A Travellerspoint blog

Convenient coincidence


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The night was going so well. Perched on the rooftop doing our best homeless impersonation, we had the fire roaring, Cat Stevens strumming out the guitar, and homemade alcohol keeping us warm.

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And then I had to get a little overzealous with the smores. Bite, crunch, snap. There went the tooth again. Instead of sympathy, I only got ridiculed to no end. Even by myself. At least I started to blend in with the local folk for a while.

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In contrast to Bolivia where I was searching frantically for a dentist, I happened to know one here immediately. Enter Dr. Ivan. Of all places, I met this guy at the discotecque last weekend. He had randomly asked me to be his wingman as he tried to pick up some girl who was half asleep. Let's say that based on his charm and tactics at the club, I was a bit hesitant to have him fix my tooth. I didn't have many options however. And after he proclaimed my real tooth could no longer be put back in, he crafted me a new one with the precision of the polished artists in the valley. It looks great...high marks all around for Dr. Ivan. I then suggested he should try his luck with the many toothless chicks in Huancayo.

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Posted by bchu 04:05 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Huancayo and the Mantaro Valley

a relatively boring overview of where I'm living


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Huancayo's ugly. There's no way to sugercoat it. The plazas are grim, the architecture lacks creativity, and the streets stink of pollution. Odds are the Inca Empire will be rebuilt before trees and flowers ever bloom here. It is a paradise of cement and dirt, engulfed by juice bars, chifas, cheap clothing markets, and dog poop. The cacophony of honking cars never ceases, a persistence rivaled only by the relentlessness of the local shoeshine mafia.

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Don't get me wrong though, that's just the exterior. The people are as friendly as anywhere. You can find everything you need within a few blocks. The food is authentic and the nightlife is pumping. Huancayo is a great place to live but prolly not to bask. Nothing to feel ashamed of but nothing to boast either. It's a typical city and I guess that's my only problem with it. I miss the dudes holding massive lizards, the old ladies taking their llamas out for walks, and the six year olds smoking cigarettes on the corner. But maybe I'm just too used to all the little quirks by now...save some imaginative hotels and interesting special import shops.

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Fortunately, the blandness of Huancayo is contrasted with the brilliance of the surrounding Mantaro Valley. Green hills, festival after festival, and every town professing its own claim to fame. With each location only about a half hour bus ride away, I try to explore as many as possible during my free afternoons. Here's some reviews on places I've already visited.

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Chupaca
Besides having a superb name, I also work in Chupaca everyday so I am partially biased to this town. However, I didn't think I'd be coming on a Saturday morning until my host family told me they were having a huge animal sale there. Sounded interesting and I was on the next bus over.

You couldn't really tell who was a buyer and who was a seller. And actually, if it weren't for the numerous bulls, cows, sheep, donkeys, and such wandering around, you'd think you were just at some outdoor keg party. Everyone was pretty much standing in circles passing around a bottle of beer and making fun of their wives.

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And then I walk past causing the farmers to do double takes. After a bit of arm-twisting, I'm suddenly part of the drinking circle. Soon I have them convinced Bruce Lee is my uncle. But crap, I cannot keep up with these guys and by 11am, I'm hammered. At that point, I honestly tried to buy one of their bulls but it was just too damn expensive (about $750). The picture below depicts my desperate offer to teach them all kung-fu in exchange for the animal. Close, but I went home empty-handed with the exception of some severe beer farts. Rating: A

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Cochas

One of the unique arts in the Mantaro Valley is the mate burilado - carved gourds that illustrate traditional stories and Peruvian themes. Sounds retarted but it's actually pretty cool...and very damn impressive. At 9am, grandpa, grandma, and the whole family were etching, engraving, and burning away. Nothing's painted, the colours come from heat. And every fifth house in the small village is doing the exact same thing...hundreds of original pieces...which only made me wonder who buys them all and how the hell can they all afford to make a living through this.

