The mystic experience of Machu Picchu train..

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The sign promises a lot. Inca Rail – a Mystic Experience. I took the train and I can tell – there is nothing mystic about it. It is a (maybe) 40km trip at a price so high that German ICE suddenly seems like a cheap option.

The problem is – however incredible it sounds – that there is no other option to get to Machu Picchu. Not everybody can/wants to go the crowded Inca trail (which btw is expensive as well). So unless you are ready to spend hours on the bus and then hours hiking on your own (there is an alternative route through the village of Santa Teresa), you are pretty much stack with the train. And what is better for bussiness than monopoly on something as desired as transport to Machu Picchu? Gringos will pay anything…

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The second provider of the train connection – Peru Rail – does not claim to have the mystic touch. But the price for the tourist class is exactly the same. Peru Rail has also the famous Hiram Bingham service – a luxury trip for modest 400$ one way! Included in the (cheapest) tourist price is the the snack on board – which means that out of the 50$ you pay, the company will spend 50c to give you a cup of coke and a package of peanuts.

You wonder how Peruvians are able to pay the price? Well, they pay around 10x less than we, the foreigners, do. Seems fair, right? But (here comes the ‘but’) – they have to travel in separate lower-quality wagons and are not allowed to take certain trains! The connections at ‘peak hours’ – read ‘hours comfortable to reach and leave Machu Picchu’ – are reserved only for foreigners! Suddenly does not seem so fair any more… The only ‘fair’ thing about it is that both sides feels cheated on – foreigners because of the ridiculously high price, and Peruvians because of obvious discrimination with the train serivices. (I wrote about discrimination in Peru before, the Machu Picchu train is just another example of it..)

The sad thing is that even if the price for Peruvians is lower, it is still too high for most. 20 soles that a person has to pay for a train ticket, plus 60 soles for the entrance to the ruins is sometimes a weekly family budget! And the family trip with children? Forget it… Out of the farmers that live in the Urubamba valley maybe 1% entered Machu Picchu, and out of them most did it 10-20 years ago when it was for free..

One more interesting fact at the end. The Peru Rail, a very prosperous company, is -ironically – owned by Chile.

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Urubamba, the Sacred Valley (1)

P1370074The valley of the river Urubamba was a sacred place. It was a fertile valley that gave food to the most cherished man of the empire, Inca himself, the Son of the Sun. Here the crops for the highest social class were cultivated and here was also the centre of the Inca administration.

Nowadays the valley still lives from agriculture, especially from the production of maiz. The Urubamba is a fast growing little town, busy mostly with commerce, crops and tourism. It is touristic but in a less obvious way than Cusco. Whereas Cusco is all set up for the luxury travellers, Urubamba seem to attract more the hippie-type from both Lima and abroad. It became THE place for those you cherish the alternative lifestyle – I have seen both gringos and rich Limeños, who moved here to enjoy the relaxed life and  an afternoon joint.

Urubamba region is also probably the basis to explore the Inca sites around – more quiet and more friendly than Cusco. We stayed in the local house of a friend in Yucay, a little village short ride away from Urubamba. Just a simple house but as I have already seen in Cajamarca – the simple houses in Peru are usually the most hospitable ones.

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Local market in Urubamba

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In the streets of Yucay

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Waiting for a bus..

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With Eusébio in his house in Yucay

Culture for sale – the circus of Cusco

I really pity the tourists whose only stop on their way through Peru is Machu Picchu and Cusco. They will get a completely distorted picture of this rich, vibrant country. Because Cusco, so praised and worshipped by many, turned out to be – sadly – a cultural bazaar where everything has a label “For sale” attached to it.

P1360689I walked along the ancient streets, passing the colonial churches and looking at the tourists happily buying another alpaca pullover or drinking another Starbuck’s coffee and I wondered – was I the only one that disliked Cusco? I have to admit – Cusco is beautiful. It has it all: the impressive colonial churches, old mansions, lovely narrow passages of San Blas. But, disappointingly, all this had nothing to do with the peruvian culture I’ve known for the last 6 months. None of the churches had their doors open, you always had to pay, and the lovely street of San Blas were full of trendy hostels and european-style cafes, where a tired tourist can get a muffin and a cup of cappuccino. 

