COVID in Cusco: Quarantine Week 15

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June 27th 2020
Published: June 28th 2020
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T'astayoc TeamT'astayoc TeamT'astayoc Team

The families of T'astayoc had walked down the valley to where we could drive the pickup. They are a very traditional community and most people wore their traditional ponchos and hats.
Sunday, 21 June, 2020

Day 99 of quarantine, 9 days to go

Like last week, I’m at a loss as to what exactly I am counting down to. With case numbers surging around the world and a vaccine still a distant dream, what’s the point of counting down? Should I be counting up?

Once quarantine is over, I’m going to have to switch to counting up from the day that the first case of Covid-19 was officially diagnosed in Cusco. That was Friday, March 13th. I hadn’t actually realized that it was Friday the 13th until I wrote that just now. Cusqueñians are superstitious about a lot of things, but Friday the 13th isn’t one of them, which is probably why I didn’t even notice at the time.

That was a great day, as Fridays go. Back when I worked in an office with real people face to face, I had a Friday Happy Hour tradition. Drinking in the office is technically against the rules but the boss tolerated me educating my coworkers on the “American cultural practice” of having a beer at 5pm every Friday. Obviously, not all Americans drink, and not all have a beer
Organizing the donationsOrganizing the donationsOrganizing the donations

Community leaders helped Auqui and Henry get the food ready for distribution.
at 5pm on Friday, but I like to mark the end of the work week. It was very artificial, since we worked till 7pm on week days and every Saturday morning. Still, it was the principal of the thing.

That Friday, since it had been announced in the morning that Covid-19 had officially arrived in Cusco, I switched my usual beer from Cusqueña Dorada to Corona. I made little labels for each bottle that said Vaccine/Vacuna right below the Corona label. So, I gave each of my coworkers a bottle that said: Corona Extra Vaccine. It was funny at the time.

It has been 102 days since that Friday. My Day 99 count is from the declaration of quarantine for all of Peru that followed the Monday after Cusco had its first case of Covid.

So much has changed. So much here in Cusco, in Peru and in the whole world. I had no idea, when this began, how bad it would get, how long it would drag on and how far-reaching the consequences would be.

The news is full of the negative consequences, although I try to focus on the positive environmental impacts and the
Masks for allMasks for allMasks for all

These families live so high in the mountains that there are no cases of Covid anywhere in the area. Alfredo, from the Ollantaytambo Town Hall, brought masks since most people didn't have them.
ingenuity that has been required from all of us. We’ve had to get creative to cope, to survive even. I’ve certainly been creating something that never would have existed, if not for the need forced on us by the pandemic. The name alone makes it obvious that if we had a normal 2020, the Covid Relief Project would not exist.

Back home, close to Seattle, the town of Tenino has drawn on a lot of local ingenuity to create a way to support local businesses. Following their own tradition of printing wooden money in the Great Depression, they are using the same printing press they used in 1931 to print wooden money again. Community members who can show that they are experiencing economic hardship caused by the pandemic, can receive up to $300 in wooden money per month. The money is only good locally, but local businesses who accept it can trade the wooden money in for regular cash at City Hall.

I think this is a brilliant idea! Local people who need help get up to $300 per month and local businesses who need help can take these wooden dollars to be exchanged for regular money. It’s also cool in the historic sense, since they’re using the same 1890s newspaper press that they
The people of T'astayocThe people of T'astayocThe people of T'astayoc

Red embroidered ponchos are traditional for both men and women, but women's hats are normally red and bowl-shaped.
used in 1931 to print wooden money.

Think global, act local, right? How could this idea of wooden money help Cusco? Is there anything I could do to get an idea like this going to help local businesses? Does it work so well in Tenino precisely because it’s a town of about 2,000 people? Could it work in a city of 430,000?

I wonder what the population of Cusco is now anyway. It’s certainly less than it was six months ago. Most of the people I know have left town and are living with relatives in less expensive and much smaller towns. If any of my readers has an idea for how this kind of initiative could benefit Cusco, please let me know!

