Regular Life

As I skim this blog, it seems like our lives are filled with South American adventures, interspersed with long periods of quiet where nothing happens, except that Paul runs a long race every few months. (Even those don’t all get talked about.) So what has happened since June 2017?

Zeke had a long year of other people trying to figure out why he had swollen joints and how best to treat them. He often used a wheelchair at school for part of the day when walking got too hard. We finally figured out a combination of big dietary changes and some medicine that got him pretty much back to normal. He was walking normally in May 2018, and ran a mile barefoot in 6:23 in September. And then he was a munchkin and a flying monkey and a citizen of Oz in Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Wizard of Oz in November and December.


This, in early June 2018, was our first walk of over a mile in over a year. That’s Zeke showing his non-swollen knee.


Zeke represents the Lollipop Guild at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

Anna is spending her sophomore and junior years at Sandy Spring Friends School, in Maryland, living with our friends Jordan, Mariana, and Greta. She has run cross-country, been a nun in the Sound of Music, done well in school, and spent as much time in the woods as she can.


Anna, running cross country for Sandy Spring

Leticia has done all kinds of things at all kinds of places. Here’s one thing she does:


When it gets cold, Leticia plays with ice.

Paul keeps teaching math, keeps running, keeps playing music. And keeps thinking about the next sabbatical…


At the King Street Coffeehouse in Sunbury.

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Garden Spot Village Marathon

Hey! I ran another marathon! Training started in earnest in January. It got me out the door in cold and ice and snow and made me a happier person through the dark days of winter. My long runs mostly happened on Tuesday mornings, and almost all were in temperatures in the 20s and 30s, though there were a few in the 40s. So I wasn’t well prepared for the weather for Saturday’s Garden Spot Marathon, where it was nearly 60 at the 8am start and above 80 by the end.

Miles 1-5: 6:54, 7:02, 7:22, 7:09, 7:39; elapsed time 36:05 at 5 miles (7:13 pace)

In the early miles of a marathon you mainly try hard not to put out too much effort. We started out with the half-marathoners, so I couldn’t tell who the other marathoners were. These miles did feel easy, and the variation in mile times comes from the rolling hills. Mile 5 is the slow one there, as we headed up a long gradual hill. Even this early, I noticed sweat running down my face. Not good!

Miles 6-10: 7:11, 7:01, 7:15, 7:21, 7:28; elapsed time 1:12:22 at 10 miles (7:14 pace)

We had a few mostly downhill miles, and at the 7-mile mark the half marathoners turned around. The volunteer in the cow costume yelled “We’ll see you in 13 miles!” and then it got lonely. I realized quickly that I hadn’t been around other marathoners in several miles, and none were around me now. Far ahead I could see another runner, and I could tell it was an Amish guy – they were the only ones wearing long black pants. The water stations came every 2 miles, and they were like oases of human contact as well as water. After mile 8 I made a conscious effort to ease off the pace a little. Bad sign!

Miles 11-15: 7:31, 7:18, 7:17, 7:24, 7:22; elapsed time 1:49:14 at 15 miles (7:17 pace)

The hills continued to roll, the sun continued to shine, the day continued to get warmer, and I continued to sweat. Halfway went by in 1:35:07; there was no hope of running the second half that fast. I thought I would be happy with a 1:45 second half and a 3:20 finish. For miles I continued to see the Amish guy ahead when the road was straight (or one of us was on a hill). When I finally caught him it was just after the 14-mile water stop, and he was walking. I had gone 7 miles without encountering another runner, and I was hoping for some company, but I was feeling better than he was, so on I went.

Miles 16-20: 7:22, 7:23, 7:35, 7:42, 7:52; elapsed time 2:27:26 at 20 miles (7:22 pace)

In the 15th mile the course doubled back on itself, and I was now passing runners going in the opposite direction. I learned I was in 8th place, and I enjoyed the encouragement passed back and forth, as well as the knowledge that, however badly I was suffering, at least I wasn’t 6 (or more) miles farther back on the course. Around mile 20 at a water stop they were calling out “water! gatorade! bananas!” and I asked for water and a banana. Got the water, didn’t manage to get the banana, kept running. A few second later I heard yelling, and turned around to see a heavy-set teenage kid sprinting after me. “Did you want a banana?” he was yelling. So I slowed down and ran backwards for a little bit until he caught me; I thanked him, took the banana, and headed on. Unfortunately the banana wasn’t yet ripe and felt hard and chalky in my mouth. I held onto it until I was out of sight, then chucked it in the ditch. Still, this seems a good moment to note how friendly and how helpful volunteers were all day.