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To be honest, nowhere else in Peru have I felt so uncomfortable as in Cusco. Travelling  almost on a peruvian budget you start noticing things that an average US or European tourist does not pay attention to.

– The price of the hotel rises twice the moment the owner sees your blue eyes

– The Peruvians that you see travelling are Limenios that earn 5-10 times more than a school teacher in Cajamarca

– You cannot afford having a coffee in the center of Cusco. Actually, none of the Peruvians can, it costs as much as here in Germany or more.

– You cannot afford most of the restaurants.

– The main square of the city is usually its heart, where all the people sit around and chat. In Cusco the only Peruvians in the square are those that look for their chance to get some money out of gringos.

From above the clouds Inca Pachacutec looks down at this circus.

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Ayacucho – shades of terrorism in the city of churches

From the coastal Paracas we went directly into Peruvian Sierra, straight to Ayacucho. Ayacucho surprises its visitors with the number of churches – according to travel guides there are 33 of them from colonial times (16th-18th century), one for every year of Jusus life. Counting 20 modern churches more, it gives over 50 in the city with just 150 thousand citizens! Why so many? The guide does not answer this question any more but my guess is that the city was in a strong opposition to the Spanish culture. And the conquistadors remedy against confrontation was to destroy on the local shrines and build in this place a church – a symbol of the new god.   P1360220 P1350729

Until now Ayacucho has an exceptionally strong personality and feeling of its own identity. The primary language of the city is not Spanish, as is the case for northern and costal Peru, but Quechua. I had the impression that almost all the ayacuchans know it and speak it between each other. The women in Ayacucho wear small white or brown sombreros, so different than the ones I got used to in the north. The skirts have incredible colors and flower patterns.

P1350821P1350970On the local market one can find overwhelming number of cheese sorts (in all the stages of  maturity!) and the best bread I tried during my whole stay in Peru (that’s a personal opinion of course). In the weekends local women sell traditionally made ice cream muyuchi (tasty, creamy and completely natural!).

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However, Ayacucho has behind it a painful and difficult history. Just a few kilometres away from here took place the most important battle of south american war for independence. In 1824 the revolutionists defeated the royalists, a victory which lead to the creation of new republics, among them Peru and Bolivia. After this campaign the city gained its contemporary name: Ayacucho, which some translate as ‘The city of dead’ (although it could mean also the ‘Home of the soul’). This first name actually describes better what happened to Ayacucho later.

Just half a century ago, in 1960s, the city witnessed the birth of the peruvian maoist political movement known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), which was to hold the whole country in the terrorist horror until late 90s. The Shining Path developed under the leadership of Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor at the local university. Guzman was finally sentenced a life in prison for terrorism and murder, as his political organisation evolved into brutal guerilla groups. In the 80s the campesinos in central Andes were trapped between two evil forces  the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso on one side and the brutality of peruvian army on the other. Both parties are responsible for exterminating the whole villages: those who supported the army were killed by the guerillas, those in favour of Sendero Luminoso were murdered by the government. No escape.

The woman in the market stall smiles as she pours us a freshly made juice. She seems to be a very positive person but her past hides some sad memories. Asked about the Shining Path she tells us briefly her story: how the terrorists came to her village, how her father was killed and hanged outside by his legs, how his only fault was to be the son of the mayor.

Her story was a nighmare come true for many people that still walk on the streets of Ayacucho. Now the city lives its modern life as if nothing ever happened. Many of the young ones will even not know what Sendero Luminoso was. The topic is almost omitted at the history classes (mostly due to the lack of time) and the in result the young students with revolutionary idea are attracted to MOVDEF, a political ‘cover’ movement for old members and ideas of Sendero Luminoso people. When will we finally start learning our lesson from the history?P1350690  

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God is everywhere

God is everywhere – would say those who see the world in a spiritual way. But in Peru those words get a new meaning. Here God, Jesus and Virgin Maria are literally EVERYWHERE.