Monday, 22 June, 2020

After work today I went to the bank to withdraw some of the Covid Relief Project donations, then went to talk with Jorge, the wholesaler that I worked with that last time we took food to families in need. The place was still closed for lunch when I arrived, but that gave me some time to chat with the two guys who do all the heavy lifting for Jorge.

Like many of the people at our first two distribution events, this woman had brought a blanket to tie the food to her back for the trek back up to her home, higher in the mountains.

The last time I bought from Jorge, these two guys had loaded up a bus with 50 bags of 5 kilos of rice, 50 bags of 5 kilos of oatmeal, 50 bags of 5 kilos of sugar, 50 bottles of vegetable oil and 50 panettones. This Saturday we won’t have the same variety, but it will be 100 of each item. I think I should at least know their names and make sure I’m on their good side.

Both have been in Cusco for about a year and both are refugees from Venezuela. One worked in Lima for a few months before coming here. He said Lima was a much harder place to live. Prejudice against Venezuelans may seem prevalent in Cusco, but he said it’s much, much worse in Lima. I wonder if the touristy nature of Cusco makes people more welcoming to foreigners here.

I asked if either of them had gotten to see any of the sights, before the pandemic. One said he is only here to work and hasn’t seen anything outside of Cusco. The other took his mother to Rainbow Mountain when she came to visit, but it snowed and all they
Treats for kidsTreats for kidsTreats for kids

We learn as we go, and this time we brought bags of animal crackers and popcorn for the children.
saw was White Mountain. I wonder if there is any way I can help them see Machu Picchu, or at least the Sacred Valley, after the pandemic ends and those places open up again.

Tonight on El Sonido, Chilly put a spotlight on LGTBQ artists. I was so caught up in Solstice being this past weekend that I had almost forgotten that it was Pride weekend. Or, it should have been Pride weekend. Pride parades across the world were canceled for fear of making the pandemic worse. And yet, there are all kinds of protests happening in the US and other countries, protesting systemic racism. It seems to me that in 2020, with marriage equality and some actual legal protections for LGTBQ workers, needing Pride parades to celebrate and advance the equality of all LGTBQ people seems a little less urgent.

The Black Lives Matter movement is very urgent and really can’t wait, despite the pandemic. Or because of the pandemic? Because of how systemic racism is killing Black Americans with Covid at a much higher rate than anybody else?

Somehow, I can justify to myself canceling Pride parades but still supporting the BLM protests.

The little onesThe little onesThe little ones

Along with the snacks, we also distributed some children's clothes donated by Henry's sister.
23 June, 2020

I try to limit my news intake to just a half hour or so in the morning, scanning the headlines on CNN or NPR or the BBC. Today, an article about a village where 80%!o(MISSING)f the population has Covid jumped out at me. I continue to be thankful to happen to be in Cusco, while we ride out this global pandemic. It feels like a safe place to wait while we try to get the pandemic under control, which could take another two or three years.

However, this village is also in Peru. The village of Caimito is in the central part of the Peruvian Amazon jungle, an eight hour boat ride to the nearest hospital. The two nurses that are trying to care for the whole community are out of the medicines supplied by the government. To make matters worse, “when the virus first struck, the government-appointed doctor left Caimito as his contract had expired.” These nurses have also tested positive for Covid-19, but have to continue working because there is nobody else.

The Peruvian Ministry of Health did not respond to a request from the journalist to comment on the situation. How can this be the
Gifts from the families of T'astayocGifts from the families of T'astayocGifts from the families of T'astayoc

After we gave each family 5 kilos of rice, 2 kilos of sugar, 1 liter of vegetable oil and 2 tins of condensed milk, they have me a big basked of boiled potatoes.
same government that I have been so impressed with? Although, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I have been impressed with wouldn’t truly help rural or indigenous communities.

I have been impressed with the compassion that I have heard in the speeches from the president and other government officials. I have been impressed with how quickly and decisively the government acts. I have been impressed with their efforts to get financial aid to families in need. All of these things are great for Cusco, and probably good for Lima too. What about an indigenous community deep in the Amazon jungle? A community eight hours from the nearest hospital? A community that does not have a bank or any way to receive financial assistance? A community where few people speak Spanish?

