Saturday, November 21, 2009

the naked earth - concluding thoughts

To conclude - the earth is hiding nothing - the earth is nude and making new earth, and also by the apparent layers and wrinkles and folds, the earth is old - old, old. The history of lakes that once were and coral reefs that were, and magma that bubbled and cooled was revealed in surprising places during the four-day desert crossing. Thanks Tupiza Tours and to all my traveling companions - it was real!

the earth gets naked - part three

When you go to the naked earth you go from many things on your horizon to few things - grand things. Leaving Cochabamaba Bolivia - I left a scene of humans caught up in much activity - surrounded by their structures, sounds, and smells. Busy, busy place.

Three days later passing through a desert where a particular rock formation stood out distinctly - the stone tree - I thought, "how restful."

A nude mountain and blue-green lake, two things to look at. Next, a red lake full of flamingos. The thoughts I had were simple and quiet, "they match the lake . . or the lake and the birds, like, match."

Pay attention and remember.

At lunch, a fancy affair that came from the back of a jeep, which I ate off a plate in a desert over 12,000 miles above sea level, I was visited by a curly-tailed rabbit looking creature - the vizcacha.

It is true - all of it. There is a red lake, and a green one, and a rabbit with a long tail and I ate a vegetable medley off a porcelain plate the day I saw a stone tree and a nearly full moon in the day-time sky.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

the earth gets naked - part two

Our Tupiza Tours expedition rolled out at the crack of 9:30am, took dirt roads and dry riverbeds, and climbed up to over 4000 meters into an open, uncovered eroding land. Trees and plants and organic matter, I think, dress the earth, and where those things are missing – the earth gets naked.

I thought this while I traveled across the exposed stretch of southern Bolivia. It was exposed, but not unadorned. The earth let it all hang out - stratigraphy and folds of time; it’s gray geyser juices, and its sulfur breath. The mountain peaks had not gone bald – no trees had ever lived there.

Peaks melted like piled Neapolitan with rose and cream, chocolate and mocha chip layers. We crossed by land rover – for four days. Here you could be mostly alone if you forgot to bring some company. You could freeze at night, sunburn, and windburn and dry out by daytime.
Few people live here and those that do tend llamas and wear so many layers they look big and thick, but small again against the landscape. It’s too high to grow anything – even potatoes.
This land is good to go into – wide open for thinking, but not humane enough to stay. This is not the tender place that makes you imagine a gentile mother earth that provides for her creatures. The earth would let the wind rip you away from her surface.
If you were this naked earth you wouldn’t be alone - or ashamed. You would have the company of skinny legs needling into your pitted skin: flamingos and the rare vicuña.
Grass clumps, that occasioned your surface, would grow as resolute as the oak, blades with the integrity of cactus spines. Proudly you’d display your ores and minerals from within – rust and lavender, green and yellow, and sometimes pure white. The heat that builds in you could vent and spew.

The earth doesn’t have resentment; it has volcanoes.

the earth gets naked - part one

Good place for a nap - Tupiza, Boliva.

I couldn't leave Bolivia and return to my New Mexico desert without a visit to the high, dry south of this country. I went for it's geothermal action, big salty flats, volcanoes, flamingos, and fanciful animals like spindle-legged vicuna and curly tailed rabbits. I'd only read about this desert realm. Could those fables have truth to them? To find out I joined my friends, Audrey and Dan of uncorneredmarket in Oruro, west of Cochabamba where we'd pick up a train south to Tupiza - but not before having juice. Fresh juice is a meal - and I try to have it several times a day, like other meals.

Oruro to Tupiza is 12 hours by train and out my window the view looked like a western. We were traveling into Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid territory. The stories you read say they met an untimly end near the town of Tupiza. It was odd to think of them in Bolivia until I arrived in its desert south. They may have felt as at home as I did in the dry, red rock country. Tupiza was sleepy and laid back - like its street dogs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


What on earth? Is this Earth? If a planet can be called Dune - we should call this one Over-sized Monster Egg.

Dawn on the Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia - the salty fossil of a prehistoric lake.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

cochabamba hike and summit

One recent Saturday, I hiked in Parque Nacional Tunari, beyond 11,000 ft and above the tree line; so far above Cochabamba that the city’s watching Jesus (Christo de la Concordia) looked like a tiny plastic figurine stuck on an anthill. I hiked with Eric Hartman, the Amizade director, and 5 of his US university students. The students are completing a semester of service learning and volunteering projects while studying Latin American history and politics.