Are you an owner of the bus company looking for a convincing name? Why not call it Senor the los Milagros – Our Lord of the Miracle? (It makes sense as sometimes it seems to me on peruvian roads only a miracle will get you safe to your destination)

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Do you have a petrol station? Call it Jesus de Nazareth! Taxis? – San Antonio.( And make sure to put a picture of San Antonio on the taxi door.)

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You take your evangelization mission seriously but you are just a upholsterer? Write on sits in the bus ‘Cree en Senor Jesucristu y seras salvo’ (Believe in Jesus and you will be saved).

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Your money exchange business is not going so well? Put a portrait of Jesus together with you $ and € signs. (Since Jesus so was much in favour of this kind of business!)

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The examples are endless….. Only a question rises – does the picture of God in the money exchange service make the country more spiritual?

P1320835-001In Peru there is a never ending variety of churches: Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Adventists …  In reality the situation of religion is Peru is rather complicated. The country’s reach spiritual heritage, the spirituality of the Andean world, was destroyed by the conquistadors and the missionaries who came with them. They imposed the Catholic religion on a land full of spirits and deities. The Catholic Church for a long time remained accessible only to the white elite and for some is a simbol of the colonisation. Until now a large part of the catholic community are those with money and ´good name´ (meaning usually a foreign name). So the large part of the population is drawn into the protenstant churches (everything that is not catholic), that are less conservative and more open minded.

At the end, the spirituality of Peru is a mixture of ancient andean believes and christian doctrine. Maybe that´s why, when I ask the lady from the poor Mollepampa: “Are you Catholic?”, I get a very strange answer. “I am not Catholic, I am religious”.

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Peruvian guide to Christmas turkey

pavo-300x267The main dish for Christmas in Peru is turkey. The streets of Cajamarca away from the center are full of turkeys (there were maybe 10 of them just outside my school!). Not many of those turkeys survive Christmas. But how does this big bird become a dish? – it is not as simple as you may think. Turkey is a strong animal and killing it is not as easy as killing a chicken. The aunt of my friend told me that once a big turkey managed to kick her and her husband and run away. So the trick is to … make the turkey drunk! Buy a bottle of wine (or something stronger) and make your turkey drink it! After some time the turkey gets happy and quiet .. and finally falls asleep making snoring noises. And this is your moment!

The stories how to make a turkey drunk made me laugh the whole evening! So here – to make you laugh – a traditional peruvian turkey joke.

imagesCAOUHZU0An old lady had a turkey – big, fat and strong turkey, just as it should be for Christmas. She was hesitant to kill it herself so she hired a man to kill it for her. The man says: – Sure, I´ll do it, but I need to make the turkey a bit drunk. So please give me a bottle of wine and I will start the ritual. The lady agrees and leaves the man alone with the turkey. Time passes, nothing happens so she looks in: – What about my turkey? The man, already a little bit weak in his legs, answers: – Oh, my lady, this turkey is super strong, I need another bottle of wine! So he gets another bottle of wine. Time passes, nothing happens.. Lady gets anxious and looks in again and finds the man and her turkey, hugging each other on the floor: -Ey, what happened to my turkey??  And hears a drunk voice: Damn you lady, nobody is going to touch my friend!!!

Christmas a la Perú

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Christmas tree in Trujillo

This year my Christmas was green, not white. There was sun, blue sky and palms. There was no Christmas tree but a pasltic snowman in the city center, a turkey for dinner, chocolate and paneton.

I was very excited to see how peruvians celebrate Christmas. I was bit disappointed to find out that the peruvian traditions here are not as rich as european ones… But it was still a beautiful and happy time.

The Christmas in peruvian cities, as everywhere else in the world, begins already in November. The main city square is full of lights and there are plastic Christmas trees popping out everywhere. This year there was even a plastic snowman in city center, just next to the palm! (unfortunetaly it vanished or ´melted´ before i managed to take a picture of it).

In December all around one can hear Christmas carrols. In Peru they are meant mostly for kids and they are sung by little kids. This is one of the most popular ones: Mi Burrito Sabanero.

The kids at schools are also prepering their nacimiento – the representation of the Christ´s birth.