By now I had passed at least two more people. One was a guy that I had been slowly reeling in for a few miles, but he denied me the satisfaction of passing him by ducking into a portapot when he was still 50 yards ahead of me. Another was the guy that had been leading the race at halfway, 15 minutes ahead of me. “At least I’m still running,” I could tell myself.

Miles 21-26.2: 8:29, 9:49, 9:11, 7:42, 9:something, 8:something; finish time 3:22:44 (7:44 pace)

What happened? Well, those hills that we came down in miles 6 and 7 were now much bigger. And it was hot. Did I mention it was hot? I started taking walking breaks, passing a guy and moving into 4th or 5th place while walking. This part was surreal: the feeling that I was falling apart, slowing down terribly, trying not to overheat, and yet moving into the top 5 overall. Everyone I passed was moving much slower than I was, and soon I was passing lots of half marathoners who were still out on the course. My walking breaks were a minute long; every time I would stop to walk my breathing would get really heavy, and usually wasn’t calmed down by the time I started running again. That 7:42 24th mile was downhill, and I ran almost the whole thing. Shortly after that, my Garmin watch ran out of juice, and I shut it off to save the splits that were already there. I tried to start it again, but it didn’t have enough power to get the signal. Now I was passing lots of walking half-marathoners. Still, I was hot, and though I had told myself that surely I could run the last two miles, I couldn’t, and I took walking breaks, even in the last mile. I knew that last year one needed to beat their Boston qualifying time by 3 to 4 minutes to get in, and I knew that that was slipping away. (As it was, I ran a BQ by 2:16, which most likely won’t be quick enough.) But it was hot, and I walked. I did manage to run the last half mile or so, and I finished 4th of 192 finishers, about 50 seconds behind 3rd. First and second were only 6 and 7 minutes ahead, much slower than winning times in past years. Second place was another Amish guy in long black pants – totally impressive, that. I later learned that on the same day the guy who was leading the Commonwealth Games in Australia collapsed from heat exhaustion in the last mile of the race, and I felt reassured in my conservative approach. Goal One, I have often told myself, is Don’t Be the Guy Who Gets Taken to the Hospital. Goal Two is Finish. All told, this went as well as it could have, given the weather.

As if to add insult to injury (well, there was no injury, just sunburn), three days later I’m running in weather 40 degrees colder, wearing tights, two long-sleeve shirts, and a stocking cap, as snow flurries swirl around me. It’s a funny world.

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On Marathons, and Getting Older

I ran marathons in the 1990s, when I was twenty-something. I ran the first one to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 1996 was the 100th running, and it felt like the place to be. I needed to run 3:10 to qualify; I trained reasonably well, and even with a late-race slowdown, I ran 3:09:14 in Columbus, Ohio, and ran Boston the following spring. I qualified and ran Boston in 1997 and 1998 as well, and I thought I might become one of those people they introduce who has run the race every year for 30 or 40 or 50 years.

I didn’t. Three attempts at qualifying in fall and winter 1998 went awry, and I realized that 9 marathons and 4 ultramarathons (ranging from 28 to 50 miles) in just over three years was maybe too much for the body. And then I was defending my thesis and starting a new job and getting married and buying an old house that needed lots of work and hurting my back and having kids and worrying about getting tenure and living in South America and coming back and before I knew it, eight years had gone by without running a race.

I started racing again when I was 39, and ran my first ultramarathon in 16 years just before my 45th birthday. I ran three more, and they all went well. That is, I finished toward the front of the pack, and I didn’t hurt myself. After another year in South America – with lots of (fairly short) runs at altitudes above 10,000 feet – I started thinking about trying to run a fast marathon again. A dangerous thought crept into my head: Maybe I could break three hours in the marathon. I didn’t do it in my twenties – my best was a 3:04 on a hilly course in Kentucky in 1996 – oddly enough, in a race I only decided to do three days before. Sure, I’m twenty years older, the thinking went, but I’m smarter now, I’m eating much better, and I actually weigh a little less.

Years ago a chiropractor told me I would do well to stay off the pavement as much as possible, and I am lucky to have three local routes that do that reasonably well. I signed up for the Abebe Bikila International Peace Day Marathon in September in Washington DC, for various reasons: Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who won the Olympic marathon barefoot in 1960 (and won it wearing shoes in 1964), is a hero of mine; the marathon is entirely on gravel canal towpath; it is fairly near our daughter Anna, who is going to school in Maryland; it is very close to cousins Andy and Jenny; and it seemed like an old-school race – not very expensive, without the frills that some people expect from big-time marathons.

It is also true that it is in September in Washington, which can be hot and humid. I watched the weather forecasts obsessively for the two weeks before, and the predicted high went up as the day got closer. I spent a lovely evening before with Andy & Jenny & Jackson, had a restless night of sleep, ate breakfast and then felt all woogly tummy in the morning, worried I might not get to the race on time. But I got there, and it was a small scene, with almost no line to pick up my shirt and number, a fairly short line for the portapots – this is why I like the small races. Magically, at 7:45, my stomach settled down and my legs felt OK and I was ready.