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The artists get really attached to their work too. One of the old dudes we met spent an eternity talking about his gourd depicting the story of the Prodigal Son. Holy shit he wouldn't shut up. I think he even tired himself out because he couldn't keep his eyes open during this photo. Rating: B+

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Cajas

Awesome views atop Cajas. Once a year, there is a festival which involves a troupe running up the hill, yanking out the cross, affixing it to one guy's back, descending triumphantly into town, marching around the plaza, and then going back up to return the cross to its original spot. All the while an entourage band eggs on the carrier and the rest of the troupe dances and whips him. Sounds pretty cool. Then again, part of me thinks Julio (pictured) totally made all of this up. Rating: B

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San Jeronimo

A town renowned for its gold and silver jewelery. This nice old lady taught me how it was done even though I had no interest at all. I just wanted to get some gifts and get the hell out of there. Rating: D-

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Hualhuas

Poor alpacas and llamas never stood a chance with the weaving madness that goes on in this town. I blew through here like a hurricane and probably sheared a full alpaca with the amount of hats, scarfs, and tapestries I bought. I had no choice...the wool is as soft as my butt. Rating: B

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Laguna Long Name I Can Never Remember

You can take a small rowboat named Titanic across this lake. Just letting you know. Rating: C+

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Conception/Ingenio

Ate a lot of fresh trout and pachamanca (bbq and veggies cooked underground). Was too busy eating to take photos or notice what else was going on in town. Therefore...Rating: A

Torre Torre

Sandstone towers just a touch outside the city. Almost slipped off one of the edges. What's new? Rating: B

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Just a few weeks left and whereas some days I'm excited to return, others I still feel there's a million things left for me to do here. I spend a lot of time wandering about. My mind seems to wander even more.

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Posted by bchu 12:49 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The Apprentice


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As the combi drops me off in front of the medical centre, it kinda dawns on me that I have no idea what I'll actually be doing here for the next month. Oh well, how bad could it be? I then walk inside where everyone simultaneously turns towards me with a look of bewilderment. And I thought I was the confused one. After a very long 5 minutes, a nurse approaches and greets me. Cool, I'm probably going to fill in some paperwork now and get a tour of the facility before starting on some translation or admin work. Nope. I'm instead taken to the storage area and fitted for a white lab coat. And then given a stethescope as well.

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Um, they did get the memo I'm not a doctor, right? So just in case I'm scheduled to do some complex surgery, I frantically explain to the nurse that I'm just a volunteer here. She laughs and tells me to go to the office at the far end of the hall.

There I meet Dr. Belu, a young soft-spoken woman who is only too eager to get me started. For the first few patients, I just sit to the side and observe intently, trying my best to pick up as many Spanish medical terms as possible. And then she asks me to check some kid's throat. Pretending I know what I'm doing, I take the tongue depressor, open up the mouth, and just pray I don't choke this boy to death. I tell Dr. Belu that everything looks pretty normal. She takes a peek and says that it's badly inflammed. Nice first impression Brian.

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The rest of the day (and week) goes by routinely. Some little girl needing stitches. A bunch of eye and ear irritations. Countless babies with fevers and coughs. Too many throat and stomach pains...what are they eating 'round here (oh yea, guinea pig and street meat). Dislocated elbow. Breastfeeding problems. Urinary infections. Vaginal bleeding. Typhoid. The usual.

As days pass, I try to make myself more useful. When I'm not frantically looking up words in my dictionary, I have become quite adept at calling patients from the waiting room and closing the door behind them. No seriously, I've already gotten to do more than I'm qualified for. I've done a couple consultations on my own (with Dr. Belu supervising and ultimately diagnosing), checked blood pressure, assessed respiration, and I haven't choked anyone with the tongue depressor yet. Yes, my volunteer work has felt more like an apprenticeship. And although it wasn't at all what I was expecting, so far so good. I should be called in to lead that surgery by week 3 or 4.

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I'll write more about Huancayo and what life is like here in a future entry. Quite frankly, I haven't explored too much yet. It's a big city and I'm just trying to figure out where to buy fruit and shoes.

I will say that I'm living in the home of the mother of the organizers of my volunteer work. It's just me, her, her father (91 years old!), and another lady who helps out around the house. Unless you count the 3 dogs, 3 cats, 5 kittens, 10 guinea pigs, 1 duck, and 4 chickens. Yes, the same damn chickens/roosters that wake me up at 5am every morning!

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That'd be my only real complaint other than the low doorway to my room that I've smacked my head against 15 times. Everything's good - hot showers, no longer living out of a backpack, and the homecooking is amazing. I never knew there were so many ways to mix corn, beans, and mystery meat. No really, some of these typical Peruvian dishes are delicious. I think we're even going to eat some of the guinea pigs soon. Although everyday I pray we're having chicken for dinner.

Posted by bchu 16:41 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Bus ride for the ages


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8 hours from Ayacucho to Huancayo. No problem. I even take the morning bus and sit at the front to get some good views of this Central Highland area. 2 hours in, weaving up and down the mountain pass, and everything looks even more phenomenal than expected.