It was good to climb thousands of steps but I suffered with Gumby legs on the way down.

Even far above the city I could still hear it – its tiny people making noises that spread beyond their bodies and streets. A festive roar could be discerned apart from the city sounds – and at its center, a stadium. Crowds gathered there for the Latin American Presidents Summit. There were presidents: Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), and other dignitaries. You can read an account of this event from a report by the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba and San Francisco.

They gathered to discuss new economic models, to talk about trade with one another, a regional currency (called the Sucre, which they propose will compete with the US Dollar), and yes, they talked about climate change. These nations seem to be saying they want to be separate from US style capitalism; they have basic ideological differences with the US and other nations. They were saying it all loudly from the stadium. The Democracy Center’s blog has a video that takes you inside the noisy stadium. I was up on the mountain during the summit and read about it afterward. I was further above the city than even Jesus, and enjoyed my escape.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

in an orphanage - cochabamba, bolivia

The Millennium Casa Cuña (Cradle House) is an orphanage in Cochabamba that cares for babies and children from birth to 5 years of age. I have had the chance to visit, feed, and play with the 22 children currently housed here. I had never been in an orphanage until Casa Cuna, and I didn’t know what to expect from one in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America.

On my first day I walked through a neighborhood with flowering vines over-growing security fences, to a modest house. It was quiet and I headed up to the second floor to see 12 children under the age 3 – most of them sitting and waiting for help with their socks and shoes. It was 3 pm and they had awoken from an afternoon nap. The two not waiting on socks and shoes were Andrea (14 months) and Pablo (6 months). These little ones were in cribs and I remember Andrea was beaming from hers. Once all those socks and shoes were on we went outside where they sat at a long low blue table; we bibbed them all and they ate their snack (something oatmeal-like, bread, and dry cereal).

Once they were awake and energized, all the little people were ready to play. They poured out toys until the patio was full of teacups, wheel-less cars, baby dolls, stuffed critters, stray tiny wheels, and other sorts of worn toys. The older kids arrived from their kindergarten program and now 22 children in a variety of emotional states filled the patio! We fed them all again then cleaned them and their dishes and got them ready for bed. They sleep in 3 rooms in the upstairs area, and that evening the pre-bedtime energy was high and the rooms were full of bed jumping.

I was volunteering that day with students from several American universities. They are in Bolivia for a semester of study and service learning through Amizade.

Weenta Girmay, University of Pittsburgh, Current Bolivia Semester Student with Amizade and West Virginia University (pictured above playing with children in the orphanage) shared this statement:

”It's very difficult to look into the eyes of such an enthusiastic child and know that one day they will realize where they are, and how difficult life will be for them, and even worse, they will realize that it's for no good reason. I don't really know what to do about that, except for to play with them whatever they want to play and to make them smile as often as I can and to tickle them until they yell "bastante, bastante! (enough, enough)"

From Amizade’s director, Eric Hartman, I’ve learned that in Bolivia an average of 6 newborn and older babies per day are abandoned in the streets, rivers, even garbage dumps because their parents can’t afford to raise them. The Bolivian government places them in orphanages like Casa Cuña, but only provides 3 Bolivianos per day (less than 50 cents U.S.) for their care (that’s food, shelter, support staff, and all their material needs – and it’s a paltry amount).

Casa Cuña has operated for more than 10 years with the mission of improving orphaned and abandoned children’s lives and they work to provide a safe and healthy environment. What they are attempting is a challenge, which I feel inadequate to explain. The governmental funding falls incredibly short and Casa Cuña only continues to operate through the donations they received from outside sources – from individuals who have volunteered there from across the globe, and from Amizade, which offers some monetary support and places volunteers at the orphanage.

Currently there are two shifts, with two women each shift, to care for the 22 kids, plus some help from volunteers like me, but that's not as predictable. Caring for this many small people, at a demanding development age, is an enormous task. Tiny Pablo lays in his a crib a lot, and little 14-month-old Andrea is not walking or talking. Yet these children are in a much better facility than a state-run orphanage and I hope it stays operational. Things are improving and very obviously dedicated people look after these kids; still they all have lice, receive only 2 to 3 diapers per day, and need more nutritious foods, engaging toys, and more funding for staff support.

