Tag Archives: Peru

Home to home;

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It’s been 8 weeks and it’s time to go home.

Although if the saying “home is where the heart is” is true, then ‘home’ is a pretty amalgamous concept since I’ve certainly left my heart in several places around the world. Singapore, of course, will always be the primero. New York, too, for its infinite possibilities, and now, Arequipa, for its humbling ways and the lesson that simple contentment still exists in this capitalistic world.

I’m not sure if I’ve attained “traveller” (and not “tourist”) status, but I think that at the very least, I’ve become more environmentally- and culturally-sensitive. I’ve learnt to appreciate the luxury of a hot shower and of having money in my pocket. I’ve realized that that tourism can be detrimental to community psyche even if the people need or want it, and I’ve realized that I’m as much a bane to other tourists as they are to me. We all seek beauty and novelty, but we also seek solitude in that beauty. It’s the selfishness of travel and the conundrum of the tourism industry.

Am also still amazed by the multitude of people that we’ve met along the way, and of the lessons we’ve learnt from them- on life, filial piety, and definitely, definitely humility. Also very grateful for my best travel partner, who above all PMS-induced tantrums, tolerated my unbelievably smelly feet :X

And now in limbo from home to home- how blessed! (:

Lake Titicaca: Pooping with a View.

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I didn’t realize how long I hadn’t seen a full body of water until I arrived at Puno and stood at the port of Lake Titicaca. Somehow everything we’ve been looking at for the past month has been mostly very… solid. So standing at the port and not being able to see what was on the other end of the horizon was quite a refreshing change.

We bought our round-trip boat ticket to Isla Amantani for a super cheap S/30 (USD 5). Unknown to us, this included a free stop at the super commercialized but fascinating reed islands of Uros. I was actually quite annoyed with this detour because I’d mistakenly thought that all the islands (including Amantani) on Lake Titicaca were reed islands, and that Uros was the only super touristy one. Then I realized that it was probably impossible for a reed island to support “ruins on top of a hill” (Lonely Planet, 2010).

Isla Uros

Anyway, the reed islands are pretty cool. Walking on them is like being on one of those big bounce castles because they’re so spongy. The islanders place about 5-6 meters of reed on top of these fibrous rocks and then anchor them to the bottom of the lake. They have to be changed every 6 months when the reeds begin to rot. The islanders build everything out of the reeds- their houses, their look-out posts, their boats… Some of the boats definitely look like they would fit in perfectly in our Chingay parade.

A mini-representation of how the reed islands are built!

Islanders singing the tourists away

It's pretty amazing how everything floats.

Isla Amantani

It took an arduously long (3 hours!) boat ride before we reached Amantani. Just before we arrived, our captain took down all our names so that he could assign us to the different homestay families on the island. We were lucky to be assigned to Senora Josefina and her uber cute son, Nelson, but not so lucky that their house was up on the middle of the island, which involved us walking up a very steep slope with our 20kg backpacks and 5 kg daypacks (no porters this time :/). At a certain point, I was wheezing so hard I thought I was going to have an asthma attack. It definitely felt harder than anything I’d done on the Inca Trail. Sheesh.

Josefina and her husband, Senor Martin, have 10 kids, although 8 of them are now working in other Peruvian cities, leaving 9 year-old Nelson and his 15 year-old brother, Alex. We had lunch with them and they were extremely amused when WB put a handful of muña tea leaves into his tea-cup. (You’re only supposed to put 2 stalks.) They were laughing so hard they had to leave the room. After lunch (and a siesta!), Nelson brought us on a hike to see the ruins of Pachamama, which, guess what, was right on top of the island. More wheezing ensued.

The hike up to Pachamama; WB teaching Nelson English.

Halfway up the island, we suddenly heard someone shout, “la luna! (the moon!)”, and we turned to see half the moon peeking over the hill leading up to the Pachatata (Father Earth) ruins. It was the brightest moon I’d ever seen. I was quite stupified at this point because just behind me, the sun was slowly setting. It was the first time I’d ever seen the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously.

Getting up close and personal with la luna (:

After dinner, we went to the nightly “la fiesta” with our host family, dressed in the traditional Amantani garb. However we left after 20 minutes because it was overwhelmingly touristy. They were playing “Hey Jude” on their banjos. Not cool.

With our host family; Josefina, Alex, Martin and Nelson (:

Taquile

The day started off pretty sketchily because our boat to Taquile was experiencing some engine difficulties, and it was was rocking so hard that WB and I were afraid it was going to topple over. Being kia-see we were the only ones who wore our life-vests, lol. We arrived at the Taquile port not looking forward to the 500 steps we had to climb to get to the center of the island. A French lady on the boat was kind enough to help me with my daypack but WB made it to the top with both his heavy bags! Having sufficient sleep the night before definitely helped. The captain of the boat also helped us to ask ard for a place to stay at night and we ended up staying with señor Cesar. The hospitality that we received was tremendous.