At 8am we were off, the half-marathoners and marathoners together. I tried hard to stay relaxed, and soon found myself in a group of 4 – me, Matt, Roberto, and Brent. We were all hoping to run 3:10 to 3:15. The early miles went by at 7:15-20 per mile – and it felt easy and good, though even in mile 2 I already had sweat pouring off my head. In retrospect, I wonder how much slowing down even 10 seconds per mile would have affected my temperature. Five miles went by in 36:05 – that would be a 3:09 marathon – and we had already lost Brent. The cups of water and Gatorade which came every 2 miles or so seemed too small. Matt was taking 2, and I followed his lead. We hit the first turnaround for 1/4 of the way – this course was a double out&back, with plenty of chances to see where the other runners were.

On our way back to the start the pace actually picked up (note use of the passive voice) with me doing the leading. We lost Roberto, who I didn’t see again. Matt and I hit the halfway mark – that is, the finish line, before heading out again – in 1:34:30 – and he asked how I was feeling. I said I felt like I was taking it a little hot. He had asked earlier if I was trying for a BQ – a Boston qualifying time – and I said no, at my age it is a 3:25, and I certainly hoped to be well under that. He noted that I had a lot of cushion to work with. In fact, the second half could be 16 minutes slower than the first and I would still qualify.

Mile 14 was a little mystifying, as the watch said 7:03, the fastest of the day, while I already felt like I was slowing. I think that it didn’t recognize the turnaround and gave me credit for about 0.1 miles I didn’t run. I was slowing not because I physically had to, but because it felt like the prudent thing to do. The times were still good, as I went through 17 miles in 2:03, but miles 15, 16, and 17 were slower than average, and I could tell I was heating up. Running slower wasn’t keeping me from getting hotter, and at 2:05 I walked for a minute. I decided to go to a regimen of 4 minutes running, 1 minute walking, and did that for the next 6 miles, which went by at about 8:30 pace. The running was at about the same speed as before, but I needed those rest breaks to keep that up. I hit the 23 mile mark in 2:54 and change, and 8:30 pace for the next 3.2 would get me home in 3:23, slower than hoped but still under 3:25, which was suddenly looking like a nontrivial benchmark. But now the minute of walking wasn’t enough to cool me down or slow my heartbeat, and I still felt like I wasn’t getting enough water. Here for once a handheld water bottle would have been useful. I was in a slow-motion race with a guy ahead of me, as we took turns walking and running. The sun was now directly overhead – it was after 11am – and the temperature above 80.

The 24 mile mark came at 3:03. Surely, I thought, I can run the last two miles. But the heat felt irresistible. My legs weren’t beat up, my energy wasn’t gone, but I felt in danger of overheating badly. So I walked more. 24 and 25 and then 26 went by in 9 minutes and change each, and I hit 26 right at 3:22. Two-tenths more could surely be done in 2 minutes, and I’d be under 3:24. But the Garmin was off, which I had thought might happen, and 26.21875 came and went with the finish line still ahead. I sped up over that last bit, and came across the line in 3:24:46, 14 seconds under the Boston qualifying time for men of my advanced age. The watch said 26.36 miles, but I am inclined to believe the course was correct. The official time came out as 3:24:50, meaning I had a 10-second cushion. But qualifying for Boston doesn’t mean you automatically get in; it has become so popular that folks are let in according to by how much they beat their qualifying time. I didn’t bother registering for Boston, as I’m not yet sure I want to run a huge race again, and also because I was pretty sure my 10 second margin didn’t stand a chance. Sure enough, in the following week came the news that 3 minutes and 23 seconds was the necessary margin.

Could I have run the 3:21:37 in less hot conditions? I’m pretty sure I could have. Matt held it together well and ran 3:10, but he lives in North Carolina, and is much more used to this soupy hot weather. In the days after the race, I thought maybe I should find a December marathon and hold my fitness until then. But that’s a mistake I made when I was 28, and it didn’t end well. There should be a spring marathon, and I’ll have a better mileage base by then.

My friend Brady was running the inaugural Williamsport (PA) marathon three weeks later, and I nearly chastised myself for not waiting for this marathon, farther north and 3 weeks into fall. In the end, temperatures for that were unseasonably hot, perhaps even hotter than in my race, though not as humid. So you pick your race and take your chances. Over the years, hopefully it all comes together a few times.

In the meantime, I’m running, a little less as the semester gets busier, but at a faster pace. I’m thinking about shorter races. The eight years of not running taught me to appreciate the daily run and the luxury (really, the luxury!) of getting out the door, feeling the warm and the cold and the wind and the rain and the snow, and losing myself in the effort for a little while.