This Wednesday, October 28th, the Pittsburgh Foundation, is offering a 50% matching opportunity for Pittsburgh-based non-profits and Amizade is one of those, which means this is a great time to make our donations. If you would like to contribute go here, or:

1. Go to the Pittsburgh Gives website and create a LogIn now.
2. Return to the Pittsburgh Gives website promptly at 10am on this coming Wednesday, October 28th, LogIn, and make your gift. **Important** - The Pittsburgh Foundation has announced it will refresh its website at 9:59 am on the 28th, so that no one can LogIn before 10am and simply wait for 10:00. It is important, therefore, to LogIn precisely at 10am.
3. Find “Amizade” using the search box in the top right quarter of the page.
4. Click “Amizade”
5. Click “Donate Now / Donate to Nonprofit” in the top right quarter of the page.
6. You will have just leveraged your philanthropy considerably! Thank you!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

cochabamba and jesus

Cochabamba, Bolivia, is a city of some 600,000 Cochabambinos. They love their plazas and to stroll with ice cream. In my two weeks here I’ve caught many a Cochabambino licking around their dripping cones, tongues sideswiping the colorful ball, twisting it into a new shape.

Cochabambinos have a two-hour lunch – a big fat mid-day break giving them time for almuerzos – lunches involving a good amount of meat. At most hours of the day people are out resting in plazas, walking uneven sidewalks, or jostling along in the hustle and bustle of micro cars, taxis, trucks, Volkswagens, and flashy buses. So many shops and restaurants open onto the sidewalks that they tug at you, and if you’re not careful you’ll be sucked in by the well-stocked pastry cases.

Cochabamba is watched over by a tall white Jesus – Christo de la Concordia – high up on a hill. To get a good look at the city, I climbed that hill recently. The hill is covered with dry land plants – cacti and prickly brush – and reminds me of my New Mexico desert. Jesus stands over all of this and looks out at the city. It sprawls across a valley and creeps up the foothills along the north side toward Parque Nacional Tunari, a bit of protected and still-forested mountain land. Jesus and I could see the stadium, which in a few days time, would fill with Latin American presidents and the populous come to see them. We could see tall city buildings, red-roofed neighborhoods and bright patches of bougainvillea flowers. I lay down on a bench, waiting for my sweat to dry, and thought about how loud the city was – even up above it.

Jesus can be reached by 1,200 uphill steps or a cable car (the teleférico) and he’s open on Sundays (you can go inside)!

inca temple converted

Qorikancha was the main temple of Q'osqo (Cusco), the capitol of the Inca Empire (1438-1532). It was a spectacular temple with golden gardens - literally golden - stalks of corn were made from gold, and rooms to honor the celestial bodies. When the Spanish arrived in 1533 this temple and its golden interior became one of their greatest prizes. Today the Convento de Santo Domingo del Cusco is in places - interlocked- in an architectural syncretism with Qorikancha's original stonework.

An earthquake in 1950 revealed Inca walls that had been hidden by later Spanish construction. The structure looks exactly like two religions and cultures joined, but remaining distinct. The seams are obvious, the stone cuts differ in style and precision, but it all holds together, serving as a museum, art gallery, home to Dominican friars, and physical reminder that cultures are layered.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ollantaytambo - yes, it is hard to say

Ollantaytambo, in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Inca, is an ancient village, occupied even before the Inca. It has cobblestone streets laid out in a grid and suitable for walking and cars wouldn’t fit down them anyway. High stonewalls are capped by bougainvillea tendrils and mini-canals flow along the skinny streets. In these narrow streets it sounds like someone left a Zen fountain running. It’s kind of peaceful and charming, and a bit busy with construction in the main plaza. Many visitors come for the day from Cusco to see Ollantaytambo Temple. If you go be sure to eat at Hearts Café on the plaza, their profits go to childrens' projects in the Sacred Valley.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Llama Picchu takes the stairs

finding a lost city

Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham went looking for a “lost” city of the Inca when he was 36. It was 1911 when he headed to southern Peru, into the Inca’s Sacred Valley. He asked residents if they could point him in the direction of jungle-covered ruins. Sounds a bit like Indian Jones, right? It should, because Hiram was the real-life Indi, and the tales of our handsome Dr. Jones are based on his quest. He was looking for Vilcabamba, the legendary hiding place of Manco Inca, a leader in the rebellion against the Spanish (1536-1537). Manco had sought refuge in the jungle after the uprising failed. In Ollantaytambo, today the oldest occupied Inca village in Peru, Manco and his forces did defeat the Spanish in 1537, but we know the story - one empire gave way to another.

Bingham walked through the Sacred Valley and along the rushing Rio Urubamba, through a landscape sculpted under Inca rule. This spot on earth, with its flowing river, mirrored the flowing Milky Way, a celestial river. Dark silhouettes of cosmic llamas, toad, partridge, and fox drank from it, and if you look, their shadows -the dark spots in the Milky Way’s starlit haze- are still there.

