lunes, 5 de agosto de 2013

The Final Word(s)

It's been a busy few weeks! We've been to 5 countries, seen some of South America's finest sights, and traveled on a whole lot of buses.

Bolivia was fantastic. It was really good fun, and deliciously cheap. We stayed in the world's highest city, ate steak we found barbecuing on the side of the road, cycled down Death Road (Joel came off his bike twice, but the ginger and the giant have clean records!), and supported the winning of the two La Paz rivals in a football stadium of 50,000 Bolivians.
We had three fantastic days bombing through the salt flats in a Jeep, stopping at different-coloured lagoons filled with flamingos, climbing up formations of huge volcanic rock, navigating steaming geysers of boiling mud, and watching our snowballs be shot up into the sky by the pressure, taking forced perspective photos on the seemingly never-ending salt flats, watching incredible sunsets, going for a look at the still-smoking, active volcano, spotting strange rabbit-squirrel creatures called viscachas, and visiting mystery intricate spiderweb/bone marrow-like caves. We drove across a sea of salt to an island of fossilised coral, covered in 10ft cacti, and slept that night in a salt hotel on salt beds. (Dr Seuss, much?) Our second evening was spent watching shooting stars from hot springs, aware that the air temperature had plummeted to well below zero only because Joel's ringlets froze within two minutes of being out of the water.
Before we left Bolivia, we popped to Santa Cruz and dropped in on Ben, a friend from Walsall, which was brilliant. We went on to survive 'the infamous Death Train', which left us questioning whether it causes death by duration (19 hours), frustration (it averages a speed of 18mph), starvation (no food or drink provided, and we'd spent all our Bolivianos), boredom (19 hours with nothing but 3 action films, dubbed into Spanish, for entertainment) or murder (even we were close to sending the man snoring incredibly loudly behind us to prematurely meet his maker).

And then Brazil. As our favourite Ginger put it, "more expensive, but much better pillows and breakfast". We happened to turn up during the coldest week in the last ten years of Brazilian winters, so we had a rather chilly week in the world's largest wetland (the size of the UK!). Although a lot of the wildlife was shivering out of sight, we still had a fantastic time in Pantanal, and spotted a load of toucans, caimans, kingfishers, capybaras, white-collared peccarys (like pigs), macaws, monkeys, japanese storks (bigger than Sarah, remarked the guide), plenty of birds... We took walks through the jungle areas - warnings from the guide included "if the wasps come to sting you- running. Don't stop". We went horseback riding, fished for piranhas, played the old piano we found, made some friends and ate very well.

We saw why Bonito got its name during our days of snorkeling, cycling, spotting toucans and deer, and visiting the crystal-clear lakes. Saz and I finished our stay with a feast of piranha soup and grilled caiman.  The benefit of speaking Spanish in Brazil, as we'd hoped, is that we can make ourselves understood.
The huge disadvantage, however, is that we understand very little of the Portuguese reply. I'm desperately hoping to learn some more key words and phrases for our return in a couple of days. In the meantime I'd say we're at about GCSE standard in Mime...

We finished Brazil with a trip to the Iguazu Falls. I was promised "Niagara Falls on speed" - and, although I have never been to Niagara Falls, and the closest I've got to speed is the card game, I would back that to be about right. 7 kilometers of huge waterfalls, sending 100 metres of spray up into our faces, catching the light to make 270 degree rainbows - and, at times, even double rainbows, all the way across the falls. Poor Niagara indeed! We got some great panoramic views on the Brazilian side, but the Argentinian side was even more incredible - the walkways took us right to the heart of the Devil's Throat, and, at times, pretty much into the falls, so we took the opportunity to have a long-awaited Poncho O'Clock.

While we were there, we dropped over the border, to sing "Para- Para- Paraguay" in the most appropriate country, and then we took on our 20 hour bus journey to Buenos Aires. There, we explored the city, sat in the café that my Argentine hero Borges used to sit in and think deep thoughts, and Saz and I went for a "Fiesta Gaucha", which involved riding horses around the ranch, eating as much delicious Argentine steak and as many empanadas as we could, and some impressive shows. We had an Incident, which shed us of a few of our belongings, but we promptly bounced back, and bought another camera so we can continue to take awkward selfies in hilarious places.

Which brings us to Uruguay. We spent two days in the beautiful old city of Colonia, switching between cycling and running broken bikes along the seafront, and then headed to the capital, Montevideo, where we found a great church and chivitos (Uruguay's favourite sandwich of steak, egg, bacon, ham, lettuce and tomato). We just have one more city stop here before we begin our pilgrimage up the coast of Brazil. We'll be in Rio in 2 weeks, then fly home from there on the 21st.