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(We find ourselves, suddenly and surprisingly, back in Pennsylvania. But we still have stories to tell from Peru.)
Vilcashuaman is a small town that used to be 4 or 5 hours from Ayacucho and soon will be two and a half hours from Ayacucho. Right now it’s about three, as they are paving the road as we speak. Vilcashuaman (‘Sacred Falcon’ in Quechua) was an administrative center for the Incas and a crossroads of the Inca road system. It boasts a temple of the sun with a Catholic church built right on top of it and an ushnu, a 5-platform pyramid.

With the coming of the paved road, Vilcashuaman is readying itself for tourism – they have a glossy brochure for tourists, and the guy in the town office on the plaza says people come from all over the world. Still, when we walked around town, people would stare at us and often say “gringo!” – not an insult, just a statement of surprise. We found a place to stay that rented us two rooms at 25 and 20 soles (that’s about $8 and $6) – the more expensive one had a TV (neither had a bathroom).


This is homeschool in a $6 hotel room.


Zeke going local – breakfast of rice, chicken, and lentils – at the market in Vilcashuaman.

Off the gringo trail, one needs to get used to eating lots of soup and lots of rice. We ate at the market for breakfasts, bought bread, cheese, and avocado for lunches, and had suppers at a chifa (a chinese place). It was easy to go under budget in Vilcashuaman.


The mountain in the middle is Pillucho, the goal of our long hike.

We took one of our best long walks of the trip from Vilcashuaman. When we told the guy at the tourism office we liked to walk in the countryside, he took us at our word and told us of a place 10 or 12 kilometers away – Pillucho, where there are some chullpas (burial towers) left by the Chankas, historical enemies of the Incas. We couldn’t get much more information than a general gesture toward a nearby (totally impressive) mountain. And so we set off the next morning, armed with sandwiches, lots of water, and a little chocolate. We asked someone which road out of town to take, asked directions of folks along the way, walked a U in a great deep valley, and eventually found ourselves on the edge of the town, accompanied for a while by a guy who said he was the mayor (and he did know a lot about the town) and asked for a little donation for the work they had done clearing the site (later reading confirmed that it is the locals who cleared the path, and there is no admission charged).


On the way back. But the mountain Anna and I hiked up is right behind us.

We were told that the road to Pillucho has been accessible by car for less than ten years – before that, it was on the backs of burros, llamas, and people.


The town of Vilcashuaman from up near Pillucho.

We walked through a pasture with cattle and sheep to the base of the mountain. Zeke decided to stay put and I went around the side to scout, finding only incredible views in various directions.

When I came back Anna had headed up the steep part of the mountain, and so I followed. This got steep, but only scary for about 20 feet, getting past the rocky outcrop just before the top. On top, the mountain was flat and about 50 feet wide, with steep drops on either side, burned trees along the way, and a path going (thankfully) along the middle of the top.

IMG_2217Then, at the far end of the mountain, the chullpas.


This was one of those places that have a palpable energy to them, like the air itself carries meaning. It made us talk in near-whispers and move slowly and respectfully. Even without the towers, it would have been clear that this was special ground. There were stunning views in every direction. Despite the exposure there was no wind, but instead an intense feeling of calm. If there had been a guy there selling funeral plots, I would have bought one on the spot.

And so we headed back to find Leticia and Zeke and start the walk back. We passed several herds of cattle being driven (or in some cases, just seeming to walk on their own) one way or the other along the road back to Vilcashuaman. By the time we reached town we had walked somewhere between 13 and 15 miles and were ready to attack another big pile of rice.

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A girl turning 15 is a big deal in South America. When the family has the money to spend (and often even if they don’t), there is a party – a quinceanera – that can attain out-of-control-wedding-reception-like proportions. We have been threatening Anna with such a party, noting the most gaudy salones de eventos that we pass.


Quinceaneras are often held in a Salon de Eventos, a place like this. This one is in El Alto, Bolivia. (Source: pinterest)

She has taking this all gracefully, perhaps knowing that ultimately we would cave in to her wishes for a quiet day, a Leticia-cooked supper, and going out for dessert. And so it was, with the bonus of a visit from the South American-residing grandparents.


Birthday breakfast on the roof at the Park Hostel, Arequipa.


And dessert, downtown Arequipa.

Recent adventures in (in order) Ollantaytambo, near Maras, Salineras, and Vilcashuaman (all in Peru).


And a bonus: This one from May 2012, the last time Anna was in South America for her birthday. (This is above La Falda, Argentina.)

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Kraps are still funny.