We went to the town central to watch the celebration for the Fiesta de San Diego but before that could happen, we bumped into the other volunteers from TNT! It was such a great feeling meeting them again (: We learnt something interesting from their guide: on Taquile, all the men wear chullos but the color and type of chullo they wear indicate their social status. Married men wear fully red chullos while single men wear red and white chullos. They also have pom poms at the end of their chullos and if a single man puts his pom pom on his left shoulder, it means he’s looking for a partner! Married men also wear intricately woven belts, half of which are made out of their wife’s locks. All the us looked slightly put off at the mention of this. Haha.

Family reunion (:

After lunch we watched the different communities dancing in the main plaza. They have really elaborate costumes with colorful headgear and their dance kinda reminds me of the Turkish whirling dervishes. The women also have incredibly slim legs hidden beneath their billowy skirts.

Fiesta de San Diego!

The conquistador-inclined community.

Then we walked down to the ‘playa’ and on the way met a Singaporean who’s been living abroad for many years. Her accent was unmistakeable nevertheless. We were excited because she’s the first Singaporean we’ve met in the past 2 months. We later bumped into her family again whn we stopped at a restaurant for drinks. She called us “adventurous Singaporeans” and we talked about how much we miss laksa and hokkien mee.

Then WB and I spent an hour hiking up to the top of the island through the Andean terraces. On the way, I was extremely overwhelmed by the urge to poop and after much deliberation, I chose a spot behind one of the terrace walls and did what I had to do, but all the while I couldn’t stop thinking about how great life would be if every poop job involved a view of a vast lake and snowy peaks. So after the deed was done, I made sure to make a stone offering to Pachamama to thank her for being so damn beautiful.

We waited at a little stone sanctuary at the top of the mountain for the sunset. It got pretty cold at ard 4:30pm and we could hear the wind breathing through the rocks. The sunset over the surrounding islands was beautiful, but it was the moon rise over the frozen lake and Bolivia’s Cordillera real that really stole the show. I’m pretty sure that for now, it’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed.

Moonlight over the frozen lake. Amazing.

My Inka Initiation.

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The Inca Trail today is definitely drastically different from what it was in the past. Tour agencies cleverly present it as a ‘pilgrimage’ to the ‘sacred’ citadel of Macchu Picchu, and it costs a rather hefty price (USD 450 to be exact) to walk in the footsteps of the Andean kings. But man oh man, it sure as hell is worth it.

The Incas were the kings of the Andean people from the year 1200 to 1533, when the 14th Inka was defeated by the Spanish conquistador, Pizzaro. Once before and during their term as an Inca, they had to make a pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu from Cuzco (which was the center of the Inca empire) so as to learn about and (hopefully) improve the lives of their people. They were people who believed in the divinity of the Pachamama (or Mother Earth), Pachatata and water, and their intense devotion to these elements of nature is well represented in the Inca ruins that we saw along our trek.

It’s not hard to understand why Pachamama is so revered when you survey the geographical diversity of the Andes. On our 45 km hike, we trekked through tropical rainforests with splendid snow-capped mountains peeking shyly through the dense foliage; we hobbled down paths lined by swaying white lalang-ish plants, we tiptoed across makeshift wooden bridges over streams alive with gushing water, and each morning, we watched the mountains glow with pride in the rising sun. I was truly touched by the love and sensitivity that my guides, Santiago and Ruben, showed toward their Pachmama. It puts us air-conditioning aficionados to shame.

Fields of gold

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Going it alone in Nazca & Huacachina.

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Somehow Nazca and I just didn’t quite agree with each other. We arrived on a night bus from Arequipa early last Saturday morning and I started feeling feverish almost immediately. We’d booked a flight to see the Nazca and Palpa Lines with Kusi Illaq Wasi Tours and they’d told us that we needed to be at the airport at 11:30 am for our flight. The Nazca Airport is basically the size of a school canteen with about 10 different airline companies, so it’s actually really easy to just show up and book a flight on the spot, unless of course, you want to see both the Nazca and Palpa Lines. We were told we could only take a flight at 3pm because (apparently) we needed a bigger plane since the flight duration is longer. So in my feverish stupor, we went to visit the Chauchilla Cemetry first.

