About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

02 January 2008

Chavin De Haunter

Like many of the interesting places in Peru, the journey to get there is worth the trip alone. Chavin De Haunter (more on this later) is a day trip from the town I am based in currently, Hauraz. In terms of distance it is not far - just over 100 Km away - but the route, over a very potholed tarred road, over the Cordillera Blanca range in the Andes mountains is long, tiring and yet spectacular.

Chavin De Haunter is the grand-daddy of all ruins in South America, and is, as far as I know, the only remains of the Chavin civilisation - the first recorded civilisation in the Americas. Chavin De Haunter is a massive temple ruins, first built around 900 BC and was used by subsequent Andean civilisations including the Hauris, who were later conquered by the Incas, who were then wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors.

The Inca's could not have built Machu Picchu and their other fine masonry out of nowhere - and Chavin De Haunter shows that the style of building is old, and has been developed over 2000 years. What is fascinating however is that, despite the long history of civilisation, written language did not evolve. For this reason, the full intent and story behind Chavin De Haunter is not known, and much of the explanations is good guesswork rather than well known facts.

The Chavin culture seems to be the root of the Andean religious practices that continued into the Inca times, and probably still exist in some form. The concept of duality: male and female, ying and yang, black and white, is present in the temple. As is the concept of the three worlds, ruled by the three animals: puma, serpent and falcon (in the Inca times, the falcon was replaced by the condor). The latter is particularly significant: many of the sculptures and carvings on the temple depict a god with the form of a human, but the face of a puma, the hair of snakes and hands and feet of the falcon.

Most famous artifact from the temples are the stone heads: depicting yet again a human like face with either characteristics of a puma or a falcon. The heads were once all around the main temple complex, but currently only one remains in its original location, but many more can be seen at the attached exhibition centre.

Architecturally, two things really stand out. Firstly, the structure has remained standing in a country known for its earthquakes. Like the subsequent Inca buildings 2000 years later, the Chauvins knew how to make their buildings last. Secondly, the drainage system which carried water from both the rain and acted as an underground canal between the two rivers that flow past the temple.

Sadly, in what the guide described as an avalanche, but more like a mudslide, in the 1950's most of the temple complex was buried and has remained buried. I think there is great potential in the site, especially considering its age and its historical significance, and I think efforts should be made to rebuild and restore the temple.

Lastly, a final comment. What I find most surprising and in many respects, depressing is the fact that, buildings after the demise of the Incas are so fragile. After more than 2000 years of building structures that can withstand centuries of earthquakes, why are structures not built using interlocking stones/bricks complete with a slight tilting angle such that the buildings do not cave in? After all, especially in countries with high earthquake incidents, surely prevention of the destruction of buildings is better than rebuilding? I am reminded of the destruction in Pisco and wonder if it would look different if the buildings were built how the pre-Columbian civilisations build their structures.

Alpaca and Cuy

Alpaca, is a llama likr animal (related to the camel) and is a common meat served in the Andes. Like Ostrich meat in South Africa, Alpaca is supposed to be low in cholesterol, low in fat: basically much healthier than beef and lamb. It tastes a lot like lamb, and the price difference is only a couple of Soles (less than 1 US $) in comparative meals.

Cuy is another Andean treat, but many people will probably refuse it: it is (usually) roasted guinea pig. It is considered one of the main Peruvian foods, and although served in most restaurants, it is actually quite expensive. I had cuy for the first time today, and I did not really enjoy it. The meat is quite tough and I found it rather bland to be honest.

So of the Peruvian meats, I would recommend only the Alpaca.

01 January 2008

Coca Economics

To the people of the Andes, Coca is not only a plant for the gods - it is an essential part of their survival. To most of the world, it is an evil plant, fueling the cocaine trade.

For the Andes people coca leaves have a number of properties - chief amongst them is that they relieve altitude sickness. Many people swear by it, and drinking coca tea is highly recommended for traveling in the Andes. Coca tea is quite nice actually, but since I do not suffer from altitude sickness, I cannot vouch for its effectiveness. Coca products (tea, sweets etc) are also sold as good for nutrition, maintaining healthy bowel movement and as good for the sex drive. In fact the list of good things it can do is almost too good to be true, and I suspect that the Andeans are trying a bit too hard :p

According to the guide from Machu Picchu, it takes 16 Kg of coca leaves to make one gram of cocaine. The street value of coca leaves is 2 Soles per ounce or 70.548 Soles per kilogram. This means that it would cost 1128.767 Soles or 376.27 US Dollars to make 1 gram of cocaine. I know that drugs like cocaine are often sold impure - but even then, I am not sure if the price of cocaine is that high ... so I suspect the farmer is not really getting paid 2 Soles per ounce. That said, it is still quite a lucrative business and I can easily understand why coca production is such a big business.