IMG_2036IMG_1956IMG_2067Five years ago, it was Ayacucho we were trying to reach (from Huancavelica, to the north) when we had the crash that sent us back to Lima for treatment. We had read that Ayacucho had some kind of magic, largely hidden from foreigners by a few decades of Shining Path activity and by location and bad roads. The Shining Path is gone (or at least less active) and the roads are paved, and this time we were coming from the opposite direction (Andahuaylas), and it felt (to me, at least) that finally seeing Ayacucho was unfinished business.


Ayacucho is known for its retablos, boxes of varying sizes that open up to show 3D scenes ranging from the birth of Jesus to drunken revelers. Sometimes the shops are painted to look like them as well.


In the town of Quinua, they make these ceramic churches that people put on their roof. In Ollantaytambo, it’s bulls.

What used to be 10 to 12 hours between Andahuaylas and Ayacucho is now five. The driver, though, did the exact opposite of what Leticia and I both learned in driver’s ed – slow down before the curve, and accelerate out of it – instead accelerating until the last moment, when it became clear he couldn’t hold the curve at that speed, and then braking hard. This meant that any attempts at sleep had to be made while tensing your body to ensure not being thrown out of your seat.

IMG_1899IMG_2056We arrived just after Holy Week, which is such a big deal in Ayacucho that you can’t get a hotel room. There is music in the streets, to me most notably in funeral processions, in which the casket is carried to the cemetery with a marching band following and traffic doing everything it can to get past at any opportunity. There is a certain energy there. But traffic is bad, though partly it seemed that way to us because there were roads closed and traffic diverted to run right in front of our hostel. The sidewalks are narrow and overflowing with people. And the air seemed pretty polluted.


Carnival rides left from Holy Week.

As I edit this a few weeks later, though, my memories are already changing. Much is made of the (at least) 33 churches in Ayacucho, and many of them have a beautiful energy about them. We followed a parade in with bands (of course) and guys on horseback driving donkeys with bundles of sticks loaded on their backs. One night students from all different departments of Universidad Alas Peruanas, one of the newer private universities with branches all over Peru, paraded through the plaza with marching bands (almost every department had one; those without seemed a bit downhearted in comparison with the sheer glee the others showed), floats (the civil engineers had a working drawbridge on the back of a pickup), and fireworks. From our priviledged spot on the balcony of a restaurant, we could also see beer and shots of something strong appearing from the backs of a few floats. All this was part of the celebration of the 477th anniversary of the founding of Ayacucho, after just a few days relief from the party that was Holy Week. Evidently there is a running of the bulls during Holy Week, too, and rock concerts and all-night dance parties.


Third Station of the Cross.

The best things about our stay were the Hotel Crillonesa, where Carlos and Alicia (and everyone else) treated us like family, my visit to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga, where I was welcomed warmly and listened to patiently, and our brief trip to Vilcashuaman, which I’ll relate in the next post.


These are the dedicated folks at the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga that survived 4 hours of math in gringo-Spanish. And the gringo responsible for it.


And these are (some of) the good folks at Hotel Crillonesa, and the gringos they sheltered.

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IMG_1749We are a novelty in Andahuaylas. As we walk the streets, there are whispers, and non-whispers, of “Gringos!” or “Miren a los gringuitos!” (Look at the little gringos!) Some say it as a sort of greeting: “Gringo!” We did catch sight of one fair-skinned person one evening, and we saw two more on the road to Sondor, but there are clearly not many here. One day in the market as Leticia was buying vegetables, the woman at the nieghboring stand said to Zeke “Iman sutiyki?” We’ve taken some Quechua classes, and so Zeke knew this means “What is your name?”, and he answered accordingly. The woman was so surprised that she burst out laughing, got the attention of the woman at the stand next to her, and repeated the question, and Zeke obligingly answered. They were both still laughing as we got out of earshot.


Andahuaylas, as seen from the courtyard of the Hostal Cruz del Sur

Our seven-year-old copy of Lonely Planet refers to the “long, rough road to Ayacucho” and says this region is for hard-core travelers only. This is less true now than it was in 2010, as the main roads have been paved, and many of the connections take about half the time they used to. Our trip to Andahuaylas took only three hours, but those were three long hours, as our the driver of the van we were in was prone to trying to pass big trucks on blind corners, tailgate small vehicles in attempts to get them to pull over, and generally scare the bejeebers out of us on these twisty roads with hundreds of feet of drop off to the side. Leticia took to asking him (OK, sometimes yelling at him) to slow down, take it easy, and it seemed other passengers were in agreement – one dodgy bit of gamesmanship had the whole van yelling at him. So we arrived, found a hostal, and found our first meal.