By the time we were back at the Nazca Airport again, I was practically delirious. We must have been quite a sight- WB (who was suffering from a bout of food poisoning and feeling rather nauseous) and I- slumped on the uncomfortable rattan chairs and just dozing off with our mouths wide open. It was probably that that convinced the pilots they had to get us on a plane soon, so at 4pm they led us to a tiny 4-seater plane (big plane, my foot!). Our pilots were wonderfully nice though, and made sure to check with us that we wanted a smooth ride (no G-force, por favor!).

WB and our pilot!

Up in the plane, the pilots were giving us a left AND right view of the lines. Just as we were done looking at the spider, I suddenly heard a muffled gulp- and then a splash of orange came rushing out of he-who-is-to-embarrassed-to-be-named. I was like, holy shit now I feel like puking too, and just as I was taking out my plastic bag for him, the second wave of orange rushed out, this time unfortunately missing the bag… and onto his jeans and the seat again. Oops. Suffice to say, the pilots hardly flew on the left again even though they’d said that we would see the Palpa Lines largely on the left. Haha. We spent the rest of the 30 minutes in that plane basking in the fumes of WB’s lunch. Thankfully, the scenery outside was a big enough distraction! I was actually freaking out a little at the start when I couldn’t spot the lines and thought that I’d have spent $85 just looking at highways in the sand.

Anyway, the Nazca Lines were supposedly constructed by the Nazca people as a way of communicating with their gods. Most of the figures are animals, although there are some odd human-like figures such as “The Astronaut”, which I later learnt were supposed to be depictions of their shamans. For example, the Nazcas had been amazed to find the monkey so adaptable even to desert conditions, and so constructed the monkey in hope that the gods would send them water the way they sent the Amazon rainforest (where they’d gotten the monkeys from) water. Go figure. The Palpa Lines, on the other hand, are a lot more enigmatic as they were discovered much later than the Nazca Lines and basically have figures that no one can really understand as yet.

Map of Nazca Lines

The Astronaut

The Monkey!

My favourite of the Palpa Lines: The Paracas Family

With all the puking and the fever, we slept for 15 hours straight after our flight and recovered just enough to go sand-boarding in Huacachina, which by the way, is AWESOME. I was actually extremely apprehensive about the sand-boarding since the company that we chose (Desert Warriers) seemed to have the most beat-up dune buggy and I’d heard horror stories of people flying out of their buggies or breaking their legs while sandboarding. But it turned out to be extremely safe and fun (: And no Mummy, I didn’t eat a grain of sand this time!!

With our awesomely chui dune buggy.

Because we arrived at Huacachina so late, we were just in time for a desert sunset and no tourists (:

No stunts, just good ol' belly fun (:

I’m so glad we chose to travel Nazca and Huacachina on our own instead of signing up with a tour in Arequipa (that would have cost us 250 USD). Even though we were feeling queasy most of the time, it was still extremely easy finding our way around. Go it alone!

What I Love About Travelling.

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The thing I love, and sometimes hate, about travelling is the impermanence associated with it. There is absolutely nothing that you can be sure of: you could be perfectly healthy one day, and then the next moment find yourself slumped over the toilet bowl puking your guts out; you could be used to waving to the man dressed in a Santa Claus suit selling chocolates in the middle of the road but yet still be surprised that Santa Claus suits come in yellow and green; you could meet an amazing bunch of people, do ridiculous things like parade down the city in animal suits and flamboyant headdresses, but not know if you will ever see them again, or even be able to have fun with them again once you’re taken out of this common context. And here’s my favourite: you can almost be sure that the combi bringing you to school will come, but whether you end up levitating by the force of 5 squished bodies combined, exposing your butt to the possibility of catching fire whilst sitting on the bus battery or watching women attempt to breastfeed surreptitiously, is really up to fate (and whether the combi driver is a Grand Prix- wannabe). Every moment in a life of impermanence is just that- a moment to be enjoyed and relished before it vanishes.

There are some things that have come close to the essence of permanence. Take my routine here, for example. Spanish classes from 8 to 10 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; teaching at the school everyday from 3:30 to 5:30 and then Salsa class for an hour on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. But just as it was starting to become second nature, BAM. Somehow, 5 weeks have passed. Time to leave and try something different.

I love the impermanence in travelling because it ensures that there is always change, and it necessitates the need to treasure everything that you see and experience. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be extremely painful at the same time, since falling in love and becoming attached is often inevitable. Still, as they say nauseatingly, better to have loved (and left) than never at all.

So to all the travellers (not tourists!) that I’ve met along the way, thank you for making this journey so magical. I wish you impermanence in life.

Travelling Without Tourists.

