Sunday, June 30, 2013

Small fish, big sea

About a month ago I started my new job. I am in my 14th year working in mining and really enjoy what I do. I have a great job and the opportunity to live and work in a country as fascinating and challenging as Peru is the experience of a lifetime. Of course, it's not just a matter of packing up one office, moving into a new one and hitting the ground running (although it would be great if it was).
We are the first ex-pat married couple to be working at our company's mining operation here in Peru. Usually just the husbands go to work at the mine and the wives stay home, either with the kids or on their own, to spend their days however they will. As far as Peruvian culture goes, the wives almost always stay at home to care for their children until they leave home (if they leave; it's not uncommon for multiple generations of a family to all live together in the same house). If they have young children, it is very rare for mothers to work, and certainly not full-time, and certainly not in mining. So what I am doing is not normal. Here's an example: recently I interviewed a number of different women to work in our home to help us with cleaning, cooking and looking after our son while we work (yes, a maid). There was always an interpreter at the interviews, as my Spanish isn't fluent yet and none of the women whom I interviewed spoke any English. When I explained to each of these women that I needed a maid full-time (as in all day, every week day) because I work full-time as a mine engineer, they all expressed the same look of total amazement, that a woman with a young child would contemplate such a thing. At one interview, the woman who was coordinating the interview on behalf of the maid agency was completely shocked to know that I was working at a mine. She had never met an ex-pat wife who worked before.
The people whom I work with are really friendly and seem to go out of their way to make me feel welcome. I look forward to going to work and being with them. At the same time, there are some times when I feel a bit alienated and wish that I was just a little bit less "different". I don't dress the same as most of the other women who work at the mine (most of whom work in administrative roles and tend to wear more "fashionable" clothes than the standard mining wear which is jeans/long pants and a polo/button-down shirt, which is what I wear to work), so I look different. Obviously I'm not a man, so I am clearly different in that regard than most of my work colleagues (there are two other female engineers in my department, so I'm certainly not the only one). And I am definitely different than all the other ex-pat wives, as I am at work when they are in town, catching up over coffee or visiting the market together. I'm grateful that they include me in their invitations to do these things, but it can be hard having to say "Thanks for inviting me but I'm working that day" over and over again.

I am grateful to have this job and as I said I really enjoy the work that I'm doing. I'm blessed to have stayed employed for this long and to have been given this opportunity. I guess my point is that it doesn't come without some sacrifices and challenges. One of the challenges is to embrace being "different" and to see it as a strength instead of something to regret.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Colca Canyon

A couple of weekends ago we were invited to spend a long weekend with friends (and their son, who was visiting from the US) at Colca Canyon, which at approximately 10,000 feet deep is one of the deepest canyons in the world. Colca Canyon is a 3-hour drive from Arequipa.
The road to Colca from Arequipa starts out very narrow and winding, skirting around the base of the Chachani volcano, with sheer drops, little or no barrier in most places, and too many roadside memorial crosses to count. Double yellow lines? If it's clear, pass anyway. Truck coming the other way? Put your foot down, you can make it. Bus coming toward you in your lane? Say your prayers and trust your driver. What choice do you have? In one particular place along the road there are 24 crosses in two groups, where a bus went over the edge just before Easter this year, killing most of the people on board. A similar accident two weeks earlier killed 14 people. Sadly this sort of thing is not uncommon here. So this particular part of the trip was a bit anxious (for me at least) but thankfully we made it through without incident.
Leaving the windy, narrow part behind we entered the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca where the road is straighter and the vicuna (Peru's national animal) and llamas are plentiful. Vicuna seem slimmer than llamas and are coloured a lot like deer, with white underbellies and a warm light brown coat on their backs and necks. Llamas are much shaggier and come in a wider variety of colours. They are stockier than vicuna and tend to roam in larger herds. Vicuna are wild and produce an incredibly fine wool which is highly prized for woven garments. Vicunas only produce about 1 pound of wool each year so they are only shorn once every 3 years. There are special chacus (kind of like a vicuna round-up) where the animals are caught, shorn then released into the wild again. Because the fiber is so fine and there is so little of it available for spinning and weaving, items made from vicuna wool are extremely expensive. For example, a scarf made from vicuna wool costs about US$700. It was great to see so many of these special animals which we had read about, ranging around in their natural habitat. Vicuna in particular are pretty timid and tend to run away when startled, so I'm grateful that I had a zoom lens on my camera and was able to get some pictures of them.

Llamas grazing.
Vicunas crossing.
Gelfis at Mirador de los Andes.
We stopped at Mirador de los Andes, the highest part of our journey, at 4,910 metres (16,108 feet) to get some photos (Runtastic says it's only 4,873m but I prefer to believe the hand-painted sign). From here you get a fantastic panoramic view of the volcanoes Misti, Chachani, Sabancaya and Ampato (the first three are more than 19,000 feet high; Ampato is over 20,000 feet). At the time we arrived, the women selling souvenirs (woven blankets, embroidered items and the ubiquitous chullo hats (knitted hats with ear flaps that are sold almost everywhere in Peru). I found it a bit harder to breathe at the Mirador - probably a combination of the altitude (the highest I've ever walked at) and the throat infection that I was still trying to shake off.