And then the dirt road disappears. Huh? All I see is a ton of people standing on the bank of a raging river. Takes a second but then it clicks in...the river IS the road...or at least has washed over/washed away the road for a good 20-25 metre stretch. There are some guys standing on rocks in the water trying to lay down more rocks to bridge the gap. Helps a bit but would take hours to complete a semblance of a thorough path. Two buses sit idle on the other side, its passengers standing around impatiently.

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Our bus driver has had enough. He surveys the scene one last time before marching confidently back to the bus and whistling for everyone to follow. Crap, I thought my river crossing days had ended in Chile. As I board, I ask him if it's possible. He looks me square in the eye...and just chuckles as if to say ¨Dude, even if this river carries us of that cliff, it'll be a fucking good time.¨ Earlier in the day, no lie, he remarked to some girl that the coke he was drinking was mixed with whiskey. As the wheels hit the water, I'm left wondering if he was joking or not.

Halfway across. So far so good. People are literally praying on the bus. I'm taking photos out the window and having a whale of a time. Three quarters through. Motor stops. Shit, we're stuck...but only for a couple of seconds. Engine revs and we're moving once more, closer and closer to the other side. When the bus is fully on land again, everyone is whooping it up and lauding our heroic driver. Meanwhile, a collection is passed around to help the locals from the nearby community, for they will spend days putting the road back together.
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And then, no more than 20 minutes later, on a tight muddy corner...

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HOLY SHIT! What can I say? Well, to calm my mother down, I should say that I wasn't on the bus at the time. I was outside helping gather rocks to improve the traction. I guess the bus driver was a bit impatient once again. Hubris.

The bus seemed to topple over in slow motion. Screaming ensued both from within and outside the vehicle. I admit I was frozen for a bit. From my vantage point, I couldn´t see the cliff behind and just expected it to go all the way over. As I made my way around, I could see how close it was...maybe a couple metres to the left and it´d be in the river below... along with about 25 dead bodies.

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People started crawling from underneath the bus and climbing out from the windows, which were now at the top. Only a few elder folks had to be dragged out. After an exasperating 15 minutes, everyone had escaped the vehicle and miraculously, no one was severely hurt. Just some scrapes, bruises, and a lot of shock.

Because not many people were really keen to do it, I climbed nervously back aboard and helped excavate the bus of all personal belongings. It was kinda cool, felt like pilfering a sunken treasure ship. And then I remembered the bus could still be teetering on the edge, vulnerable to sudden movement, and I got my ass out of there as quickly as possible.

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Here´s a couple more photos from different angles. It's hard to describe but our toppled bus basically blocked the entire corner so nothing could get through (i have no idea how they are going to remove it). So we had to wait for a bus going to Ayacucho in order to take it back towards Huancayo. And the people on that bus had to get off and wait for a bus going to Huancayo so it could turn around and go back to Ayacucho. Sorry if that makes no sense. All I know is the 5 hr wait was torture.

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I wish I could say that was the end. An hour later, an 18 wheeler was stuck on the road (engine problem) and blocked our way. We waited another hour and a bit trying to help fix the thing. It didn't work. So our driver (a new one at this point) attempted to go around it, cliff on one side and no more than half a foot´s extra width of open space to drive through. No fucking way!! I have NEVER been so freaked out watching something as I was this (we were obviously not on the bus...but all my belongings were!!). I really didn't think it would make it around. You should have seen how tilted it was. On practically two wheels, I could have pushed it over with my pinky. Everyone was holding their breath or crossing their fingers or praying. Oh yea, it was dark and raining by this time. And there was still 5 hours to go.

The rest of the ride, people were flipping eveytime we took a tight corner...and rightfully so. Two or three more times we had to get off the bus because our collective weight would have sent it over (I forgot to mention that the bus was packed...people were crowded in the aisles). And everytime I watched the bus manuever these bends(sometimes with 5 point turns in mud across a stream), I always thought it was going tumbling into the abyss. Quite simply, it was like being on Death Road again, but on a bus instead of a minivan or bike. On many occasions I thought about the buses that had fallen off that mountain and the gravestones that lay beside the road. Tense only begins to describe my status during certain moments.

Somehow in the homestretch I fell asleep. I woke up to paved road, never being so happy to see cement. Those bus drivers are incredible(except the one who flipped the bus). We got in at 3am (12 hours late) and I stayed in a hospital across the road from the terminal that doubled as a hotel (??). How fitting.

