Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is having a good holiday and getting to spend all that family time and share all the yummy food that we’re not getting. Christmas here is different, but I’ve learned it differs from town to town as well. In our little mountain village there’s no Santa Claus, stockings, emphasis on presents or even a family meal together. We have been told people do trees but we have yet to see it. What they do have is giant nativity scenes in everyone’s houses with lichen, moss and bromeliads from the hills. On Christmas Eve, we assumed we’d be sharing a big family dinner…but that didn’t happen. All day they worked on the house they are building above the restaurant, did laundry and relaxed. Matt and I made pepper biscuits and I boiled a big batch of beans. We weren’t too hungry for dinner, so it was okay there was no family dinner (although a bit sad). The rest of the evening made up for it, though.

Here, people are all about the hot chocolate and panneton bread. The hot chocolate is artesanal and you start with the bean. Surprisingly, freshly made hot chocolate is pretty greasy. The bean has a lot of fat in it and when you toast, grind and cook the beans, the result is an oily chocolate drink. It differs obviously by the bean and we’ve had some good hot chocolate and some not so good hot chocolate. Last night Wilma invited us to share some of her homemade hot chocolate (the best so far) and some fresh made cheese (they went and brought back milk from their cows on their farm that morning) and panneton. The panneton is, for lack of a better description: fruit cake. Except it’s like a giant tall round loaf (think bread machine bread shape) of challah style bread filled with raisins and frutillas (think fruit snacks, but more sugar, less fruit). So, what you do is rip up the cheese (which tastes like a rubbery tofu), put it in your hot chocolate and dip the panneton in the chocolate and eat that with your hands. You eat the softened cheese with a spoon. The cheese in the chocolate is pretty good. The panneton…I am not excited about-but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Kids eat it here and pick out the fruit. Every other commercial on tv is for panneton. I think it originated in Italy, but it’s huge in Peru.

Estafani told me at her home in Chiclayo, they make their own panneton from scratch. They also have a big family dinner as well, so she was a little sad about the lack of family togetherness and homesick along with me.

That evening we went to the 10pm mass at the only church in town. The service was interesting…I was worried at first because the priest was this old white guy with a microphone that talked really loud and within the first 5 minutes of the service he rapped on the altar and yelled at the children to pay attention. I have never seen that in church before—the priest yelling. I was scared. The mass went on as a normal Catholic mass and I may have to learn the Our Father in Spanish because it’s hard to say it in English when everyone around you is doing it in Spanish. The songs were fun, a guy played the guitar, there was a drum and a tamborine and lots of people singing. It was a mix of old favorites in Spanish (little drummer boy) and some regional songs that had a Peruvian traditional huaino style sound to it. Luckily, they passed out song sheets so I was able to sing along.

During Eucharist I was surprised how it reminded me of Spain. The priest came up front with the Host and everyone just mobbed him for the Eucharist. No lines, just like in Granada. After the service, a bunch of children dressed up (a little angel, a group of girls in traditional clothing, and 2 boys with canes and big suits, one with a black face to represent their African heritage and another with a mask of sheep fleece to represent an old man) and came and danced at the base of the nativity scene. They gave offerings of cheese and fruit to Jesus and they sang a lot of songs and danced and when they were done, another group of kids showed up and did the same thing. The girls had different outfits on and after they were done, they went out into the streets and visited everyone’s nativity scenes at their houses and sang and danced in front of them. After mass, we went to the Health Center where one of our students invited us to come and see the nativity and have some hot chocolate. We were greeted with some sweet white sparkling wine, a big cup of hot chocolate, club crackers and bread. By that time it was past midnight and I was exhausted and full. We waited for the pastores to come and sing to their nativity scene, then went home and tried to sleep.

I think the chocolate is too fatty for me or something, but I didn’t sleep well. My stomach was pretty upset all night from all that artesanal chocolate and panneton. I woke up worried that I was having an appendicitis attack or something, but I feel much better later on. I’m definitely not craving hot chocolate again anytime soon.

Tonight we’re going to have a little dinner with Estafani and her husband and kid to have a mini-post Christmas. I think I’ll make some minestrone soup and swimming rama…but I’m exhausted so we’ll see what I have the energy to make. Overall, it was an interesting Christmas and we got some community togetherness last night. I DO look forward to having a home again and creating some holiday traditions of our own, but obviously not this year.