The closer we got to Colca Canyon, the worse the road got. Colca is about 150km from Arequipa, but the condition of the road is the reason why it takes 3 hours to get there. Rather than the road having lots of pot holes in it, the pot holes have little bits of road around them on which we were supposed to drive. Avoiding the holes frequently means driving on the wrong side of the road, so the driver has to have one eye on the pot hole and one eye scanning ahead for oncoming traffic. We were grateful to be travelling the road in daylight (we had originally planned to leave after N got home from school, which would have meant driving the last hour to Colca in the dark, but as it happened N's school start date was delayed so we were able to leave earlier in the day) because at night it would have been treacherous - no road markers, no barriers, plenty of cliffs, lots of ways to have an accident. 

Eventually we arrived at Chivay, the village where we would stay while visiting Colca. It is a very quaint, traditional rural village where agriculture and tourism are the main sources of income. We saw children herding sheep (and getting very excited about having their picture taken), traditional buildings and lots of fields of crops (corn, kiwicha and other local grains). We stayed at the very comfortable and scenic Las Casitas del Colca (basically a resort). The Casitas are close to the river that runs through the canyon and the scenery is fantastic. I did a cooking class and learned to make lomo saltado (one of the most famous dishes in Peru, it is a lot like Mexican fajitas: strips of beef (or alpaca) seared in a pan with slices of onion and red pepper, but rather than being served in a tortilla, as fajitas are, lomo saltado is served with rice or in this case, quinotto (quinua risotto)) and we watched a demonstration of how to make pisco sour, Peru's national drink, which is made from pisco, lemon juice, egg whites, sugar syrup and Angostura bitters - really strong but very good. N and P fished for trout and managed to catch three - very exciting for N as it was the first time that he had caught a fish (and to catch more than his father did made it even more exciting).

Look carefully: 8 Andean condors.

On Saturday morning we drove for about 30 minutes along the canyon to a viewpoint where we were told we could see Andean condors. Our luck was in because at a smaller lookout point, before arriving at the main lookout we were lucky enough to see 10 condors at once. The condors can only be seen from the lookout areas for a couple of hours in the morning (about 0700 - 0900) before they head out into the far reaches of the canyon for their day of hunting for food (why they don't just get up and go out looking for food, I don't know. Maybe they need to stretch their wings and get warmed up first).

Further up the road, at the Mirador de los Condors there were more people but fewer condors. We waited about 25 minutes and were about to give up and leave when the first couple of condors appeared. To watch these huge birds soaring over our heads and down into the canyon was truly amazing. Adult Andean condors have a wingspan up to 3 metres across. Compared to the previous viewpoint we saw fewer condors but we were able to get a much closer look at them. One condor landed right in front of the mirador and stayed there for a long time while the tourists (me included) got their pictures. It was almost as though it knew what it was supposed to do to entertain the crowd.

At all the more popular tourist stops (such as the Mirador de los Condors) and at many of the smaller ones, there are local women selling snacks and handcrafts. We passed a lot of their little booths on the side of the road as we travelled through the canyon. At Mirador de los Condors I bought a jacket for N made of baby alpaca wool and an embroidered pillow cover with a vicuna and a condor on it. One of our friends bought a traditional Quechua hat, like the one that the woman in this photo is wearing (my friend collects traditional Peruvian hats). These sort of souvenirs don't cost much, sometimes aren't actually made in Peru, and help the local economy.

Quechua woman in traditional clothing at the Mirador de los Condors.

After leaving the Mirador we drove further up the canyon, through some more small villages where we stopped to take photos. One such village that we stopped at was Cabanaconde, where I surreptitiously took some photos of local people, because their dress and manner fascinated me.

Like most villages in the Colca area, although the village is tiny, it has a huge Catholic church at its centre.

Restoration work, rural Peruvian-style. Using people power and a basic pulley system to haul buckets of materials up to the top of the building.

Women in traditional Quechua dress, Cabanaconde.

Further along we crossed the canyon and made our way back toward Chivay on the other side. There was so much beautiful scenery to see and so many photos to take. It's such pretty country. There were very few cars and the whole area is pretty much untouched by tourist development. Apart from the Casitas the only other resort in the area is the Colca Lodge, which is on the opposite of the river to Chivay. We ate an absolutely delicious lunch there and took a short walk around the grounds before we headed back to Las Casitas.

One thing about staying at Las Casitas is that it is situated on the side of a steep hill (almost everything at Colca Canyon is on the side of a steep hill). I mentioned before that it was harder to breathe at the Mirador de los Andes, well, Chivay is at 3,635m (11,925 feet) so there is some altitude to deal with there as well. I found that walking on flat ground or downhill was OK but the moment that I had to walk uphill I suddenly felt as though I had aged 50 years. I had to walk really slowly and take rests every now and then. Maybe in time I will adjust to the altitude but it was pretty amazing how much it affected me.

Look! I'm actually in one of these pictures!

On Sunday before we left for Arequipa we arranged for N to feed the baby

This is just plain adorable.

alpacas and llamas at the Casitas. All three of us were given bottles to give the babies who were very hungry (or greedy) and didn't take long at all to finish the lot. The alpacas and llamas were so soft and cuddly, and very huggable! Once they'd been fed they didn't hang around long and headed back to their enclosure.


Our drive back to Arequipa was thankfully safe and uneventful. It was a wonderful weekend that felt a bit like being in an episode from the Travel Channel. I am sure that when we get visitors (I hope that we do) we will be taking them to see Colca Canyon and sharing all these amazing experiences with them. We are very lucky to have a place like this just a few hours away from our home.