Just as terrifying as the situation is for the people in Caimito, the description of the only hospital that they have access to is worse. That is, if they can survive the 8 hour boat ride to get there. At this hospital “workers have had to clear away bodies of people who died outside the doors. Inside, there are not enough staff
Sharing foodSharing foodSharing food

Henry, Auqui and I ate a few of the potatoes, then Auqui took the basket and spicy ají sauce around to all of the villagers.
to care for the sick.” This sounds like an absolute nightmare to me. This is worse than the worst days in New York City, right? It might be worse than the nightmare they had in Guayaquil, Ecuador last month.

This is not the Peru that I have been so proud of. The Peru that I thought was handling the pandemic so well. True, in Cusco we’re doing very well, compared to most places across the planet. Still, there are clearly places in Peru that are in much, much worse shape than Cusco. Will the government come through for communities like Caimito? What will it take to slow the spread in these remote communities? Are the isolated, indigenous communities of the Amazon being sacrificed as the government spends so much energy and money on slowing the spread of the virus in Lima?

This has definitely shaken my confidence that the Peruvian government has a handle on the situation.

Wednesday, 24 June, 2020

Today is Inti Raymi, the most important holiday for Cusco and for all those who follow ancient Andean traditions and religion. Sadly, just like Pride and so many other important holidays, gatherings and parades, Inti
Community president of T'astayocCommunity president of T'astayocCommunity president of T'astayoc

Mario Santos was kind enough to let Auqui interview him before we had to leave. The interview will be posted on the Covid Relief Project Youtube channel.
Raymi is cancelled. All we got was reruns from last year’s Inti Raymi celebrations on tv.

The most important event is a reenactment of the Inca celebrations thanking the Inti (sun) and Pachamama (mother earth + nature + the cosmos). I was in the right place at the right time in 2013 to see the ceremony in person, which happens in a field next to the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman. There was a massive circle of people, with hundreds more watching from outside the circle. Most of the people in the circle were dressed up in very elaborate traditional costumes. Like many historical reenactments, the actors have certain lines for each part of the ceremony.

I asked a friend here for more information about the ceremony, since I obviously didn’t get to go see it this year. He said that the actors change every few years and that each person actually signs a contract with the Ministry of Culture. They are chosen mostly for physical characteristics, but the Inca must also have a lot of charisma, since he has a lot more speaking parts than the other actors. All of the actors should have long, straight black hair
Gracias de T'astayocGracias de T'astayocGracias de T'astayoc

From the left: Henry, Mario, Ernesto, another community leader, Auqui and a community member who volunteered to help with distribution.
and have very dark skin. Like the royalty over 500 years ago, they should be very tall, physically fit and speak Quechua. Besides the Inca himself, important roles also include the neustas who usually play the same role for 2 or 3 years, until they no longer look like teenagers.

One famous actor who played the Inca for eight years in a row was Nivardo Carillo. He is actually the actor that I saw when I was here in 2013. He studied anthropology and Andean mysticism and was also a talented musician. Besides acting as the Inca in the Cusco Inti Raymi celebrations, he was also the Inca for an Inti Raymi in Lima.

His story is complicated, but I think it’s pretty interesting. He could have continued longer than eight years as the Inca, because he was so popular. Unfortunately, he was under contract with Ministry of Culture to only represent the Inca for their events. A contract which he violated by participating in a ceremony in another country. When he returned, he was banned from representing the Inca in Peru.

Normally, the actor who plays the Inca represents Inca Pachecutec, who ruled between 1438 and
Pickup loaded for PerolniyocPickup loaded for PerolniyocPickup loaded for Perolniyoc

After T'astayoc, we went back to Ollantaytambo and loaded up two pickups to take everything else to the families of Perolniyoc.
1471. Before the reign of Pachecutec, the Inti (sun) was worshiped in many different places, at numerous temples in the Cusco area. Pachecutec made the temple of the Qorikancha in Cusco the main sun temple. He centralized power and made both the festival of Inti Raymi and Cusco more important than the previous Inca. Nivardo Carillo always represented Pachecutec.