Yellow Underwear

The colour yellow, and underwear are apparently very lucky symbols in Peru. I am back in Lima (for just one night) before I continue to Northern Peru, and the hostel had a New Year's party. The owners, Christian and Pedro invited some of their friends and the other hostel residents to an effectively authentic Peruvian New Year's party - less the fireworks.

Lima itself is very different on the 31st and 1st - the streets are deserted and most shops are closed or close early (on 31st). From a bustling city to almost a deserted city - the effect is surreal.

The party itself was very interesting. The hostel residents weren't too many (it is a small hostel) - two American girls on a school trip, a young couple (Australian guy on the end of his gap year, English girl at the beginning of an effectively gap year) and the Peruvians.

Peruvians really enjoy a party and fireworks. As the clock struck 12, fireworks explored all around - not some central organised effort, but like Christmas Eve in Cusco, individuals doing their own display. Lound music, dancing, good food and great people - definitely a much better party than 2007!

So, Felix Ano 2008!

31 December 2007

Chivay and the Colca Canyons

About 4 hours drive from Arequipa is Chivay, the gateway to the Colca Canyon - one of the deepest canyons in the world, and also one of the best place to spot condors. Getting to the canyons is not really easy with public transport, and usually requires an early morning (as in 1/2 am) bus out of Arequipa and I therefore took the option of a 2 day, 1 night guided tour which was very well priced at 22 US $, including accommodation.

The tour group had a varied group of people, including a family with two kids, 4 Argentinian girls on a South American trip, a Venezuelan guy finishing his South American trip, a French guy from my hostel who has been volunteering in South America, another Argentian guy from my hostel, Jorge, who is also on a South American trip and a few other people.

The drive upto Chivay was interesting in itself, going over a pass that is 4910m high (which makes it the highest point I have been on land) and through a rather sparse game reserve with the endangered vicunyas (a llama like animal in photo 1, domesticated llamas in photo 2), which are renowned for their wool. Apparently 1 meter of vicunya wool is worth 2000 US $! In the Inca times, vicunya wool could only be used by royalty.

The town of Chivay is quite picturesque, although there is not much to do there. We did manage to find a Irish pub that had a free pool table though - but other than that there is really not much to do here other than sleep and get ready for a trek in the canyon or a tour of the canyon.

And despite FIFA's recent moves to stop competitive football matches at high altitudes, it was great to see club football being played in Chivay. Not sure who the teams were, or what the scoreline was, but the orange team was definitely the stronger team - even though they did not manage to convert any of their 10 odd chances at scoring for the 10 minutes I watched the match.

The trip to the canyon was really early in the morning (leaving Chivay just after 6am), and being so high up in the mountain, it was quite cold too! The canyon has been farmed through terraces for over 1000 years, and it is a stunning landscape of desert, fertile farms, rivers and snow capped peaks. After seeing this canyon, I am quite keen to revisit the plans to visit the Fish River Canyon in Namibia that Jay and I hatched in late 2006.

We were very lucky with Condors - as we got there we spotted two of them sitting on the rocks just below the highest viewing point. After about 10 to 15 minutes they took off, gliding along the thermals of the valley. It was an absolutely stunning sight - and considering condors are scavengers, their flights represent absolute freedom - the ability to fly just because they feel like it, not because they need to.

30 December 2007

Reflections: Arequipa

Arequipa is known as the white city, since most of the buildings (new and old) are constructed from white volcanic rock, sillar. It is a picturesque city at the foot of the El Misty volcano, and considering that it is essentially a dessert town, it is remarkably green.

My guide book describes the main plaza as one of the grandest in South America, and on the basis of the towns I have been to so far, I agree. Flanked by a massive cathedral, it is certainly an impressive site - especially when the clouds lift to reveal El Misti in the background (could not get a picture of that unfortunately) or at night, when the white buildings look spectacular.

While Arequipa's fine architecture (inevitably churches) are certainly a major attraction, for me the highlight is Juanita. Juanita is described as a mummy, but it is not really - it is the completely frozen body of a 12 - 14 year old girl, who was offered as a sacrifice to the Inca mountain gods - presumably to appease a volcanic eruption.

The museum is slightly on the expensive side, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating museums I have ever been to. Juanita was discovered very much by accident, but the discovery has led to the most fruitful and complete picture of not only how the Incas lived, but also a more complete picture of what a human sacrifice entailed. It is also remarkable that the human sacrifice was made at the top of a 6000m mountain peak and not in some temple in the lowlands - very different to the normal portrayal of human sacrifices. From the museum's account, chosen children were effectively raised to be possible human sacrifices, and the children were "brain washed" into the cult of martyrdom - that they were not only serving the good of the community, but by being sacrificed they would become gods themselves. Thus, the children were remarkably healthy (Juanita for example has perfect white teeth) and were considered as royalty. Other tombs of child sacrifices have also been found, but they are just mere skeletons and not a complete body with intact organs telling a very complex story.

Arequipa is also the gateway to the Colca Canyon and is certainly a very interesting city ... but Juanita has certainly been one of the most interesting things I have come across in my travels so far.