End of the month, Leymebamba

Our activity has been winding down as we enjoy the stability of a home for a month. We haven’t been doing much except teaching, eating, reading, and (for me) plenty of cooking and crocheting. The weather has changed a bit and I think we are full into the rainy season. The sun is out at least every other day, but the temperature has dropped and we’ve had plenty of rain. At least the weather is cooperating with our lack of adventure. The classes are going well. Matt has lost most of his adult basic class, but his basic children’s class has doubled (due to our advertising at the school). My classes are pretty stable and we’re getting into more technical stuff in the advanced class (sentence structure, prepositions, irregular verbs…I had to relearn my 8th grade English class all over again.

Last week we were struck with a strong homesickness that was paired with both of us getting sick. Everyone in town is also sick, and they chalk it up to the change in climate, but I believe we’re all sick because after a big rainstorm, we lost running water for almost 2 days, and then randomly the water got shut off for hours while the main plaza was getting torn up to replace the water pipes. So being without water for over 24 hours is not fun (especially when we lost electricity a few times as well). You can’t flush the toilet, you can’t wash your hands, you can’t wash your produce. Did I ever mention there’s no hot water faucet? Forget about washing your dishes in hot, soapy water, ever. If I learned anything in my Safety and Sanitation class at school, it’s about the rampant spreading of fecal material that happens when ONE person doesn’t wash their hands. So I think we’re all sick because of hygiene and maybe a little bit because it got cold and rainy. But, I’ll happily take having a little head cold and stuffy nose over what I was experiencing in Huanchaco.

But we are definitely homesick and miss you all. The holidays will be hard this year, our first one away from any family except each other. I’m happy that at least we have a pseudo-family here to celebrate the holidays with and we are part of a community in this town. It would be a lot harder if we were on the road, totally alone.

Visiting the Cloud People’s Past

A few weeks ago, we took a day hike to see the ruins of Kuelep, which is famed to be just as cool as, if not better than, Macchu Picchu…minus the crowds and foreign influence. It may be true. The only buses leave our town at 3am and 5am, so we attempted to take the 5am bus. Somehow that day, there was only a 4am bus and they came to our hostal at 3am to tell us to get ready to leave. What a way to wake up. No one is on time for anything, ever, except the buses usually leave early. After a bumpy couple of hours in the dark, we arrived in Tingo, a small town on the river. From there we could be extremely lucky and catch another bus into Maria to hike a moderate trail a few hours to the ruins. It was dawn and we we groggy and thought just hiking from town would be fine. Sitting around in a tiny town at dawn was not appealing. The guidebook warns that the trail is steep, exposed and hot. It’s 9.8 km of switchbacks (just under 12 miles round-trip). The beginning of the trail followed the river and was pleasant and pretty flat, then it was up up up over around up again. It was intense but I had a new friend to motivate me up the mountain: Wheezy the guide dog. We found out later that this dog in Tingo accompanies most of the tourists up the mountain to the ruins. He was in good spirits the whole time, except for the constant wheezing. I was worried he was going to die on the hike and we’d have to carry him to town and find his owners, but he’s tough.

The hike was gorgeous. The valleys were green and beautiful with farms and forests scattered among the steep valley walls. We didn’t see one hiker the entire time up. We walked through a tiny village before reaching the ruins, which was a surprise. Two children from the village followed us for awhile and pointed us in the right direction. We could see the ruins about a half mile away. It is a giant fortress built of rock, dating to 900-1100 ad. It is on the edge of a limestone mountain and the stonework is amazing. The people who built it were called the Chachapoyas, or the Cloud People (because they lived in the cloud forest). They were around and established before the Incas, but were eventually taken over by the Incas, which was shortly followed by the Spanish.

