Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Journal: October 27, 2007
How Peru had it going on
My first day of explorations in Lima led me to a park in Miraflores, a neighborhood set along a coast that resembles the cliff lined beaches of Southern California. I was sitting in this park eating lunch, when I realized that there were women literally crawling all over the benches, trees and sidewalks around me. After a moment, one even quietly perched on the other end of the bench I was sitting on for a few minutes. They would move very slowly and gracefully (appearing to be dancers of some sort) and then all of a sudden, one would sprint across the way and steal a large bean bag from another woman. Ok, you have my attention . . . My lunch time entertainment turned out to be some sort of public dance performance that culminated in a modern dance face-off set to Latin music in a small amphitheater in the park. It was amazing how many people stopped, mesmerized by this cultural spectacle.
I spent the rest of the week exploring Lima, with the assistance of a couple wonderful Vanderbilt alumni, some members of Servas, a great hostel, and the desire to set out on my own and explore. My first afternoon, I met Jerry, a Peruvian and recent MBA graduate from Owen at Vanderbilt. Over coffee, Jerry told me about Peru's recent social and cultural history, as well as his new financial management business that is focusing on bringing education to poorer rural communities in Peru. That is a ton of communities when you realize that more than a quarter of Peru's population lives in Lima! Jerry gave me a warm welcome and introduced me to the economic problems and corruptions that have plagued Peru in the past and the disparities that continue today.
For those of you who do not know about Servas, it is an international hospitality organization that I joined before leaving on my trip. It was founded following World War II to promote peace and understanding between various countries. As a traveler, you have access to hosts in countries around the world who welcome you into their homes or show you around their city, giving you a more local introduction to a place and its culture. Until I got to Lima, this had just been a really great concept, restricted by the fact that everyone I contacted in Europe was on vacation. Then I met a day host and his architecture student nephew for lunch. My host Omar cooked a local Peruvian dish, lomo saltado, served with (as everything in Peru is . . . ) arroz. I was able to practice my Spanish, learn more about life in Peru, and begin my lessons about traditional and contemporary architecture in Peru. Omar's nephew David is finishing his Masters of Architecture in Lima, and is enthusiastic about everything. Between Inca traditional sites, famous architecture destinations, and discussing what sustainable design could look like in Peru, we quickly ran out of hours in the day. I look forward to keeping in touch with David and hearing about how things in Peru progress.
I have to admit that my second Servas encounter was not at all what I was expecting, but turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons that I have received so far. This young architect day host kindly invited me to come by his office in one of the less desirable parts of the city. After surviving the cab ride-never drive in Lima if you value your life . . . and be careful walking, although there is a bright yellow "respect the pedestrians" campaign being actively staged in several parts of the city-I made it to this man's small office that he was just getting off the ground. At the time, the hour I spent there was one of my most frustrating so far because we had a very basic conversation and he did not have much to offer in the way of work or insight into architecture in Lima. I felt relieved to leave, but I sent a thank you email when I got back nonetheless. Then I received his reply, which was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. He wrote about how honored he was to meet an American girl, because he had never talked to one before. He said that my trip was so inspiring to him and he dreamed one day of being able to travel like me. I think that it is likely that this man had never been out of Peru. I went looking for some inspiring architecture and insider knowledge, and instead got an apparently much needed reality check about how lucky I am to have the opportunities that I do and people in my life to support me so completely. Thank you all.
My second Peruvian Vanderbilt alum, Gloria Luna, and her husband Agosto, quickly became the branch of my family that I never knew I had in Lima. Gloria Luna went to Vanderbilt for her Masters of Clinical Psychology in the 70s, a business she still practices from her home in Lima. This couple turned our lunch date into an epic tour of Peruvian cuisine and culture. We went to a restaurant in the coastal barrio of Barranco, where I tried three types of anticuchos, amazing yucca, and a purple antioxidant drink made from corn called chica morada. Yum! Despite the fact that I was about to explode, of course we had to stop by the local food fair that was going on to get desert. It was here that I fell in love with maracuya (passion fruit) and decided that Peruvian food and I had a pretty good relationship going. Too bad I did not have room in my backpack for a cookbook! Gloria Luna and Agosto also introduced me to various types of local music and one of Peru's most famous singers, Chabuca; Agosto even bought me a CD when I was not looking! I ended up coming back to stay with them and their two sweet dogs, Hansel and Gretel, after my trip to Cuzco, which hopefully will be one of many visits to come!