We stayed for six days, exhausting most of the eating options in town. The two best things about our time in Andahuaylas were

a) the Hostal Cruz del Sur, a basic place (we paid 60 soles total, about $19, for two double rooms without bathrooms) with a nice courtyard, wonderfully friendly owners, a place to wash and hang laundry, and, importantly, a kitchen we could use, and

b) the trip we made out to Sondor, a complex of ruins left by the Chankas, a group that was defeated and subsumed (sort of) by the Incas in the 1400s. It was a lovely spot.

Being the only gringos around meant having conversations with lots of people. We came back from a walk to a farther part of the ruins to find Zeke, who had gotten ahead of us, in conversation (mostly in Spanish, but a little in Quechua) with a whole group of folks up for the day. It was Good Friday, and there was a holiday atmosphere. Peruvians, especially in the countryside, have been so friendly. We chatted with so many, some local, some tourists from Lima and other parts of Peru. On the way out, we came up upon a band, a group of dancers, a video cameraman, and Anna already pulled into the dancing. Zeke was shy, but the rest of us all danced, I with a young woman with a “Flor de Pacucha” sash on her dress. We have seen these programs on televisions at markets (where the DVDs are being sold) – there’s usually a band, the dancers, and incredible scenery in the background. It pleases me that soon we may also be seen in the background of one of these.


There was (almost) a line of people waiting to take pictures with the young gringos

After some good cheap (and vegetarian!) food bought from women sitting outside the ruins, we walked several miles back to Laguna Pacucha, a lovely lake with lots of folks enjoying a day off, and eventually caught a van back to Andahuaylas.


Laguna Pacucha

We had several other good walks around town. Most fun was the variety of animals met along the road, both in and out of town. Dogs (of course, but not aggressive), a few cats, lots of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, a few ducks and geese.

And onward to Ayacucho…

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Off the Gringo Trail

IMG_1668We have spent most of the past two months in Ollantaytambo, where most people get on the train to Machu Picchu. That means tons of tourists come through, many for just a few hours. It’s a small town, though, and being around for this long, plus being part of the Casa de Wow community, means that we have become friends with lots of Peruvians. At the same time, there is a constant stream of travelers – most of them English-speaking, and so the U.S. doesn’t seem that far away.
The Plaza de Armas in the center of Cusco is overrun with tourists, mostly also just in town for a few days. They come from all over the world, and are followed around by people trying to sell them hats, shirts, selfie sticks, keychains, weavings, paintings, and all manner of other artisanal goods. Women with llamas (or baby llamas in arms) walk around waiting for you to take their picture for a few soles. On Hatunrumiyoc, the pedestrian-only street with famous Inca walls and a friendly guy portraying Pachacutec, I chatted (in Spanish) with a guy selling paintings. In the middle of the conversation, in English, he said “maybe some weed?” “Como?” I replied. When my mind is running in Spanish, I often have trouble parsing English words as such, especially in a Peruvian accent. “It’s good Inca weed, very natural.” So yes, we have spent most of our time on – or close to – the Gringo Trail.


On the road to Abancay

In early April, though, we left Cusco for Abancay, stepping quickly off the Trail. In the bus terminals, you’ll often hear people calling out destinations, and sometimes they will come over to you, ask where you are going, and try to get you on their bus. But we haven’t experienced anything like what happened when we left Cusco. We came in the doors, loaded front and back with our little and big packs, and a few people yelled destinations at us. Perhaps it was a mistake to say “Abancay”, for then we had two guys and a woman all trying to pull us to their offices. I went with the woman, who promised (falsely, it turned out) a bus leaving 30 to 60 minutes before the others. When I came back to share information with Leticia, the other guys were back too, and we had five different companies bidding for our business. This meant that the price came down from 20 soles per person to 15, then 14, then 13, and then they were all bidding 13, saying that their bus was newer, the seats were more comfortable, that driver over there was a drunk, and probably more we didn’t catch. In the end we rode with Ampay, which left ten minutes after the Bredde bus, and evidently before the others.