Another popular actor was Carlos Belarte, who wanted to portray Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who ruled immediately after Pachecutec, from 1471 to 1493. Most Americans are familiar with the name Tupac, although I bet most don’t know that the rapper from NewYork was actually named after the Inca ruler Tupac. Between 1471 and 1493, the Inca empire expanded significantly, from present day Ecuador to halfway down the Chilean Andes past modern Santiago.

Sadly, nobody got to be the Inca this year. The Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua in Cusco held a small ceremony in town, since all archeological areas, including Sacsayhuaman are closed. They did a small representation of Inti Raymi at the Ovalo Pachacutec monument, with offerings to the Pachamama but only 10 people were allowed to attend.

There’s no use spending too much time mourning the loss of the 2020 Pride festivals and Inti Raymi. On
Local CheckpointLocal CheckpointLocal Checkpoint

From the main road, we had to cross the river to drive up to the community of Perolniyoc. To protect their community, they had a checkpoint with a gate to keep people out. Like T'astayoc, there are no cases of Covid near Perolniyoc. This woman knew to expect us and opened the gate for us to cross the river. Auqui gave her one of our extra kg bags of rice in appreciation.
a more positive note, this afternoon I accompanied my housemate Kerry to her appointment with a tattoo artist. She has been in communication with a guy named Malqui for months now, but obviously he was unable to open his studio at all. She has had her design and plan of exactly what she wants since February, but didn’t manage to get an appointment before quarantine closed up all tattoo studios.

Malqui did a fantastic job of putting a compass in thin black pencil lines over her design of the globe in sepia. She wanted it to look like the old maps that were on parchment paper from the 1700s. Afterwards I asked him about my plan for a hummingbird tattoo. We didn’t have much time, so I have an appointment to go see him next Wednesday to discuss design. I haven’t gotten a tattoo in almost 20 years, so maybe it’s time to finally get the one I’ve been thinking about for the past few years.

Tattoos are very common in Cusco. Most people in their 20s and 30s that I know have at least one. Most Cusqueñian men have bold black tattoos of Inca designs and symbols.
Ready for distribution at PerolniyocReady for distribution at PerolniyocReady for distribution at Perolniyoc

The families of Perolniyoc all gathered at a basketball court, which was as far as the pickups could go up towards their community.
They’re nothing like what I would want, but they do look good on Quechua people of Inca descent.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Today after work, I went to get my first haircut since before quarantine started. Barber shops and hair salons are allowed to open, with a long list of new regulations. Everything is by appointment only, and only one customer can be in the salon at a time. Everybody has to wear masks and when customers enter they have to stand on a bleach pad for 10 seconds and have their temperature taken. Besides all that, it was a pretty normal haircut experience.

After the haircut, I walked back to see Jorge again. When we had spoken on Monday, he was unsure about being able to get oatmeal by this Friday. On the way from the salon to Jorge’s, I asked at a few other wholesalers if they had any oatmeal in stock. Every single one of them said that they couldn't get it because it’s an imported product and they were all out of imported products.

Last time I had bought the 3 Ositos brand (3 Little Bears), which is the most popular brand.
All smilesAll smilesAll smiles

The 65 families on the mayor's list had each sent a representative down to the meeting point to carry the food back up to their mountain homes.
Today, nobody had any oatmeal of any brand. It really is considered a treat here and I’m so fortunate that I was able to buy 5 kilos each for the families of Sut’uc-Pacchaq.

I wasn’t optimistic when I got to Jorge’s and he gave me the same line as all of the other wholesalers that I had asked: they can’t get any imported products anymore. Apparently, the Peruvian stock of oatmeal is completely exhausted. In some ways it’s probably good to be forced to buy only Peruvian products, but still, I did want to buy oatmeal.

I don’t have enough donations to buy the large tin of powdered milk that we got for the June 6th event, but after some negotiations, we settled on two cans of condensed milk per family. As long as some more donations come in tonight, I will definitely be able to pay for two cans of milk for a hundred families.