The rest of the time in Lima I was staying at Hostel Nomade, a totally local hangout tucked on a corner near a small park in Miraflores. The hostel was run family style, with everyone hanging out downstairs cooking, watching fútbol, or having jam sessions until 3 am. It was here that I started to learn what it meant to be on the South American schedule, got a gourmet lesson on the art of the Pisco sour, and began to understand the frustrations of not yet being conversational in Spanish. The hostel crew at first was largely from Spain, though quickly were replaced by several Argentinian contingents. This included a group of four chicos who had saved up, hopped in a car, and are taking a year to drive up one coast of South America to Mexico and come back down the other side. These guys gave me a first glimpse of what life will be like in Argentina. Soccer is life. Sleep as late as possible because you will be up all night as often as possible. Ll and y sound like "sh," which will only help you understand a little better because they talk so quickly. Everyone is che. I can't wait! I also went exploring a few days with Ken from Kanada, with whom I ate the best ceviche ever, cooked a ton, and escaped to speak English when I gave up trying to understand Argentinians. One day, the hostel owner even took me on a tour of Lima's coastal neighborhoods where he grew up while he was working on a book he is writing! What service!
To hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you have to have a guided tour, a concept that I was a little hesitant about at first. Though it took some adjustment to moving in a herd, I met some really fun people, saw an amazing ancient architecture culture, and learned so much from my guide about the wisdom of the Incas. We were still one night and 6 km sunrise hike off from Machu Picchu itself, and I already felt really fulfilled by my experience. My guide César was a young mixteca guy from Cuzco, who was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about his work. Throughout the trail, he provided positive inspiration, laughter and detailed facts (with evidence!) about the way that the Incas built and lived. The last night, he took us to the Wañaywaman (Eternal Youth) ruins. This site had been an experimental agriculture center before it was abandoned as a result of the Spanish invasions in the 16th century. Seeing it brought to light the balance of agriculture, urban life, and spirituality that gave strength to the Quechua people during the time of the Incas. The respect that the Incas had for their natural environment is apparent from the way that they still allowed nature to dominate their architecture and how closely their lives were linked to natural cycles, like sun and seasons. The Incas really knew what they were doing, from medicinal properties of plants to having running water for spiritual and health purposes. They had an incredible sense of order and direction based on the sun and complex systems of movement and trade depending on what they could grow at various elevations. Their architecture, while respecting nature and fitting almost seamlessly into its context, also was a sign of their society's power and intelligence. The scale of the stone constructions, the precision of angles and orientation, and the fact that their subtle genius of engineering has withstood hundreds of years of weather and Peruvian earthquakes, were all stunning to witness.
Though the trip was really positive overall, César brought to light a lot more issues faced by Peruvians, particularly in rural areas. Before we went on the trail, we went to a community supported by the tour organization, G.A.P., to see how people "live" in rural areas. People in rural areas of the country are still living and constructing almost entirely with resources immediately available and renewable, which was usually adobe bricks made on site and eucalyptus branches (not native, but rapidly invasive and thus widely available). Electricity is slowly being acquired through much saving and sacrifice. G.A.P. sponsors the women of the community to generate local crafts and llama and alpaca textiles and hires the men as porters for their trips. The porters on the trail were just about as impressive as Machu Picchu itself. These men race past winded travelers with our light day packs, practically running the entire trail carrying 20 kilos a piece. I think you can find pictures of their calf muscles online. Despite their load, and the hardships that many of them must face at home that cause them to rely on wealthy foreign tourists for livelihood, these men greeted us at the start, middle and end of each day with a smile, tent and a hot meal. Their spirit and dedication really was unbelievable. Yet it was hard to see the community that some of them came from and realize that there were many people living in much worse conditions.
César's passion for his roots and obvious frustration with current lifestyle trends in modern culture really resonated with me and related to my reasons for wanting to work in sustainable architecture. The Quechua people had a great civilization led by the Incas that managed to live daily with a sense of power and harmony that I hope our societies can one day aspire to achieve. Hiking over the peak above Machu Picchu and standing at the Sun Gate as the ruins slowly emerged from the rising clouds was not a bad memory to mark three months out on the road.