We had travelled the road between Cusco and Abancay once before, in February 2012 on the twenty-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, but we did it in the middle of the night, so the sights were all new. The drive starts like the drive down to the Sacred Valley, but at some point around Anta you head west instead of north. After a bit in the valley, we crested a pass and started our way down, the kind of descent where you can see the bottom of the valley, but don’t get there for half an hour. The bus was equipped with a sign displaying the current speed, and this never got above 70km/hour, spending a lot of time between 30 and 50 km/h. The bus assistant came through stamping tickets, reminding everyone that the bathroom in the back of the bus was just for pee. Once in the valley we rolled through Limatambo, even hitting 90 km/hour on a straight section, the fastest I saw all day. Near Limatambo we joined a rushing creek filled to bursting with red water. This eventually joined a much larger, cleaner (up until the junction) river that had to be the Apurimac, the largest river in the region. We followed the Apurimac for a while, then left it, heading up the south side of the valley. To the north were impressive snow-capped mountains, peeking between the clouds, and also between the curtains, the non-working (thankfully) televisions, the emergency hammer, and the head of the sleeping people across the aisle (hence no photos of the snow-capped mountains). Twice we went back down to river level and then hundreds of feet above it when the canyon narrowed, and finally we started up the far end of the valley, past Curahuasi, which looked like a fun small town to explore, past Sahuite, where there is a great carved stone, and past the turnoff for Cachora, where a French couple, the only other foreigners on the bus, got off, presumably to trek to Choquequirao, some impressive Inca ruins accessible only by two days of walking. Can you be mobbed by three people? From the window it seemed that they were, in fact, mobbed by three cab drivers, all wanting to take them the 15km to Cachora. With all the flooding in the north and on the coast, tourism is way down in Peru, which perhaps explains the frantic competition for any business at all.
At the far end of the valley we could look back and see the switchbacks we had come down over two hours before. There is a part of me that still holds the landscape of my childhood – the flat streets of Indianapolis and the cornfields of northern Indiana – as what the world is like, and it rebels at the verticality of this landscape. It seems…unnatural.


Street scene, Abancay

Not long after that we were over another pass, heading down toward a big-looking place that had to be – and was – Abancay. Our seven-year-old Lonely Planet says there are only 14,000 people in Abancay, but it has to be larger than that. We found a taxi, and found a hotel. After Cusco, which is overrun with hotels and hostels catering to foreigners, it is startling to find no hostels with kitchens, common areas, book exchanges and the sort of things foreigners like. Our hotel seemed mostly geared for business travelers and party-goers.


Math at Hotel Saywa

Because Abancay is a party town. The road up and down the hostel was lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs with strobe lights on as we walked to find supper, ice cream shops, a casino, liquor stores, and tons of pharmacies. It is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco, and so a lot warmer. We saw hardly anyone in traditional indigenous dress, and even a few tank tops and shorts. We went to sleep to a symphony of thumping beats and car alarms. We saw no gringos in two days there and none at the bus station on our way out.


And so we headed on, toward Andahauylas…

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Guiding Brazilian Travellers


Anna, Joy, Alice, Zeke, Carlos

On Tuesday morning during breakfast Alice and Joy asked if they could take me to Pachar and all was accepted so we went over to the hostel a couple of doors over called Hostal Patacalle (we’re on calle Patacalle) and they asked the owner what the place he had mentioned was called and it turned out that it was actually Pumamarka that they had been talking about.


Pumamarca from across the valley (different day, different hike).

So we took a taxi and at the turn off Alice said she wanted to go on to see some of the other towns so we went on through Pallata to Huilloq (also Huilloc, Willoq or Willoc) were we stopped and all the Huilloqueñas came over to us and lay out their blankets with all the textiles on them (llamas, bags, wallets, bracelets, things to put on your backpack, etc.) Alice bought me a thing to put on my backpack. After a while we turned around and went to Pumamarka. After a while at Pumamarka Joy and I headed to the trail that we would take back down on in a small drizzle and started down. In this I whole trip I started to learn some Portuguese like I was surprised that the Aymara word for popcorn is the same in Portuguese (pipoca).

On the way down we did some yodeling (after this) but this photo is of the “Mil Terazas” and the staircases are los “Mil Escaleras” or the “thousand Terraces” and the “thousand stairs”.


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Patacancha to Chupani to Lares, on foot

IMG_0801IMG_0795In mid-February we spent two days walking up in the mountains above Ollantaytambo. We went with Wither (pronounced “Weeder”), a guide we met after he took a trip with Bruce and Kaytlin, who were volunteering here at Casa de Wow. These Andean parts of Peru are changing; as roads get improved or electric lines get strung, villages can seem to hurdle from a timeless, traditional lifestyle into one in which cars come and go and people have smartphones in a matter of a few years. Wither likes going up into the villages where these changes haven’t yet come, and at the same time fully aware that gringos passing through do have an effect.

IMG_0785And so we got a taxi out of town, up through Pallata and Markacocha and Huilloq, stopping in Patacancha. We immediately took a path that led away from the road, running parallel to it but higher up in the valley. Our packs were loaded with sleeping bags, clothes for a variety of situations, food (both for us and to share along the way), and, heaviest of all, water.
We would pass folks from time to time, and Wither would often share greetings and a little bit of fruit or coca. A few hours in we stopped by a homestead where we spoke with a man and his daughter, sharing some bread (which is harder to get up there) and fruit. Toward the end of the conversation came the part that was to become familiar – the man returned with a blanket filled with textiles and crafts made by his wife. We did buy a little – these situations feel like the best way to be sure money goes directly to the maker – and headed on.
IMG_0791The views continued to be fantastic, but as we headed toward the pass the clouds lowered and a cold spitty rain started. We are staying at an altitude of 9300 feet in Ollantaytambo, the taxi ride to Patacancha got us above 12,000, and this pass is at about 14,100. It is colder there, and we hurried to get warmer and more waterproof layers on before we were shivering.

