Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Inti Raymi 2005

The festival of Inti Raymi was celebrated for the 61st time in Cusco last Friday. This was the only occasion on which locals outnumber tourists. A little background about this festival: "Inti" means "sun" in Quechua and "Raymi" means "festival." The Incas honoured the solar deity with that festival at the winter solstice because the sun was the principal object of Inca worship. However, the Spanish suppressed the Inca religion and the last royal Inti Raymi was celebrated in 1535. In 1944, a group of Cusco intellectuals revived the old ceremony and it has been celebrated every year since then on June 24, now a Cusco public holiday.

Being the best festival of the year, Cusco went wild before, during and after Inti Raymi. By wild, I mean really wild. I've never seen a party like this in my life. We arrived in Cusco on the eve of Inti Raymi to do some work, and celebrations had already commenced. There were parades all around the city. The city was practically bustling from the whole afternoon till early morning. The atmosphere was fantastic and something was always going on somewhere around the city. Almost all the locals (90%) dressed up traditionally for the occasion and it was very colourful indeed.

However, not everything was pleasant throughout the entire city. That day had to be the only day on which rain visited Cusco for a little while. People urinated everywhere, even on the main Plaza de Armas and some even urinated in the fountain. Litter was omnipresent as well. But I actually felt safe walking alone from the disco back to our hostel at 130 am, while my friends were still dancing. Cusco has a wonderful night life by the way. Moreover, the efficiency of the local authorities really left a deep impression on me. Everywhere was clean and free of litter and urine smell a few hours later at 730am.

Having heard how crowded Sacsayhuaman would be, we left central Cusco and walked to Sacsayhuaman, reaching at about 845am, when the actual program was scheduled to begin at 2 pm in the afternoon. So we basically waited and sat at Sacsayhuaman for the whole 5 hours or so, and we were indeed glad that the wait was worthwhile. We got the best seats on the ancient stones, while many locals and tourists who arrived much later struggled to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. Everything was in Quechua though, so we understood nothing.

And so we missed lunch naturally and we must have looked famished because the Peruvians sitting next to us actually offered us cuys and papas free of charge. But I dare not eat them in fear of diarrhoea, which I got it eventually somehow from somewhere. Diarrhoea has taken its toll on me. But I'm relieved that I'm feeling better now. This is my third diarrhoea episode in Peru.

Towards the end of Inti Raymi, a little incident happened. i got separated from my other volunteer friends and every resident in Cusco must have been at Sacsayhuaman that it was impossible to locate my friends. Thank goodness I know Cusco rather well, so I walked from Sacsayhuaman to the bus terminal for Urubamba and caught a bus back home to my home in Peru...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Brief Update and Travel Plans

I just came back from my independent weekend trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca was truly awesome and unexpected events like diarrhoea and altitude sickness occurred to me again, and it should deserve a separate entry. Many other things have taken place as well since my previous update. So I?ll be posting 4 separate updates in the next week to come: (1) the Sacred Valley Trip on the weekend before last; (2) my volunteer work; (3) Peruvians & my host family; and (4) Lake Titicaca. I tried to sum up everything in one post, but it was impossible. I feel I can write an encyclopedia on my Peruvian trip.

I?ve also acquired enough Spanish to converse with a local for 20 minutes in Spanish, and enough Quechua to converse in Quechua for 3 minutes. I?ve also managed to survive Puno and Lake Titicaca alone with only 2 weeks of Spanish lessons. In fact I feel I?ve learnt more Spanish in 2 weeks than German in 2 years.

In the mean time, here?s my travel plans for my remaining 5 weeks in Peru.

Inti Raymi in Cusco this Friday

This is the Inca festival of the winter solstice, the festival of the year. It is enacted at the fortress of Sacsayhuaman. A group of us is heading to Cusco tomorrow to work on our project and then party with the locals till Friday evening. Looking forward to loads of chichas and cuys!