Don't worry folks...I will make it home in one piece!!

Posted by bchu 14:31 Archived in Peru Comments (4)

Ayacucho...me gusta mucho


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The course of travel changes when you´re by yourself. Gone are many of the antics and in place a greater sense of curiosity for your surroundings. That would hold true in my few days in the underrated and undervisited city of Ayacucho...a place of infamous history, too many churches (33!), and too few laundromats (1, run by some dude in his nineties).

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My topic of interest was Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a rebel Maoist terrorist organization that was based in Ayacucho and brutalized the region in the 80s and early 90s. How did people function during this era? What was life like? Did it lead to all the crappy Chinese restaurants that exist nowadays here? Can you still sense the past? The answer to the last question was made clear after my first couple days in town. Simply put, you wouldn´t suspect such previous horror given the approachability of the people and the upbeat vibe of the city. It´s like a renaissance of sorts. ¨Mucho tranquilo,¨ many locals would tell me as we sat at a cramped foodstall and they intently watched me eat some nasty fish stew called ¨Leche de Tigre¨ (tiger´s milk). ¨Es muy seguro,¨ they´d add...(ironically as I was writing this paragraph, a fight broke out on the street with two topless guys kicking the crap out of each other...I curse myself for leaving the camera in the hostal).

I was originally very nervous to ask about Sendero Luminoso...it´s like asking about an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend or how someone´s vasectomy went. So I decided to butter up each conversation with something more light-hearted...a simple survey on the preference of Brian with beard or Brian without beard (note: I went for a beard trim in the last town I was in...I clearly told the barber 3 times that I only wanted it shorter and not completely removed...he nodded in total agreement and then promptly shaved it all off in a matter of seconds. IDIOT!!) So yes, the bird´s nest is now gone.

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I surveyed 16 people in total and tried to make a representative sample. 8 women and 8 men. Young as 6, old as probably 65. From all walks of life - e.g. shoeshiner, internet lady, hotel receptionist, photocopy dude, pharmacist, waitress, girl selling biscuits on the street, mototaxi driver, nun. And the results were as follows...8 voted I look better without the beard, 4 for the beard, 2 said I´m drop dead sexy either way, and 2 just gave me a ´what the hell, go away you freak´ reaction. Most of the girls preferred no beard, especially the younger ones. The nun liked the facial hair. And the old pedaephilic man said both ways were good. What do you think?

Anyways, back to Sendero Luminoso. A jewelery selling hippie told me how his parents were executed when he was 5. Another just kept remembering how they couldn´t go out at night. ¨If you were out past 6pm, you weren´t coming back.¨ And the owners of the Tiger´s Milk stand remarked on how they couldn´t work because there was no industry. And how they had to send their kids to other towns or countries for safety and to make a living. There was probably more detail in these stories that my spanish just wasn´t good enough to translate. I think in hindsight, that could be a good thing.

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Some effects do exist unfortunately. By chance I came across a children´s shelter in a suburb of Ayacucho that was run by a Belgian, his wife, and a host of French volunteers. There were nearly 30 kids here, between 1 and 13 years old - some handicapped, some abandoned, and all from poor, alcoholic, and/or abusive families (as a result of Sendero Luminoso´s reign). I ended up spending the day volunteering at the shelter - playing with the kids, helping prepare the feast, and setting up decorations. It just happened to be the 5 year anniversary of the place and there was a massive fiesta, complete with costumes, dances, a military band, and performances put on by the children. When I didn´t have 3 kids hanging off my legs, shoulders, and neck (they were pretty damn affectionate), I talked extensively with Gil the founder (first pic) to get a deeper understanding of the project. Without going into detail, my instincts tell me the place is rather genuine - the kids were quite healthy, happy, and well-behaved - and the local community was beginning to support it too. It´s called Casa Hogar - Los Gorriones and there´s a donation link on the website if you´re at all interested.

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This was the feast being dug up...chicken, beef, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, and other stuff was buried into the ground under hot rocks, dirt, and full sized herbs. It´s a Peruvian thing called Pachamanca...and it was pretty damn good.

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Starting my own volunteer work this weekend and I think I´ll be back in mid-April now. Thanks to everyone who has given me an opinion on school in September...keep the comments coming (Boston U and New York U are now options too - don´t ever apply for more than 5 schools, I am retarded!).

Some random photos because I´m 5,000 photos behind on my Flickr site.

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Posted by bchu 04:31 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

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