I really enjoy their style of architecture. Round houses! It’s like living in a turret. They weren’t into metal-working like the Chimu or Moche cultures. They were not warriors, either. They were interested in agriculture and stone masonry. All the houses are made of stone and are round, with a pointed tee pee style thatch roof. Kuelep was “discovered” in 1843, but overgrown with trees and vines and bromeliads. Their ruins are found on high points on mountains and hills. Some people say it has more stones than the great pyramid of Egypt and I believe it. They were into details too, and a lot of houses have designs around the base (zig zags, rhomboids). The ruins were crazy; obviously no roofing remained but all the round stone foundations are visible and most have trees growing in the houses. Only a small portion of it is reconstructed or exposed, but it was plenty to see and I preferred to see the ruins with this jungle of a forest taking over it. They were the most beautiful ruins I had seen so far: mountain top stone houses with a view. Most houses have a sort of root cellar/hole dug into them and archaeologists believe some of it was for food storage but most of it was for burying their ancestors. Yep, the grandparents were buried in the “basement.” A few grinding stones (for making pesto, of course) were also in the houses. A really interesting thing about the fortress wall is that it only has 3 entrances and the complex is 3 times the size of a football field. Each entrance is designed in such a way to taper down and become narrower so that by the time you are close to the complex you have to enter single file. I think this was a protection against attack. It’s beautiful there, did I mention that? But eventually we had to make the return hike to town (a slow 4 hours up, about a moderate 3-3.5 hours down) to try to catch the last bus home again…which we saw leaving Tingo while we were on the river trail. We were exhausted but had considered staying in town to do another hike the next day…but after that elevation and steep hike, I just wanted to relax. We were both disappointed and after asking a handful of locals if that really was the last bus (they said yes) and trying to get a shared taxi (none) we just sat in town with Wheezy and drank the last of our water. A cop or town something arrived in town and I thought I’d ask him if there were ANY other buses coming and he said probably in 15 minutes and I heard the locals laughing and telling him the last bus came. Luckily for us, in 15 minutes another bus came in our direction and we were able to go home, shower and relax.

The following week we took a day hike to La Congona, another Chachapoyas site. This one is hikeable from Leymebamba and we were invited to go with one of our adult students (who, ironically is also an English teacher at the local school) and two of his students. The hike to La Congona follows a series of steep rocky switchbacks which reminded Matt more of logging roads than a hike through the farms. We learned that the area used to be all forest, but they logged it all to build houses (and didn’t replant) then turned the open space into pasture or farmland. It at least explains the landscape a bit better. The farms around here are so steep and up these mountains. I wouldn’t consider planting my potatoes let alone till the land, but everyone does it and most people’s farms are on average a 3 hour hike from town.

Anyways, the hike to La Congona was steep and muddy and we were going against traffic. Everyone from the mountains was heading to Leymebamba for the market, carrying babies and firewood and eggs and drop spindling as they navigated their way down the mountain in galoshes. I was having a hard enough time getting proper footing…I can’t imagine spinning yarn in that sort of footwear. Sometimes I feel like such a wimp compared to these mountain women, carrying loads on their backs, spinning yarn and their 5 year old daughters are carrying the babies. The hike was beautiful, as expected. Rolling mountains of farms and trees, cows and horses grazing, occasional chickens making their ruckus. I really like the mountains here (except that steep uphill!)

The ruins at La Congona are smaller than Kuelep, but still quite beautiful. They are on a hilltop on some farmer’s property. It’s a much narrower ridgeline than Kuelep but there’s a bunch of round stone foundations standing, some 10-15 feet high, with intact niches in the walls (for offerings? candles? somewhere to put your coffee cup?) and there’s two round buildings very close together with a stone staircase to head up to the top. I guess that’s the tower because the view is practically a 360 degree view (minus all that new vegetation) We were the only tourists there, it’s not developed at all or reconstructed and I liked the feeling of being in this lost, abandoned world. The houses here also had the decorative slate friezes and one house had a square foundation for the round house, which is very strange but shows the Inca’s presence (they build houses with corners). We enjoyed a lazy lunch and learned a lot of folklore about the town, complete with witch doctors and shamans creating trouble. Our hike back down was a little tougher as we got caught in the middle of a huge rainstorm and had to run to a farmhouse to wait it out as best as we could. The hike down was muddy, slippery and fun.

Week 2: Leymebamba

It’s hard to believe that 2 weeks have already passed. I think it helps a lot that we are busy and enjoying the company of the family we are staying with… and I’m enjoying teaching! I was worried at first, I’ve taught one cooking class and was wary of my abilities to teach English but we have just gone full force and filled our days with classes. We created more English teaching opportunities than were here before and are reaching out to the adjoining neighborhoods as well.

