is arguably Itiwatana.  This rock lies at the top of Machu Picchu whose four directions point not only to north, south, east, and west, but also to the surrounding mountains around the site.  Thus, it is believed that it absorbs energy from all of the surrounding nature, a clearly powerful force.  Also, this rock was used for the projections during June 21, September 21, December 22, and March 21.  However, it lost one of these points due to an accident while the beer company Cusqueña was filming a commercial.  Unfortunately for them, not only did they taper with an amazing site, but they also had to pay $1 million in damages.  Finally, we learned how Machu Picchu is really a site of temples as well.  Of course, there was the Temple of the Sun, and idea initiated by Pachaputec himself, but there was also the Temple of the Three Windows, Temple of the Condor, and the Temple of the Stars.  Amazingly, all of these had something to do with tracing the projections of the moving sun or constellations although, in the temple of the Condor, they would poor chicha, which I am sure you have all heard of by now, the sacred drink of the Inca, into the stone condor’s beak. 

From there, the whole visit to Machu Picchu came full circle as we once again were a spectacle for other tourists.  With Dra. Shaw as our guide, (she also leads yoga classes during the academic year) we had no choice but to abandon the idea of the hot springs below to enjoy some yoga on Machu Picchu.  Now, how many people they can say that they have done that?!  It really served as yet another example of how open to anything our group is, and how despite all of our differences, we share the common ground of looking for that “genuine experience.”

Then, we made the half-hour trip down the mountain (and after our hike it didn’t feel quite right to be riding down a mountain) to Aguas Calientes in order to enjoy lunch with our main men, Daniel and Felipe.  Lunch of wonderful of course, only bettered by the company we were able to enjoy it with.  After that, and a period of rest to either roam the city or hang in the restaurant, of course more cards were involved, we had a three-hour train ride via PeruRail back to Cusco.  Despite how tired we may have been, conversation was still buzzing amongst our group, even with strangers as Erin and Christina found out.  Finally, we made it back to Cusco where our ever-reliable William was there to pick us up.  As we were so tired, dinner consisted of a more American style ordering pizza for delivery.  It definitely did the trick to wrap up an experience of a lifetime.  Honestly, over these past four days, what we did, saw and experienced stand no chance of being described by words or photographs.  It can only be experienced, and I know the strength of that experience once more because as I write this, chills are pouring down my arms and back.        
Where we ate our first meal after the trek!

"Hola Cartas!": Our favorite phrase to say during "Estrategia!"