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For some reason, WB and I have been very blessed with meeting minimal tourists in most of the places we’ve travelled to in Peru so far. You know how it’s annoying when you go somewhere, and there are hordes of tour groups, tours in 10 different languages, and people everywhere taking photos? Amazingly, we’ve had very little of that, even though we’ve seen some truly spectacular sights. Here are some of the off-the-tourist-radar places we’ve been to:

Toro Muerto Petroglyphs, Castilla.


I was pretty convinced we had walked into one of Dali’s paintings. Or onto the moon. The 1,500 petroglyphs in Toro Muerto are scattered haphazardly across acres of white volcanic sand, and we were the only people in that entire expanse, surrounded by all these rocks with fantastical and mysterious symbols on them. There are two theories as to why the petroglyphs exist. Some people believe that the Incans carved these symbols on rocks to educate their descendants  (for example, about the best place to fish or hunt), while others think that they were merely documenting the animals/landscapes/parties they saw.

Animal Depictions. From left: The lizard, the puma and the falcon.

The Cat and The Serpent.

Incans worshipping and welcoming their god. with fire.

A symbolic map. The zig-zag lines represent the mountain range, the dots represent the areas good for hunting, and the thick line in between represents the river.

Party scene!

There used to be more than 5000 petroglyphs but many of them were pillaged and destroyed to build churches and farms. It is worrying though, as to how many will continue to disintegrate or be ruined since there seems to be no real system of preservation. Much as our guide was great, WB and I had a mini heart attack everytime he rubbed his finger along the petroglyph to explain what the symbols meant. There was also graffiti left behind by idiots who probably felt that that was the only way they could make a mark in history. Since it’s not necessary to visit a guide, the handling of the petroglyphs is really left to the individual’s discretion.

Chauchilla Cemetry, Nazca

Set in a desert about 45 minutes away from central Nazca, this was a cemetery meant for the elite Nazca folk. There are 13 ‘open’ graves, and it’s just bizarre to see grinning, toothless skulls sitting neatly in a row. Some still have huge and extremely long ponytails extending out of their skulls. Apparently, hair length was an indication of status then. It’s still very well preserved because the arid conditions and lack of humidity in the desert help in retarding the process of decomposition.  As we walked from grave to grave, we could also see tiny fragments of human bones and pieces of cotton that were used to wrap the mummies up.

Burial of the elite.

You can tell they died happy!

Someone forgot their dentures.

Cahuachi, Nazca

Cahuachi was once the capital of Nazca (from 500 BC to 500 AD), but it was abandoned after it was struck by earthquakes and then floods. Rediscovered in 1985, it is still undergoing extensive excavation. There are supposedly 40 pyramids altogether, but there is only one distinctive one that has been excavated so far. There are also many tombs here and archaeologists have been discovering a lot of bones and ceramics. I found my first legit human bone too!

The lost city of Cahuachi.

Supposedly a human femur. What do you think?

Local cemetery en route to Cahuachi.

Somehow, it just felt as if we were on the cusp of something big, and who knows? Maybe one of these will be the Giza of the future. Well, we were there first! Or early, at least. Getting off the gringo trail definitely pays off (:

The Idiot’s Guide to Paving.

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When Brad, the coordinator at Flora Tristan School, said that he would need help with paving the school, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant since I envisioned a large cement mixer pouring cement over the school yard and some other machine spreading that out. What ‘paving’ actually meant was us being the cement-mixers. Woot!

In case you’re bored or ever feel like paving your own yard, this is how it’s done. Be warned though, it’s an EXTREMELY dusty process. There were definitely times when we could all taste the cement at the back of our throats, and that was not fun at all.

Transporting A LOT of water to be mixed with the cement.

Shoveling and transporting the sand, also to be mixed with cement.

Manually mixing the cement and sand.

Pouring a lot of water to make a huge cement pool.

And the mixing continues... There has to be a gooey consistency before it's ready.

Make sure the ground is level.

Fill it up, buttercup.

And that's how it's done.

Note: You have to be careful not to tiptoe across it because that will obviously leave footprints in the cement… which is exactly what I did. After that, everyone else climbed over the wall.

It was much harder for the vertically-challenged.

And of course, it's necessary to have an awesome team! Go gringos!

Updates from Flora Tristan!

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Can’t believe it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve started teaching at Flora Tristan! Teaching has really been a joy here because the kids are so enthusiastic about learning. Here are some videos of the games we play in class:

Prepositions class:

On giving directions:

The kids are split into 2 teams. One member from each team is blindfolded and assigned to be either ‘cat’ or ‘mouse’. Their team members have to direct them through the maze to either catch/avoid being caught by the other member. This was such a big hit with the kids!