So this is probably the last of the The Ginger and The Giant writings. A whole lot has happened in these 5 months. Thanks for being part of it by reading and being in touch - we've loved being able to share it with you. We have a lot to look forward to: to not having to calculate time difference when calling home; to having people admit when they don't know, rather than just make up an answer; no more rounds of Dodge Those Rabies; no more stares; having our clothes in an actual wardrobe; soup that doesn't scare us; not having to think about conversion rates; dealing with people who both understand and uphold basic time-keeping principles; Bisto, Cadbury's, hot showers, and proper bacon. Saz can't wait to not have to plaster herself in suncream every morning. But it will be strange to go through a day without a stranger stopping to chat to us, and to live where ordinary tasks aren't ridiculous challenges because of hilarious language barriers, altitude and stray llamas. To live where she's not the Ginger, and I'm not a Giant.
But flip me - we're looking forward to seeing you all again.

¡Hasta pronto!
Lots of love, the Ginger and the Giant.

martes, 9 de julio de 2013

The Ginger, the Giant...and the Joel.

We managed to leave Cusco (just!), and went to find Joel to begin our journey in Lima. First stop: Paracas, a ghost town, where we took a boat ride to the Ballestas Islands, which are covered in birds, sea lions, penguins and crabs. It was stunning. We put our feet in the Pacific, and chilled with the pelicans wandering along the beach, spotting jellyfish and huge crabs.

Our next stop was Huacachina, a lagoon in the middle of the desert. We arrived at night, so in the morning we were sufficiently surprise by the huge sand dunes that surrounded us. We walked up one and ran back down (squealing). We had a fantastic afternoon of sandboarding and buggying - it's always good to find and overcome fears in the same moment - and watched the sun set over the sand. We spent a day looking around Nazca. Saw some Lines.

Arequipa was lovely. It's a bigger city, that exists irrespective of tourism, so we ambled around the many churches, found the market, and ate on our hostel terrace, overlooking El Misti, a huge active volcano, and a series of snow-capped mountains. We took a two-day trip to Colca Canyon, where we saw some incredible landscapes - plains full of Andean deer, and more huge mountains covered in snow. When we arrived, we went for a walk with our group, and discovered, to our dismay, that all our time at altitude had left us at no advantage, and we were as breathless after a few seconds' uphill as the rest of the group. We hit up some thermal baths, and went for a dinner of quinoa soup and alpaca steak at a folkloric dance show. Participation was compulsory. We were up at 5.30am for some more spectacular views and plazas (complete with dancing) on our way to the Condor Viewpoint of the canyon, where, sure enough, the condors were there in all their glory! We spent an hour watching them have the best day, before walking along one side of the canyon. Having spent months in Cusco being told my hat was typical of Arequipa, I was loving spotting women (and some men) wearing the same one. I blended right in. We drove back to Arequipa through a snow storm, for an Arabic coffee (genuinely delicious) and a chilled evening watching the sun set over the volcano.

Our last Peruvian stop was Puno. The main attraction was our two-day visit to the islands on Lake Titikaka, one of the world's highest navigable bodies of water. A half-hour boat ride across the beautifully clear freshwater lake brought us to Uros, the floating islands made of reeds, where we spent the morning, learning how to make them (I'm looking forward to attempting to replicate that on the British coast sometime), learning about life on the 60 islands, and being dressed up in their clothes. In the afternoon we sat on the boat roof for the 3 hour journey to the island of the Amantani people, where we met our homestay families(!), and went for lunch with them (more potatoes, quinoa and rice), at the end of which, they handed us a mug of hot water, and gestured to the jar of leaves and twigs in the middle of the table, which turned out to be muna, a mint-like herb. It was delicious, and I can't help but see Karl Pilkington's brutal logic about how it's probably better not to get a taste for something that you can't get at home (or, in this case, anywhere else other than Lake Titikaka). We got to speak a bit of Quechua, before walking (with more altitude-induced difficulty) to the highest point of the island, the temple Pachatata, to watch the sun set over the lake and the peaks of the Bolivian snow-capped mountains. After more rice and potatoes with the family, they dressed us up in their clothes, and took us to a 'disco' with all the other tourists and their homestay families. There we danced like never before to the music of an Andean flute and a drum, until the musicians played no more, most left for bed, and we continued with our new friends from Holland, France, Zambia etc, singing and dancing and flouncing about in our skirts and ponchos. We visited the island of Taquile on the way back to Puno the next day, had a walk, and got a delicious lunch of fried trout (and chips and rice) overlooking the lake. After putting our feet in, we sailed back to the mainland, where we got all our salad for dinner for a single sol (25p) and met some new fun people in our hostel.

So that was Peru. Now on to Bolivia, where we have another great line-up of activities. We're getting used to our bus journeys, finding some good picnic ingredients (avocados and oranges as staples), and have generally failed to make sense of the diverse Peruvian landscapes. We've met some fun people, been bought and made coffee by friendly strangers, seen a lot of sunsets, (and sunrises!), and worn a lot of great outfits.
First stop: Copacabana.
We haven't stopped singing it.

jueves, 27 de junio de 2013

Hasta luego, Cusco.