IMG_0804But that passed, and at the pass it was calm and dry. From there we headed down and down, rejoining the main road a few hours after leaving it. It turns out that carrying bread is also a good way to befriend-distract dogs that want to keep you away from their property. Finally, around 4pm we arrived in Chupani, our destination for the day. The house we were planning on staying in seemed deserted, though, which was a problem, since a cold rain had started again, and we were at a little over 13,000 feet. So Wither went off to figure things out while we bundled up again and had some snacks. The road ends in Chupani, and all the houses are connected by paths. (During our time there, we never saw a motorized vehicle.) There were cattle and sheep grazing here and there, kids playing a game with a stick and a hoop, women passing from one house to another every once in a while.

IMG_0793Wither came back a good while later, saying that the nieghbors had heard on the radio that he was coming there, but the family must be up at the other house (it is common to have a small house in town and another building up at the fields). We saw a woman go into a house nearby, and so Wither went down to talk to her.

He came back a few minutes later, saying we had a place to stay for the night. The house was made of stone, and had just one room, with a stone and mud stove – this means a place for the fire and stones above with pot-sized holes in them. The room had one single bed, a bench along one side, a few small stools, a ladder up to a loft, and another small part that seemed to be for storage and keeping the guinea pigs. The woman of the house was Juliana Yupanqui, who could have been my age or could have been 20 years older. She spoke only Quechua, and so Wither acted as translator. She set to work making tea from some roots and let us start peeling potatos and chuno. Peeling the chuno (freeze-dried potatos) was a little like whittling, and we were slow at it.
The house felt a little like a cave, with the end wall including some huge stones. The walls were largely blackened by smoke – there was no chimney, and the smoke seeped its way slowly through the thatched roof. (From outside, it looks like the house is smouldering.) The room was cold, and so we took turns sitting close to the small fire, which was fueled with a little dry grass but mostly dried llama dung. Another woman arrived and helped with the cooking. It was now dark, and getting colder, but they kept the door open until much later. There was a single light bulb above, powered by a solar panel outside the house – the only real sign that we were in the 21st century. The food was ready one course at a time – potatos, then llama meat, then a soup with potatos, chuno, llama meat, and a few herbs. It tasted so good, though. By then it was after 8pm, and cold. Senora Yupanqui and her relatives got out a large pile of llama skins (fluffy!) and laid them on the dirt floor, followed by a few woven blankets. We put our sleeping bags on top of that, filling up most of the living room, and with the family still bustling about, lay down and went (eventually) to sleep, lullabied by the dying fire, the sound of the wind (and later, rain), and the “cwee, cwee” of the guinea pigs (which is why they’re called cuyes).
In the morning Senora Yupanqui was up before us, making tea. It turns out that she is an aunt of the folks we had planned to stay with and has hosted trekkers before – not a surprise, considering how she seemed to take our unannounced arrival in stride and had everything she needed to feed and sleep us. We packed up and had breakfast up at the other house, the one we were originally planning to stay at. Breakfast was more potatos (with soft cheese) and more of the similar soup. I see why bringing fruit and bread is a welcome gift. Before we left there was the obligatory laying-out of weavings, and yes, we bought some. The one from the house we slept in still smells strongly of llama-dung smoke (not a bad smell, really).
The second day of walking started hard – up the valley out of Chupani – and we were slow, though the packs were a bit lighter. We kept moving, stopping before the pass to talk with a woman weaving in a lean-to outside her house. After lunch at the pass, we went down and down (did I say that about the day before), into valleys that opened into other valleys. Eventually we came down to the community of Tambochaca and followed the Lares river valley down to the Lares hot springs.
The hot springs are still above 11,000 feet, and it drizzled most of the time we were there. But the various pools of varying temperatures felt good, and we walked down the hill with Wither into the town of Lares for supper. The hot springs are mainly an attraction for Peruvians, and the town of Lares feels very un-touristed, even though it is probably the French Lick of the region.
We slept well, boys in one room, girls in the other. We had a good breakfast and then a wild ride over the Lares pass on a typical twisting Andean road. To Calca, then a bus to Urubamba, and another bus to Ollantaytambo, in about 4 hours all told. Thsis was the first time we´ve trekked with a guide, and Wither definitely took us to places and people we couldn´t have experienced otherwise.

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