Also, more pictures of adorable kids to whet your appetite:

Daniel & Rodrigo playing "Restaurant" in class.

Top-spinning whizzes.

Weibiao teaching the older kids Mandarin.

Oh my heartbreaker.

Our blur babies.

Only 2 weeks left ):

Colca Canyon: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?

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(This post is dedicated to Chen Weibiao, who managed to complete the entire Colca trek on foot despite having breathing difficulties and chest pains. You’re my hero!)

I didn’t realize I signed up for Outward Bound Peru. It was like I was back in Korea again- amidst amazing scenery, still as physically unprepared as ever, dogged with the same sense of elusiveness as to where we were actually going and how long we would take to get there, but at least not struggling with a 12kg load this time. (Considering how the Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world at 3191m, it probably wasn’t smart of me to not have exercised at all in the past 3 months.) The climate was entirely different too. It had been winter in Korea so we were trekking across piles of dried leaves, snow, and at times, frozen waterfalls. Here, it was mostly, rocks, sand and even more sand. All my hopes of finally getting some unpolluted air out of Arequipa were dashed when the vast amount of sand on the roads made it such that everyone was like a revving sand machine. Not very lung-friendly at all.

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Raving Rapids.

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Having been white-water rafting twice before (once in Costa Rica and once in upstate New York), I must confess I wasn’t too excited about white-water rafting in Arequipa since, you know, how different could it be? Well, that just teaches you never to be complacent about things, because this trip sure turned out to be one helluva exciting.

We were rafting down Rio Chili, a river 30 mins away from downtown Arequipa that weaves through gorgeous plantations, volcanic rock and peek-a-boo waterfalls. My raft had 5 of us including the instructor: Allie, Mesi, Weibiao and I, which basically mde it the lightest boat of the three. So anyway, we were just about to tackle this rapid called The Goal (and right before we did it, prophetic WB said, “Dont own goal ah!”) which involved us navigating the rock through two big rocks. Sounds simple enough right?

This is what happened next:

X marks The Goal.

Oops. Missed the goal but landed on the goalpost instead.

It's amazing that WB still has time to smile for the camera.

GOOAAAALL = GG.

So basically right when we were in “The Goal” itself, the raft got stuck on one of the rocks and our instructor Salvador, shouted “All left!” But just as we were all moving to the left, the raft got shifted thanks to the rapids INTO the goal and because we were no longer on the rock, all the weight on the raft was on the left and it tipped over. Mesi was the only one who managed to grab onto the raft but I floated away almost immediately. I was trying to remember what the instructor said about lying on your back and not standing up, until my butt scraped against a rock and I think I sat up in the water instinctively. And then, the raft that was about to rescue me must have swept over the rapids because suddenly I was UNDER that raft and struggling to swim as fast as I could to get out under it. I swear, it was THE SCARIEST three seconds of my life because I was trying to breathe under water but I couldn’t lift my head up cos the darn raft was above me. And I didn’t know how long more I could hold my breath for. So I was just kicking as hard as I could (can’t even remember if I had the paddle with me now), thinking it would be damn ironic if I died drowning since I’m most confident in water, until finally their raft must have moved sideways and I came up above the water gasping for air. Then someone extended their paddle to me and I grabbed it and I was then heaved up onto the boat. And this is the funny part: before I could even sit up and regain my nerves, TWO more people were thrown on top of me. So, I was just lying at the bottom of a giant heap of people, gasping for air (and feeling rather forlorn), hoping that I didn’t survive drowning to get suffocated to death. Anyway, it turned out to be WB and Allie! That rescue raft had a good 9 people on it before we went back to our original raft.

The swimmers survived!

We did several Class 4 rapids after that that had 1-3 m drops but wa lau, nothing was more exciting than that ‘goal’. We also took a little rest and did a ‘cliff’ jump from one of the rocks. That was quite nerve-wracking for me too cos good things generally don’t happen to me when I jump (e.g. rope burn at OBS) but it all turned out well in the end. Just felt like one of those things we all had to do and experience (:

Really raving rapids.

Leap of faith!

So there you go, my most exciting rafting trip to date. The landscape probably felt the most natural of the three times, simply because we always came very close to the rocks (had to duck several times plus the instructors seem to take perverse pleasure in making us smack into the boulders), and at certain points we were just rafting through white volcanic rock, which was amazing. Also helped that we had the Volcano Chachani smiling down at us in the background, and random waterfalls just popping out from the corners. It really felt like we were rafting in The Land Before Time.

Volcanic rock.

Peekture Perfect.

Third time’s the charm indeed.