Father’s Day, and our last Sunday in Cusco, were as good as we wanted them to be. We started by conducting Sunday School in the back of the abandoned lorry in our builders yard, using it as a prison in our discussion of the persecuted church.  We held our Sunday afternoon group in a field. The Father's Day service didn’t quite top last month’s Mothers Day service, but it’s never a bad thing to see Quechua fathers eating biscuits from a plate with no hands. We were given refreshments, which Sarah – Judas - helped to make, while I was being tucked up on a friend's sofa, trying to allay the plague I'd managed to get. The cup of what appeared to be orange jelly with sticks in seemed to be manageable - plus, you can’t say no - but to my dismay, it was warm. And when I tried to chug it, I encountered lumps. We got no closer to finding out why they put big pretzel sticks into the orange goo. Or why it was warm. Or why it was lumpy. I spilt most of mine on the floor.

This week, we face-painted the kids in our Sunday School, and only remembered after a little while of the congregation's laughs that we too had moustaches. We had another humiliating and intense afternoon of volley ball. Everytime we made a successful pass, they congratulated us loudly; everytime we were unsuccessful, they shouted "Inca strength!" at us, and everytime there was a brief pause, requested supportive chants in English. They thought it was hilarious. We won ourselves a lot of friends.

We've been reluctantly saying our goodbyes. We’ve had quite a few criers (including us), and we’ve been forced into promises to return straight to one of our preschools if we are ever in the area again. The church wanted to give us a goodbye service, which we were quite scared about, having seen their Mother and Father's Day services. We did our best puppy eyes and faces of fear (I said to one friend, "Look, Jose, we're very afraid of what they might make us do. We're your hermanitas and you have to protect us.") They got two chairs and the biscuits out, but the puppy eyes seemed to work and they presented us with gifts (including some great Peruvian hats!), told us how much they've loved having us, and then took a load of photos. In the evening service they did another formal goodbye, and got everyone up to hug us. They're very good at goodbyes, thanking us for our work in the kids' groups, saying they'll miss us terribly, telling us to come back soon. Everyone said how grateful they were for us being part of their church, which was particularly amusing from those who had stood up that very evening to introduce themselves as newcomers to the church...

It's very hard to answer the question "When will you be back?", because we have to be non-commital. (In response to our non-commitment, our favourite responses so far include "Well, what are you praying for?" and with another, we played the God card, and the chef whose chicken foot and neck we rejected a few weeks ago said "Of course, God has to want you to come back!") If it weren't for that final year of Uni next year, there's no way we'd be leaving.

Anyway, we didn't get to the jungle, but did go for a day trip to visit a friend's relatives. We pretty much had the perfect day, going for walks, and visiting an animal sanctuary, to see a condor and a puma and sit among parrots and other misc huge birds, who didn't seem to mind in the slightest that we were there.

Other than that, we helped to sell omlette sandwiches and coffee outside a church service, and we've been feeding our Peruvian friends banoffee pie, to their delight. We went to a friend's house and were served coffee from a plastic bag - grown and ground by her father, no less! (She then gave us some avocados freshly picked from her patio.) I visited the Latin Link STEP team in Urcos. We went to some more processions, including Inti Raymi, the annual ceremony for the sun god where hundreds of actors dress up as Incas and dance about in cloaks and great hats. Ironically, it was forecast to snow. (It didn't: this is Peru.) We went for breakfast in a French creperie, and went for our last cafecito with the team. I've nearly finished transferring the chords for the kids' songs into the Do Re Mi scale they use here. Fortunately I spent most of the nineties watching the Sound of Music so it wasn't too hard. We caught our preschool off-guard by teaching them "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" Quechua. We went to fairground, and tried ceviche (a dish of raw fish). We've coped with some more intrusive questions, and Cusco sent us off with a bang this week: having managed to avoid some fairly inevitable things for over three months, this week, I've hung out of the door on the busiest bus, lost my camera to a nifty pickpocket, and trodden in fresh dog poo - in my sandals - at Sunday School. Still winning Dodge those Rabies though, for the win.

We are going to miss this place: the beautiful tiny Quechua women, the church, the hospital, the kids in our groups, the constant sneezes, the view from the window (everyday, when the alarm goes off, and I say to Saz "open the curtain?" to bright, cloud-free blue skies, and we decide it's probably worth getting up), our brilliant friends, the dogs roaming free, into our kids' groups, preschools, buses..., the humming bird in the garden, everyone in arctic wear in the hot sun: fleece pyjama bottoms, hats, shoes and socks, body warmers, polo necks, blankets wrapped around them, the dogs outside our house, who we have slowly befriended, spotting glowworms, the shouts of "Las gringitas vienen!", our wonderful family of Browns, attempting to learn Quechua, and that same tune that's played at church, song after song, week after week. But we still have time left of squashed buses, impressive hats, stares, ponchos, Peruvian timekeeping, everyone thinking Sazzle is 14, everyone assuming we're sisters/twins/I'm Sarah's mum. And there will probably still be plenty surreptitious photography, beeps from cars, being hit on in taxis etc. This time with Joel.
We're very sad to leave: it's been such an incredible time. We've learned so much, laughed so hard, and been embarrassed and uncomfortable beyond anything we could have expected. But now, the journey of a lifetime begins: 3 friends, 5 countries, 8 weeks. The line up is incredible. We'll be in touch.