All the classes are going well. A big difference here is mainly that everyone is excited to learn. Our students don’t seem to take attendance seriously, which is a problem because I like to move forward and build on what we know, but at least half of every class is a review to get everyone caught up. Luckily, they LOVE homework and if I assign 10 sentences I usually get 15 or 20 from most students (I have the intermediate adults). Right now we’re working on basic conversation but are past the general greetings and talking more about feelings, food, animals and parts of the body. It’s funny, I realized that I’m encouraging them to talk about their feelings (I won’t let them say “I’m fine” anymore because that’s the generic answer that every single student uses for “How are you?”) and aches and pains in their body. They have their first exam tonight; I hope that goes well. I gave an exam yesterday to my jovenes (the youths) and half of the class showed up and they basically all failed. I just wanted to test them on what they absorbed in 2 weeks with me and the answer right now is not much, which is sad. They are excited to learn and do homework, but at least now I know we need to spend more time talking out loud and reviewing. They are sweet kids, and I’m getting a few new students every class, which is amazing to me. Matt and I have split them up and are now offering 2 jovenes classes at the same time (under 10 and 10-15).

I have about 8 regular jovenes in the older age bracket and I have a feeling our babies (8 year olds) will double because we advertised the class today at the 2 de Mayo school, where we’ve been teaching English almost every day. It takes about 10-15 minutes to walk there and they LOVE to sing. I was surprised when I was in the 5th grade classroom how eager they were to sing. I would have scorned singing at that age. Overall, it’s great because the kids learn faster than adults, especially through song. The popular one is Head, shoulders knees and toes because it’s simple and there’s movement. Most kids can only sit still for 5 minutes before running to look out the window or create a ruckus. We’re also teaching at the preschool for a half an hour a day, just about every weekday as well. These children pick up the pronunciation SO well; they are little sponges. We just taught them a new song about the colors and we’re already hearing it in the streets outside our windows. Children tend to not be embarrassed to practice new words and sounds, and I think the fact that they are learning it verbally helps them with their pronunciation. The teenagers and adults tend to be a little more embarrassed about sounding funny or are shy to say something because it might be wrong.

We’ve also been offering a drop in class twice a week in the evenings as a supplement or catch up for the people who miss classes. It’s ranged from 1 to 7 students so far. We cover and review whatever the students want to work on, from numbers to pronunciation to theory.

So, I’ve been busy but enjoying it. I really like correcting tests, but I’ve known that. I was always the essay editor in English class in high school. It’s another form of organization I enjoy. The week also flew by because I’ve been cooking and things ALWAYS take longer than I expect, especially here with an old kitchen that doesn’t have an oven thermometer (gasp!). Regardless, I’m still making an attempt at cooking because I promised the daughter in law of the owners of the hostal that I’d teach/share my knowledge with her (and she’s sharing hers as well, so it’s fun…she´s 24 and we get along really good). They are building a restaurant to go along with the hostal and she’s compiling a menu to send to the travel agencies (which I’m helping make bilingual and vegetarian friendly). Yesterday we made a big lunch together for the family and we had: Quinoa Vegetable Soup, Spaguetti with a spicy aji tomato sauce (I intended to make a huacatay pesto, but we couldn’t find any huacatay (a local herb kinda minty kinda basily)), puree of black-eyed peas and babaco juice (it looks like papaya but tastes like a thick sweet pineapple).

Also this week I taught Estefani how to make gnocchi, American pancakes, crystallized ginger, muffins (which didn’t come out good b/c the oven is crazy) and whole wheat oat bread. I’ve been building up this week slowly preparing for my attempt at Swimming Rama. I made soy milk a few days ago and turned half of that into tofu. I have acquired a coconut and am currently shredding it to make coconut milk. I toasted peanuts yesterday which will become peanut butter today and need to find spinach. So it takes about a week to make Swimming Rama here. I´ll update with that progress probably on the food blog.

Life in town is slow, but I´ve got more than enough stuff going on. I´m also trying to make a tam hat from some yarn I bought a month ago and have been reading the Dark Materials trilogy. I heard the movie recently came out…anyone see it? I hope it´s good, because I’ve been enjoying the books.