Arequipa and Cola Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon

Tentatively this is fixed on July 1st to July 3rd. Arequipa, nicknamed the "White City," was built by the distinctive volcanic sillar. The city?s most famous colonial jewel, the Santa Catalina Convent, is a city within a city, and is the most enchanting colonial structure on the entire South American continent.

Two famous canyons - Colca and Cotahuasi - are within easy reach. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and once thought to be the deepest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon is an area of astounding beauty. On the other hand, the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon was recently found to be all of 163 metres deeper and is the world?s deepest canyon. I might just go to Colca Canyon since Cotahuasi Canyon is 12 hours away by bus from Arequipa and Arequipa is 10 hours away by bus from Cusco.

Machu Picchu & Salkantay Trek

Ever since Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu in July 1911, the legendary Inca city has become one of the most recognised images in the world. So much so that Machu Picchu virtually represents Peru, and what was once a lost city for centuries is no longer so. Every visitor to Machu Picchu I?ve talked to says that there is a tremendous feeling of awe on first witnessing this incredible sight. In addition, the original Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is essentially a true Incan pilgrimage, though the 4-day Inca Trail is a difficult and treacherous one. What makes this tough hike, which totals more than 50 km of uphill and downhill in 4 days, so extraordinary is the stunning combination of Inca ruins, magnificent views, spectacular Andes, exotic vegetation and special ecological variety. The bad news is that all Inca trails have been fully booked till September and I will not have the opportunity to hike this original Inca Trail during my stay in Peru.

But how can a visit to Peru not include Machu Picchu? After serious contemplation, I?ve decided to do an even more treacherous alternative Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. On July 6th, I will be hiking from Mount Salkantay (6270 metres) to Machu Picchu. This hike takes 5 days 4 nights and is an extra day longer than the classic Inca Trail. I seriously don?t know how I am going to make it to Mount Salkantay, not to say Machu Picchu. But I?m definite that the effort is worthwhile when I see Machu Picchu in all its reflective glory. The guidebooks says, "Your aching muscles will be quickly forgotten and even the presence of the functional hotel building cannot detract from one of the most magical sights in all the Americas." July 6th to July 10th will be one of my most memorable times in my life.

The Amazon Basin

Yes, the Amazon Basin! I?ve spent so much time, money and effort in getting my Yellow Fever vaccination and malaria pills that I will definitely venture into the jungle regardless its cost. The cheapest tour I can find costs a staggering US$500 and is only 4 days 3 nights long. But then this is going to be another once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Amazon Basin is home to 10,000,000 living species, including 2000 species of fish and 300 mammals. Hopefully, I can head into the jungle after my volunteer work on July 17th.


The enigmatic Nasca lines, whose origin and function continue to puzzle scientists, puts Nasca on the world map, otherwise Nasca would be just like any other anonymous desert oasis. My plan is to take a small plane to take a god?s eye view of the lines etched in the desert, after the Amazon Basin trip.


The above basically sums up my travel plans for the next month to come. Even though Peruvian food is fantastic and Peruvian scenery spectacular, I am beginning to crave for my Hampstead crepes (strangely I don?t miss Singaporean food after a year away from home). I miss London and the diverse activities that I can engage in London. 5 weeks more before I head back to London, and I will make every single day in Peru an unforgettable one.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Can I stay in Urubamba for the rest of my life?

Ten days have passed since I stepped foot on the South American continent. Time simply zoomed past when life is laidback, insouciant and without worries. Each and every day is novel and challenging and this experience is definitely much more enriching than SIF?s YEP.

The Cusco region, i.e. the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is the most beautiful place I?ve ever been to in my entire life. Even Venice and Florence in Italy, Salzburg and Vienna in Austria, Kinderdijk and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, or Bath and London in the United Kingdom cannot compare to Cusco, Urubamba and Calca. Sure, comparisons like these are unfair as every place is unique, but the Sacred Valley is truly the most magnificent and spectacular place I?ve ever been to. And moreover, this place just gets prettier and prettier every day and all of us (24 volunteers) think so.