“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

jueves, 13 de junio de 2013

Quechua Women Tests and the Gringo Killer

We've had two very different weeks. We moved out of Little America, got taught how to be good Quechua housewives, and for most of last week, trekked to Machu Picchu.

But first: cultural stop. Towards the end of May, Cusco had a huge festival. Corpus Christi is a a pagan ritual in catholic robes: huge statues of saints are paraded around the main Plaza, just like the old Inca mummies used to be, then get to have a sleepover in the cathedral with Black Jesus, and are taken back to their homes the week after. To celebrate, Peruvians eat the typical “chiriuchu”, which contains about three times as much meat as a person could eat, amongst other things: guinea pig, chicken, jerky, sausage, rabbit, cheese, corn and omelette. We turned up, saw some dancing, and some great masks and outfits, and, for once, didn't eat the questionable meat.

Anyway, that weekend we were apprenticed by various members of the church, who were keen to teach us how to shop, carry, speak, clean, wash, do sport, dress and cook like good Peruvian women:
They took us to the most Peruvian market in the dodgy area of town, to the meat stalls to buy 60kg worth of beef. They were beside themselves laughing at our reactions to the woman sat selling sheep heads, and we asked one too many questions to identify the misc bits and pieces laid out in boxes. We bought 70kg of potatoes from a woman who taught us some more Quechua while we were waiting, only to carry our purchases - between the four of us - back through the market, and down a full flight of stairs. (If I could pinpoint a moment when we definitely failed the Quechua Woman test, it was then). To the excitement and amusement of our friends from the church, we helped to cook and serve a Peruvian dish for 15 of them - apprenticed by a professional chef who has promised us lessons. At one point he handed me a bowl of water and a broom, to clean a lounge by sprinkling water all over the floor and sweeping. And the next morning, we were taken to help wash an incredibly dirty tablecloth by hand for the church anniversary, 20 minutes after it should have started. Admittedly, it wasn’t long before they said, “Move aside – she has washers’ hands”, and subbed in a native. We served food to 200 people, learned how to play volley, Peruvian style, and the weekend culminated in us sat wrapped up in church in beautiful Peruvian blankets, like proper Peruvian women.

All this was for the church's fourth anniversary. We turned up at church at 5am for our builders’ yard clear up, and transformed the mess of cement and dog poo into a flat area for a huge marquee and stage. It was a special six hour service that started extra-specially late. (Needless to say it wasn't long until we got as restless as the kids and escaped to the football field above to play games and sing songs with them.) There were sports tournaments in the afternoon (hence the volley), so we did our bit to cheer on the teams, which had everyone in stitches but it didn't faze us too much. We later got distracted by some girls who come to some of the groups we run, so we just played games with them until it got dark.
We didn't go to our usual Sunday afternoon group because of the anniversary celebrations. We later found out that the kids turned up anyway: two girls impersonated me and Saz, and took the session for us!

In other news, one night, our walk home turned into a Sports Night, where Saz and I and two friends carried and raced eachother down the main road in various forms: shoulders lifts/piggy-backs/fireman lifts etc. Saz and I dominated the 3-legged races. In these last two weeks or so we have sung until our voices hurt (mostly with the kids in Burns, and I've done a few solo concerts, squatting in the corridor with a 16-year-old lad, and sitting with an 11-year-old in Pediatrics), and I've helped lead worship on keys at 2 seconds' notice (the guy on guitar strummed the opening chord then got me up). We went to another incredible concert in the coliseum – this time of an Argentine called Marco Barrientos, and we've made some exceptional knitwear purchases. We made a group of thirty elderly Quechua people - whose feet barely touched the floor when they sat down - play 'Pin the Tail on the Llama' (some of my best artwork). And someone tried to pickpocket Sarah, but she turned around in time, took the purse back out of the man's hands, and told him firmly "no".

Questions of the week include “A lot of foreigners swim naked. Do you swim in your underwear?”, “What’s the exchange rate between the peso and the dollar?”, "Why are you white?", and various unanswerable questions about the size and number of English counties.

Annnd... we made it to Machu Picchu! We did a four day trek, around the 3rd biggest glacier in South America (the 2nd biggest one we can see from our house), and through a cloud jungle. This included a bonus zip-line tour over some valleys (ranging from 300m to 1000m in length!), hot springs, tents which frosted overnight, quinoa porridge, a path aptly called the ‘Gringo Killer’, pre-sunrise coca tea, poncho o'clock, sleepless nights, tropical weather, and lots of waterfalls. We had the same cook as on our last tour, which we could not have been more excited about. There were 10 in our team, and I laughed so much my stomach muscles still hurt – more so than my legs! We've really missed Brit wit! When we got to 4600m, we deposited our pebble offerings to Pachamama in a small ceremony, and became a family.
On Sunday we reached Machu Picchu. It was incredible. Our guide gave us a tour, then we hiked up to the Sun Gate, then did Huayna Picchu - the huge hill at the back of the pictures of MP. We checked the stats before we started walking up Huayna Picchu, and 2 or 3 people die every year from summiting it, so I was pretty scared. The path up was 45 minutes of narrow but steep Inca steps - it would appear Incas had extremely long legs but no feet - with a rope to  hold onto when the steps were less-existent. I can’t quite explain that view from the top. We sat on the edge with our legs hanging over the side and had the Ultimate Picnic.