Leymebamba, week 1

This quaint little mountain town, located in the cloud forest at an elevation of 2050m and a population of 1100, is said to have 2 horses to every resident in town. Most people that live in town have farms that are, on average, a 3 hour walk. This town is surrounded by beautiful green valleys and has a cold, fast moving river going through it. Sadly, there is no garbage, let alone recycling program, and most of the garbage ends up in the river, making the water not the safest to drink. But it still tastes much better than Huanchaco! There are a LOT of ruins in the whole region and new ones are still being discovered. Kuelep is close to here, which is supposedly as grandeous and amazing as Macchu Picchu, but without the crowds or tourism. I’m sure it will come and that is one of the reason we are here. Scary mummies and horses.
For the next month, we will be teaching English to local guides who want to develop tourism locally. An issue with Macchu Picchu is that most money that is spent there is received by foreigners. The expensive bus that most people take up the mountain is owned by foreigners, as well as most tourist hotels are foreigner-run.

I think it’s great they want to take it into their own hands and the coordinator, Maibel, is very passionate about it. So, we will be teaching three times a week to the guides and I have the advanced class while Matt has the basic class. We are also setting up more classes and just today we locked in an opportunity to teach 3 times a week to 3, 4, and 5 year olds (Head, shoulders, knees and toes everyone!). Now we need to try to remember our childhood songs and games to learn our language over again. We will teach a few times a week in 2 de Mayo, a poorer village just outside of Leymebamba. Matt has started this week and I may join in next week with him. I am also teaching a group of 12-15 year olds twice a week basic English and Maibel has set up a class next week for us to teach 6th graders at their school a few days a week. ALSO, we are offering two drop-in classes a week for people that miss class (there are A LOT, usually the adults sleep at their farms if it’s too late to hike back and obviously, miss class) or anyone wanting tutoring. We are filling up our week and hopefully reaching out as much as we can so that when the tourism bug comes to this town, they will be able to communicate to the foreigners and have their own businesses set up. Two men are just starting to put together an official guiding business (right now it’s all word of mouth) with a website. Matt’s doing what he can to get our volunteer opportunity online to the world to attract more volunteers and I’m sure he’ll be helping whoever with their websites as well.
One of the benefits of this program is that we are offered free housing by a local family. We spent our first few days at La Cazona, a very modern, airy, posh hostal with a garden and more. The previous volunteers lived there for their 2 months here; but as usual, things always change and we had to move to a different hostal, Laguna de los condores, with a less modern kitchen and a shared bath. It’s still very nice, but after a few days in a place with a microwave, an immersion blender and a grassy lawn to nap in, we need to adjust (we just moved yesterday). The hosts are very friendly and actually OWN the Laguna de los Condores, which is an amazing lake where a group of farmers in 1996 found 6 ancient Andean burial towers with 219 mummies and over 2000 artifacts. We’ll head there for sure, but it’s a 4 day minimum trip with a guide. The daughter in law of the owners of our hostal wants to learn to cook and is VERY friendly and enthusiastic. I made soymilk last night and she has raved all day about it and wants to learn how. They are currently building a restaurant in the hostal as well and the kitchen is beautiful and we get to use it! I can’t wait to teach them gnocchi and lasagna and tofu. Tonight we’re going to make pizza together.

Our lunches are being provided by our students, which has been interesting so far. Every week a different student makes or takes us to lunch, thus sharing food, culture and sort of a thank you for the free English classes. This week we have Manuel, who has not been home yet this week to lunch with us; he’s been at the vaqueria…that’s the thing with guides, it’s not their day job. Most of them still have to go take the big hike every day to work on their farms. So instead of eating with Manuel, his aunt has cooked for us and the food has been….not very balanced, to say the least. I appreciate the gesture and look forward to spending more time with our students…I think it’s not about the food-but food is always important to me. (Today was a beef rice soup with the meat removed, but they forgot a piece of liver or something in mine….I couldn’t eat any of it…and rice with salad (which is shredded cabbage with lime juice and mayonaise and boiled yucca root)).
So begins the new adventures………….and just so you know, I haven’t been really sick since I left Huanchaco.