When the domestic plane first flew from Lima to Cusco, the view of the Andes mountain range from the plane just mesmerised me throughout the whole 60-minute flight. When the plane landed at Cusco airport, my one and only reaction was "Oh my God!" and the close encounter with death and everything else negative and unpleasant in Lima seemed all worthwhile suddenly. Driving through the Andes from Cusco to Urubamba and Calca was even more spectacular. I mean I read and study the Andes in Geography textbooks, I see the Andes on television, but nothing is comparable to the real thing right before my eyes. The Andes are truly awesome!

Cusco stands at the head of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. What was once an ancient Inca capital is, in fact now, the capital of the entire continent. Cusco and Urubamba are surrounded by the Andes with aplenty Inca ruins and stunning scenery. The Quechua people bring the city to life with a combination of prehistoric and Christian beliefs and may I mention this, the Quechua language is absolutely beautiful.

The shortage of oxygen at this high altitude of 3310 metres (I made a mistake in my previous entry) easily and definitely induces altitude sickness and this affects every traveller somehow or another. It took me a few days to acclimatise but what really almost killed me was the jet lag. I slept at 5 pm and woke up at 7 am - a total of 14 hours - on the second day in Cusco. But everything is fine now and I?ve adapted to the Peruvian lifestyle of sleeping at 10 pm every night and waking up at 6 am every morning.

With high altitudes (though Urubamba is slightly lower at 2900 metres) come naturally large daily temperature ranges. The sun shines ferociously in the day and temperatures can hit a maximum of 20 degrees Celsius. Once the sun sets, temperatures start to drop rapidly to 10 degrees Celsius in a matter of minutes and it continues to plummet to 0 degrees Celsius at night. Even so, the scenery at night is still marvellous. The night sky is the most beautiful I?ve ever seen in my entire life. The sky is completely cloudless every single day and hence, all the stars and galaxies can be seen. They seem to appear brighter and larger too, perhaps because of the fact that I?m nearer to the stars? Up till now, I still can?t locate the supposedly-conspicuous Orion Belt, so you can imagine how many stars can be seen in Urubamba?s night sky.

Everything in Urubamba seems so perfect that I wish I can stay here forever. Peruvian people are friendly (they kiss everytime they greet one another), Peruvian scenery is stunning (no adjectives can do the Andes justice), Peruvian food is delicious (for instance Peruvians have 5000 different kinds of potatoes that cannot be found elsewhere in the world and each of them is damn tasty, the British should learn from the Peruvians), Peruvian drinks are awesome (Peruvian coffee is the best I had so far; the national drink, Pisco Sour, is freaking damn good and I got a bit drunk only after 2 glasses, maybe because of rapid intoxication due to high altitude; Peruvian tea is also incredible, I have to drink at least 2 cups of mata de coca - coca tea made from coca leaves - everyday now.)

So, what more can I ask for? I already have plans to come back to Peru some time soon and maybe work here after my bond at SPH...

Can I stay in Urubamba for the rest of my life?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

In Peru!!!

Hola! I just want to say that I?m safe and sound in Peru... after so many adventures in just 1 day! Finally after 18 hours of flight from London to Lima via Madrid, and then a domestic flight from Lima to Cusco, and after all the lugging of my 24-kg-luggage, I have finally reached my destination! The car that I was in ALMOST got hit by another car in Lima (only 2 cm away and emergency brake), I?m really lucky to have survived!

I can?t really say much now... because with all the jet lag and stuff... The altitude sickness is kicking in now... I?m feeling really dizzy now... Or was it the Peruvian guinea pig I had for lunch? By the way, coca tea is fantastic.

But I promise there will be more detailed updates when my body is coping better with everything in Peru!

Cusco is really amazing! In contrast, Lima is crazy.

Until then!