We're back in Cusco for our last fortnight, and we can't believe how quickly the time is going. We're going to the ACTUAL JUNGLE with some friends next weekend, so this one is our last in Cusco, and a pastor and his wife have invited us to go for a sleepover and to the countryside their family. Other than that, it's more singing, late night coffees, kids' groups, avoiding misc meat...
We're looking forward to our onward travels, but it's going to be very hard to leave.

miércoles, 29 de mayo de 2013

All-Nighters and Chicken Crests

So the main event of the last couple of weeks was a sleep-deprived weekend of a marathon of church events across Cusco with our friends. Our initial church date has developed somewhat into a hilarious friendship full of cafecitos, tri-lingual conversations and beautiful Andean music.

We got a call on Thursday night asking if we were coming to church (5 minutes before it started). "You have to come so we can practise the drama for tomorrow?" "For what?" "For the vigilia"
The vigilia turned out to be a 9-5 church meeting. Through the night. That's 9pm til 5am. That, coupled with the builders' yard clear-up, scheduled for 5am that next morning, meant that at 9pm when we caught the bus to church, we were laden with coffee and a boxful of brownies, and a large spade-handle protruded ominously from Sarah's rucksack. (Needless to say, that featured heavily in our mugging prevention plan for the evening.) This meeting was packed full of overly interactive songs ("If you're happy and you know it, hug/pinch the person next to you/mess up their hair/stamp on their foot"), mini-preaches, which seemed to lengthen and intensify as the night wore on, I encountered some size issues when asked to kneel between the pews, and there was lots of singing.

Let's pause for a moment to unpack that word. I love to sing. Peru is different. Worship consists of the guy on keyboard hitting "beat" and then playing over the top of it, to a tempo of his own preference. There is no sustain pedal. Someone, who appears to have a lungful of helium, then shrieks a tune over the top. This is one of the primary uses for our, now very limited, paracetamol supplies.

Fortunately, we spotted a glimmer of relief: on the schedule was written the word of glory "REFRIGERIO". Everyone loves a refreshment to break up an 8 hour service. We should have learned to make ourselves scarce during times of mass dinner distribution in Peru, but we were caught off-guard by these guys, who started serving chicken and veg soup at 1am. I ate all the veg I could find, but refused to eat the chicken neck and foot and other unidentifiable sections I found bobbing in there. My friends made me explain myself to the chef. He was about a foot smaller than me so he dealt with it. I gave him a brownie and my best "what are gringas like?" shrug.

We did really well and didn't even fall asleep. A few did but put it down to being deep in prayer.
At 5.30am we left to go to move piles of bricks, tiles, and dog poo, but this being Peru, no-one else turned up. (It's rescheduled for this weekend: at least we can look forward to the sunrise!) At 1am our friend had mentioned that we should come with him to Chinchero, out in the sticks, to a youth event he was preaching at. That same morning. So we went to rest for a couple of hours before our 8am leave in their flat, conveniently located above the church. "Relax," they said, tucking us up in beautiful Peruvian blankets, giving us a mugful of quinoa porridge and then singing to us in Quechua (potentially my favourite time in Peru yet), and playing the guitar to us until we fell asleep. It turns out one of them is a semi-professional flautist. He played to us while we were brushing our teeth. Can't paint to you in words how hilarious and bizarre that was.

We got the bus to Chinchero, a beautiful village with a huge lake. "Do you want to go swimming?" we were asked. We were buzzing. He was joking. Instead, we listened to an Israeli man preach on the sinful lifestyles of English Christians. Awkward. Then we sat in a circle to eat a lunch of 3 courses of potatoes, one of which being yet another chicken and veg soup, where the chicken parts we identified, were, infact, crest. Our friend spoke, then we played some games in which I participated with so much enthusiasm that no-one could have guessed I only found out what the aim was a few days later. We taught them Cat and Mouse, and weren't allowed to leave until we'd sung to them in English.
We had a little nap in a shared taxi on the way home, then went straight for a joint service for all the churches in Cusco in the Coliseum. We lasted 15 minutes before we did one and went for a cafecito. At this juncture, we were told we had good cheekbones, which was a huge deal for us, considering Peruvian facial structure rivals that of Benedict Cumberbatch himself.

As for the rest of our lives:

We moved out this week. We got asked to look after some girls while their parents are at a conference in Lima, so we're living in Little America: feasting on fresh coffee, fruit smoothies, and waffles with bacon and syrup. The girls have made some root beer, and we're trying our hand at home-schooling. We're having a "girls night" tonight, so I have 6 hours to grow my nails...