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Christmas chocolate!! Yummie 🙂

And finally comes the night of  24th of December, the night of Noche Buena (Good Night). The families get together in the evening, and spend a good quality time chatting, laughing and just being together untill midnight. At midnight everybody gives everybody a hug and a kiss and the Christmas dinner begins. The obligatory dish for Noche Buena is a turkey, usually filled. (In Peru families often buy turkeys alive – so the day before the turkey must be killed… – it is not so easy, look here to see the guide :=) ). The piece of turkley is accompanied by corn, salad and patatos. Then comes the sweet part – chocolate (based on the real chocolate from the selva) and paneton, a special kind of cake.

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Paneton – peruvian Christmas cake, sold in a paper box. It is the best gift to bring if a peruvian family invites you for Christmas dinner.

The Christmas dinner often develops in the dancing party (as peruvians love to dance), and the families contumuos having fun with salsa and cumba until early morning.

This year´s Christmas had also a polish accent – the best polish ginger bread cookies and pierogi prepered by the best polish cook in Cajamarca 🙂

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The lost world of Catache

Far far away, deep in the Andean mountains, at the edge of the awe-inspiring cliff, lays a little village…

The people living there are simple but have great hearts and know what is love, respect and hospitality. They live quietly, with their sheep, and eat what the earth is giving them. They wake up early with the sunrise and go to sleep with the sunset. Most of them have never seen or touched a computer in their lives. Internet for them is a virtual world they have never entered. How could they if the electricity has not yet reached their homes? When the sun goes down each house lights a candle. And the village goes to sleep in total darkness and total silence, since there is not a single car in this place…

Sounds like a fairy tale? This village really exists, it is called Catache. From Cajamarca one needs to follow  bumpy mountain roads for 90 min and then walk almost 1 hour. I visited Catache a week ago, to give science workshops in the communal high school. It is a place where the time has stopped. Some would call it uncivilized and undeveloped, others ‘the third world’. I say it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In all the sense of the word ‘beautiful’: regarding the landscape, the traditions and the people themselves.

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Where Trujillo goes shopping

A crowd of people, buses, taxis, honking, tons of patatos, bananas, chickens with the intestials inside-out. This is La Hermelinda, the heart of commercial Trujillo, the place where the city goes shopping. Here you can buy everything – starting with fruits and vegetables, and finishing on chickens and pigs alive! It is cultura peruana viva, with all its colors, tastes and smells.

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Día Internacional de los Pueblos Indígenas

Coming back to the topic of my last post, most of the stories about the discrimination in Perú I heard directly from the campesinos, Andean villagers. Two  months ago, in August, world celebrated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (Día Internacional de los Pueblos Indígenas). I was lucky, and a friend of mine invited me for a debate organized by the local Academy of Quechua in the nearby village.

Here are some interesting facts and stories I learned that day:

  • Soem claim that the word ‘ indígena’ has a different meaning that English ‘indigenous’. It comes from quechuan Inti –which means sun and Spanish gentepeople. So literally the indígenas would be the people of the sun.
  • There are over 1500 medicinal plants in Perú. Many of them are slowly getting forgotten. But the older campesinos still believe in the power of natural medicine. True story: to one poor villager, to solve his problems with prostate, doctor in a clinic recommended operation that costs more than 4000 soles (over 1300 EUR). A price impossible to pay by a campesino. So the sick man instead turned to the traditional medicinal plants – a cheap therapy that cost him 1% of the price of the operation. He is healthy again, no operation needed.
  • In Perú campesinos used to cultivate more than 200 different plants.This number of course excludes different kinds of the same plant, as only of patato there are over 3000 different types! One of the campesinos I met still breeds over 60 different types of papas! As he says – just to prevent them from getting lost.
  • Regarding the discrimination, a man present in the debate tested himself the effect of tie and sombrero I was writing about. To prove the point, he went to the doctor dressed once in the sombrero and a poncho, and another day dressed in a suit and a tie. You can of course guess the result!

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was established by UNESCO in 1995 and is celebrated every year on August 9th, with the idea to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.

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