Hiram did find an amazing city that had been lost to many people. It wasn’t a cosmic revelation; Hiram lucked out and met a person who led him to Machu Picchu. This great city sat atop a mountain and was truly cloud-shrouded and overgrown with jungle, but historians say it wasn’t Vilcabamba. Hiram would continue to believe that he had found the lost city, and the hiding place of Mancos and his rebel company. He thought so after his 1912 and 1915 excavations, and until the end of his life

they built it - and we come

I, along with hundreds of others, visit Machu Picchu. It doesn’t matter that there are so many of us climbing around and being in each other's way; we’re in a spectacular place and we don’t know exactly why it was or what. We can read the speculations of archaeologists and historians. It was a winter palace. It served a religious purpose. Or maybe the Inca Pachacútec had this place built in the mid-15th century to get away from Cusco’s damp. Archaeologists are working on Inca sites and their finds will probably change or add to our interpretations, but we can say this of Machu Picchu - it works with the mountains. This city fits with the surroundings, and when one takes care to consider the mountains they produce some fine architecture. Carved stones track the sun, celestial bodies, and seasonal alignments. People lived here and grew food, and were buried here, up here! That’s what we’ve come to see.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Spanish Cusco was Inca Q’osqo

Cusco is a city of quaint skinny streets and broad congested avenues. Spanish architecture is built over the old Inca infrastructure of a grand, puma-shaped city - a sacred animal to the Inca. The tight-fitted Inca stonework stands a story high and the Spanish walls rest on them. The Inca foundations are superior in appearance and performance. Earthquakes have not damaged them nearly as much. This city was Q’osqo, the Inca capitol, a gold-covered center - the navel of the Inca world. The gold attracted Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish explorer/conqueror in the 1530s.

I look down from Hostal Resbalso, across tiled rooftops, toward the Plaza De Armas, at a city in a valley’s bowl where, at 11,150 ft, altitude sickness (soroche) is common for visitors and the soroche pill treatment is in every pharmacy. A tea from the coca leaf (maté de coca) is also a good treatment or simply a nice tea to sip. Cusco became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, partly because the mixture of the Inca and Spanish empires is still so visible, maintained, and livable even. The Inca doorways lead into posh hotel lobbies and small shops alike.

Abancay to Cusco

It is amazing to see a country from a bus window. It’s tantalizing. We hurtle by too fast for me to understand the scenes that I catch and I am left hoping to return . . . or at least to remember that little bit I got the chance to see. The landscapes that seem exotic are familiar to those who live here, but the hillsides, homes, (over) grazing sheep all look new to me and I like getting to see a place for the first time. I’ve picked some photographs that illustrate a journey from Abancay, with it's funny Adam and Eve strolling in a park past prickly pear cactus, to sprawling Cusco. This trip crossed mountains and high valleys and offered views of countryside with improbably steep fields (not good for soil conservation), almost familiar mud-brick architecture (reminds me of New Mexico), and eucalyptus trees (an introduced species that’s having a negative environmental impact). The sky was crisp, the clouds billowy and inside the bus Saw IV was playing at top volume. Yes, Saw IV - with a most gruesome “soundtrack” and dubbed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reserva Nacional de Paracas

South of Lima is a protected desert coast – the National Paracas Reserve. Here the earth is piled in dunes, all crust-brown and burnt yellow, layered sediments and fossil beds that take shape under the scalpel of etching winds. The day we visit, the landscape is distinct against blue sky and the frothy-edged blue-green sea. Paracas is home to sea lions, a few remaining sea turtles (humans have eaten them close to extinction), and more than 200 bird species; many species come especially to dine on anchovies (who come to dine on the plankton). Creatures were carrying out necessary parts of their lives. I felt I was apologetically trespassing - I wanted to gather memories and take pictures, but I hoped to keep a low profile. I couldn’t resist trespassing into this place that isn’t mine. It doesn't belong to anyone; it is only the passing residence of other beings, and for 45 million years it has collected a fossil record of those beings. The most recent layer, the strata of this age, will be full of plastic. Walking along a path to view trolling flamingos I noted the low tidal flat was dotted with piles of seaweed and plastic in equal parts.

I only met dead sea lions this visit. They say the fishermen and sea lions (lobo marino) don't get along. December to April the moms come to have their pups and the Andean Condors come from the mountains to eat the sea lion placenta. Wow!