Sarah and I flew solo running the Sunday School groups this week, and they went well. And in the afternoon we spent an hour or two sitting in the grass, playing and singing with the kids from the groups until it got too dark to see eachother and we had to part ways.

In the hospital, I ran out of conversation with a beautiful old Quechua couple in Spanish, so I got the Quechua big guns out and they loved it. Sarah got mistaken for a burned, poor Peruvian child by the Americans who came in to distribute gifts and tried to give her a Barbie... But generally, there aren't as many kids at the moment, which is good! It's hard to say goodbye, but it's better to see blank signs above the beds, instead of a scribbled name and the number pints of blood they owe (to be repaid either in money or in the literal blood of a friend or relative). We found some kids in Burns, so we sat and wrote out - at their request - the lyrics to the songs we've been singing with them so they can learn them for when I bring the guitar on Friday!

We're still dealing with a bit of a culture barrier with our Peruvian amigos. In the last week, they've asked us questions like "How much do you weigh?", "Do you watch your weight?" and "How many rolls of fat do you have?" and when they force bread upon us to eat with our late-night coffees, they tell us "This bread will make you fat." One asked me if I was married. I answered "Yes. Twice." He later pulled Sarah aside to check. Interpretation of sarcasm isn't in their skill set, but they're pretty hilarious so we've let them off. (Plus, they've invited us to go to the jungle! We're trying not to get too excited incase it doesn't happen, but we have plenty to look forward to anyway.)
I am winning so far at the "Where's Wally?" games we play, where we simply try to spot our friends in the crowds of black haired Peruvians before they turn up next to us. (Admittedly, I've only spotted them once. Peru usually beats us both.)

I got treated into next year by an incredible Treat Box from Walsall. Dad said about the boxful of Cadbury's "Do you think it'll last you until Joel comes? We got bored of the idea of you rationing yourselves so we thought we'd just send you a load."

We walked the monster of a hill behind our house, which is another kilometer up. When I say walked... We couldn't find the path, so pulled ourselves up the vertical hill with the grass for the last two hours, and came down on our bums on the descent. With Kira's encouragement, a dog followed us all the way up there.

Which reminds me - we've got our trek to Macchu Picchu next week. Obviously it was really kind of the Incas to put that on for us, but every day we have in Cusco is incredibly precious, so we're pretty torn about where we'd rather be for those 5 days!

martes, 21 de mayo de 2013

Mother's Day, Friends....and Guinea Pigs.


I'll cut to the chase. We ate guinea pig. It had been a long time coming, and Kira has been talking us through it (admittedly, not very persuasively: phrases like "crack open the ribs" featured). So we went and sat amongst many deft locals and ate a guinea pig each. I went for a deep-fried one, so if i squinted I could only 90% tell it was a flattened guinea pig. Sarah went for a roasted one, which was unmistakably a rodent from all angles, regardless of how much we shut our eyes. I'll spare you the details of the consumption, and the details of our mealtime conversation, save these two gems:
"You really learn a lot about the anatomy of a guinea pig"
and "Kira, I've nibbled the leg. Would you like the foot?" *Crunch* "Mmm, yummy!"


Mother's Day is bigger than Christmas. For well over a week we had various Mother's Day celebrations, or preparations for celebrations. During the morning church service we were outside with the kids, but that didn't stop the church leaders calling us into the service at the end to hug all the mums, who were standing at the front. But the funniest thing was without a doubt the Sunday evening Mother's Day service at church, where we began with a very interactive sermon by the church's president, during which we had to keep relaying various encouraging sentences to the nearest mother to us. The lady nearest us kept creasing up when we spoke to her, which we at first we put down to shyness, but in hindsight, was probably because the child in her q'ipi (multi-coloured, child-carrying sling) was not only not hers, but she was actually sub-20, unmarried, and childless. Age and life-stage of Peruvians is very hard to judge.
When the sermon finished, we moved our chairs into a circle, and the party games began. I'm not sure many gringos ever have the experience of watching Quechua women playing balloon games to win mother's day gifts (mostly tupperware, tea towels and place mats - no word of a lie: we wrapped them at the youth service the night before). The 'solteras' ('singles') in the room had a part to play too - we were given roses, as 'future mums', and also competed in some rounds of egg and spoon races. They loved watching the gringitas race across the room and back, spoons in mouths, eggs falling on the floor.
The evening finished with the two of us having to hold up the banner, which, after a slight correction of accent placement, read "Happy Mother's Day" (instead of "Happy Breast Day"), and people joined us for photos. It started with just the mums, but when we'd cycled through all of them, soon escalated to being everyone in the building, one by one. They also brought out a birthday cake, and sang 'Happy Birthday', which appears to be standard procedure at every celebration. I'll admit: we laughed twice as much and loudly as anyone else in the room, and that was only when we were about to burst from holding it in any longer.

On the plus side, that evening we left with the president of the church's number, and an invitation to our first church date! On Tuesday we went with a group to a church service, then went for a cafecito (little coffee) afterwards, where we laughed all evening, and got invited to go with them to Plaza de Armas, the main square, on Thursday night. We prepared a mugging plan on the way there, thanks to Jenny's warnings/stories (Sarah had all the valuables hidden in her secret coat pockets, the decoy purse on the outside one, and I would take the hits). It was as beautiful as they had promised us. We had a good laugh at all the gringos in the vicinity, and played a very intense game of stuck in the mud. Saz and I held our own, considering the altitude, for which the six natives had no sympathy. (I tried to explain that not everyone is born at 3300 metres but they didn't seem to get that as a concept.) They're now actively praying for us to stay here: when I told the 24-year-old president I quite liked my family, he told me to fly them over, and offered to find me a Peruvian husband, seeming unfazed by the time-restriction (6 weeks) and my criteria of preferable attributes (the most difficult to fulfill, of course, being "taller than me"), telling us how to say "how beautiful your eyes are -they are like stars" in Quechua, then asking if we wanted to marry a Quechua speaker...
We've been learning Quechua, to enable us to speak just a little bit to the patients in the hospital who don't speak Spanish, so we've been diligently practising it at all spare moments, much to the amusement of everyone on the buses. (Which reminds me - 'Sara' means 'corn on the cob' in Quechua, so we've taken to calling her the Spanish version: 'maíz'.)

There's not much to report from the hospital: it has been quite empty because a lot of the kids had gone home for Mother's Day. They might be back. One man tried to surreptitiously photograph us on his camera phone, but the shutter sound was hilariously loud. Oh, and one girl asked if I was Sarah's mum.

We're making progress with the kindergartens: We sang with them for half an hour on Friday. They loved it, and, for the first time, their excitement to see us was more evident than their fear! And our classes of 40 kids were as hilarious and unpredictable as ever: in the first, we told the teacher we'd take a group of six, expecting to end up with 10. Within 2 minutes of us leaving the room, we had all 40. The week after we had yet another new teacher, who had absolutely nothing prepared, so we turned our small group lesson into a full-class activity. Our Sunday afternoon kids' group is still super enthusiastic, and can't get enough of the singing. We're still waiting for our ears to stop ringing and heads to stop pounding. We were talking about the widow and the jar of oil, so we got the kids to write or draw what they wanted to pray for. One boy (7) drew a picture of some sheep and  an angel in some clouds. He explained "I don't want to be a shepherd anymore. So I want an angel to come and kill all the sheep so I don't have to be". He also gave me the biggest hug when I told him he could take his worksheet home...

Other highlights include performing onstage with an incredible Peruvian band, naming the church, and managing to get actual Sarah Stewart to watch Django. (She didn't even hate it!) We had a free house last weekend so maximised by toasting marshmallows on a fire of mainly newspaper (a short activity), trying some Cusqueña and having another round of Monopoly. I performed my first song (on the Fruits of the Spirit in Spanish) infront of an audience with a choir of Sunday School children. We've spent a bit of time with some Latin Link STEP teams that have been over this way, we've signed up to help clear the Sunday School builders' yard at 5am on Saturday (we thought they were joking. Joke's on us: they weren't) and it's been raining a lot, but other than that it's been business as usual: we're still getting hit on by every taxi driver, small children on the bus still point at us and shout "look, mum!", and we're still confused as to why they stare at me as much as the main event (the redhead to my right).

We're on for another church date and cafecito tonight. Sarah's been challenged to a sprint race. As soon as we have a day without anything bizarre I'll let you know.

miércoles, 8 de mayo de 2013

Rising to the Challenge Like a Helium Balloon (thanks Lucas)

It's been a good few weeks.

The main event of the last few weeks was our Lares Trek. A friend of ours, who we work alongside at the hospital, also owns a travel company and very generously offered for us to go on a 3 day trek. So on Sunday we got up at 4am, and drove up winding roads through herds of llamas, streams and waterfalls, spotting Andean deer, to Lares, at 3200m, where we boldly got into our swimwear (who said 8am is too early to get your kit off?) and to the amusement of the locals, joined them in the hot springs. (The ginger merits special mention at this juncture, as the object of attention with her luminescent skin, who had to be shielded from wide eyes by Kira.) The trek had a strong start - a scramble up the side of a mountain on all fours - but the rest of the walk was mainly over streams and through valleys, so we finished in half the allocated time, met by a delicious lunch of pumpkin soup, trout, fried banana, guacamole, rice and corn and cheese, and a good cup of mint tea. It was all we could do to fight to stay awake all the way to dinner, before shooing a dog out of the sink, brushing our teeth and finally crawling into our tent.
Day two was a lot harder. We were woken up with a cup of coca tea, and a "Morning Senoritas!", ate a huge breakfast of banana pancakes, omelette and toast (not to mention the Italian filter coffee, the Lord does indeed provide for our every need), and after a bit of confusion as to whether we'd moved in the night, because the cloud had receded to reveal some pretty unmissable snow-capped peaks surrounding our campsite, we started our uphill walk. I can report that the pins were out by 7.45am. We passed beautiful green and black lagoons on our way up to Jesus on a cross at 4200m, stopping for sun cream stops, quick lie downs and chocolate. The altitude was pretty hard work - for once Sarah was at a height advantage - and we were gasping by the time we reached Jesus, and the incredible views of a horizon of mountains, snow-capped peaks, valleys, and lagoons. Fortunately, after that it was steeply downhill, which was painful on the knees and ankles, but preferable for the lungs. Every 100m we descended, there were more and more trees and flowers, which was beautiful to see again after being at an altitude where there is only rock. We had lunch by a stream, and a little paddle. Then we walked through what can only be described as the Narnia set, with trees with bark of tissue paper, a beautiful stream, and huge rocks. We had a quite competitive game of Pooh sticks, after which Kira demonstrated her inability to lose well by throwing actual poo at me... (Thank you, Kira.) After 9 hours of walking, we reached our campsite, located about halfway down a waterfall, with a breath-taking view of the starry sky.
Our last day began pretty much in a cloud, with the usual cup of coca tea, but this time accompanied by pancakes with caramel, peaches and quinoa porridge. It was a lot more chilled: mainly downhill, through small forests, spotting hummingbirds, and beautiful little glacial streams which merited a paddle until the coldness bit unbearably at our ankles. We walked down through little villages and fields to finish our trek by having one last incredible lunch in a lady's garden, playing cards, before leaving in our personal coach, which took us all the way back to Cusco, through stunning scenery of mountains and fields (so beautiful in fact, that at every turn in the road, Sarah changed seats to get a better view). We were very sad to say goodbye to our guide, cook and horseman, who we were kind of hoping we could keep long-term in some capacity (preferably marriage). Blister and sun-burn-free (is that even possible?), we returned home, and we're already looking forward to the Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu we've booked for the beginning June!

Now we're back to 'normality'.

Church is going well. Before we started our Sunday School session last week, we cleared the area of pieces of sheep skull, and played 'hunt the dog poo, and stand by it so Jenny can scoop it up with a trowel into a bag' - which was such an easy game that everyone simultaneously won and lost. We also made a new friend, who we now help to teach a bit of English to, and he's promised to teach us some Quechua. (We've already had our first Quechua exchange with a Mum from the preschool!)

We went with a friend to the concert of Mexican Christian singer Jesús Adrián Romero, where between us, we were undoubtedly the tallest and most ginger of the thousands in the crowd. The music was actually brilliant. He had us line-dancing, and later reduced the whole Colosseum to tears, talking about fatherhood, which was a sad reminder of the commonplace domestic violence in Cusco, where there is a safe house in every community.

We seem to be making progress with the pre-school kids - yes, some of them still cried (mainly at Sarah's firey locks), but they didn't shriek with terror this week. And in the other pre-school we only had 25 of the 34 of the week before, which made it a lot easier.
In one of our kids' groups last week, we were discussing Zacchaeus. The pastor asked the group, "Who's the smallest person in the room?" They correctly identified the 4 year-old. Then he asked "And who is the tallest?", to which they all respectfully replied "You!" "No, no, no," he said, "I am not the tallest. The tallest person here is Hermana Alicia!" Thank you, Peru. (I'm so (comparatively) tall it's pretty much a disability: I have to sit sideways on the buses because my legs won't fit, and I'm far too tall to stand.)

The hospital has been a bit harder, as we've got to know the kids a bit more, and some new patients have been admitted in bad condition. Some of our favourites got discharged from hospital last week- one girl gave me a card before she left, addressed to "las personas que nos alegran dentro del hospital" ("the people who cheer us up in the hospital"). We played some active games, like balloon volley, in the Burns unit to get them doing stretches and exercises to keep them moving the affected areas of their bodies, and getting them to heal with better mobility (not that we've mentioned our aim!).

We're getting more acclimatised, 8 weeks in: I know the day is coming soon when I won't need a little lie-down after running up stairs. We've eaten pancakes, cut Sarah's hair in the garden, and went to a missionary prayer and worship session. We arrived to help at a group last week and led it off the cuff because the leaders didn't turn up, and got stood up for a meeting so played all the old favourites on the keyboard in the church for an hour. On our day off we took the guitar to the hills and had a good sing at them. We went on a 30 minute walk that took 5 hours, and raced the sun back down, and got so covered in dust that it looked like a serious tan. Sarah's washed off. I've got blisters from mixing play-dough to take to the kids at the hospital, and am two for two at Monopoly.
As I write this in the garden, there is a man singing loudly along to a backing track a few houses away, and the Ginger is to my right, working on her essay for Durham. It's such a privilege to live here and learn Spanish in this beautiful place, where people wear 4 or 5 layers of fleece in the burning sun, and address everyone as "mami" and "papi", and where our arrival is announced with shouts of "las gringitas vienen!" - "the white girls are coming!". We've been assured this isn't half as rude as it sounds.

We're missing people, a little bit eh, but we're learning lots and having a good time.
Hope you're well.