I also needed to warn Jorge that Ollantaytambo was sending a truck to pick up the food tomorrow, rather than Saturday morning. The drive to where we met the families of Sut’uc-Pacchaq was only about two and a half hours. This

Auqui, Henry and the other helpers warmly greeted and joked with all of the family members who came to receive the donations.
Saturday, we were going to drive over three hours. Also, the community is more spread out, so we will be stopping in two different places to distribute the aid. Jorge opens at 8:30 on Saturday, but we need to already be past Ollantaytambo by 8:30.

We will have to load up everything on Friday night so that we can leave Cusco at about 6am on Saturday. The mayor’s office of Ollantaytambo has promised to pay for the transportation, so we will see if they can also pay for the truck driver to stay in a hostel. If not, I do have empty bedrooms here, since both Viviana and Andrea have left.

These families live so much farther away that logistics have been a lot more difficult. I’m sure it will all work out in the end, but getting there and back in one day will be a stretch.

Friday, 26 June, 2020

We were informed by the mayor’s office in Ollantaytambo today that they will not allow their driver or truck to spend the night in Cusco. We have to spend the night in Ollantaytambo, since there is no way that we will be able to
Ready to head homeReady to head homeReady to head home

Most people tied the donations up in their traditional blankets for the trek back up the mountains to home.
get to Ollantaytambo by 7am tomorrow, even if we try to leave Cusco at 5am. Transportation here is just too complicated, unreliable and restricted during the quarantine and State of Emergency.

Auqui and I won’t have any trouble spending the night in Ollantaytambo, but Henry has too many obligations here in Cusco. He can spare all day Saturday for the project, but not overnight. His new baby’s and wife's health are just too delicate for him to be gone that much. He has an energetic 6 year old daughter to take care of as well.

I was so looking forward to having both Henry and Edy be there with me this Saturday. Now, I’m afraid that neither will be able to join me. Auqui is very helpful and I know that we can manage with just the two of us. Still, I did want to get photos of a new person helping out. I want to show that we have broader support besides just the three of us.

This afternoon, Henry and Auqui met me at Jorge’s to load up the truck sent from Ollantaytambo. Enough donations came in overnight to be able to buy everything on
Perolniyoc teamPerolniyoc teamPerolniyoc team

Auqui and Henry were helped by a community member who had come to assist with the distribution. Her family wasn't on the list of those in need, but we gave her one of the extra bags of rice in thanks for all of her help.
the list, plus a few extra bags of rice, for those we see who need help but aren’t on the list. Extra bags of rice were very helpful for the first two events, and I don’t see this being any different.

Much to my surprise and delight, Henry said that he would be able to join us! His sister is going to spend the night with his wife and new baby to help out while he’s gone.

The mayor of Ollantaytambo had sent us a big truck but unfortunately no official police passes. We were told that transportation had fewer restrictions now and that we wouldn’t need them. None of us really believed that, so instead of sitting up front with the driver, we all got in the back of the truck with the bags of rice and sugar and boxes of cooking oil and milk. At the police checkpoints we laid down and pulled a tarp over us. Thankfully, the police never looked in the back and the driver had proper paperwork for himself and the truck.

Also in the back of the truck with us was a giant bag of donated children’s clothes from Henry’s

Chicha is a fermented and lightly alcoholic beverage brewed from corn. It is brewed in giant vats overnight and served fresh the next day. Most people brew chicha in their homes and only make as much as they can sell in one day.
sister and a box of animal crackers. It was two kilos of animal crackers in one box, so Henry brought a roll of smaller plastic bags so we could divide them into smaller portions to give out to children. The last two times I had wished that we had something to give to children and this time Henry did a great job making sure that we did.

We didn’t leave Cusco until about 5pm and since it gets dark around 6pm here, the stars started to come out as we drove through the last section of canyon to Ollantaytambo. The Southern Cross was the first to appear, followed quickly by the whole Milky Way. At this altitude, during the dry season, the sky is perfectly clear and every star just jumps out at you.

It felt so great to be headed out on an adventure with two friends, almost like a summer roadtrip. The back of the truck was cold, but got warmer as we descended into the Sacred Valley.

When we got to Ollantaytambo, we unloaded all of the cargo into Town Hall, then the mayor took us out for dinner. There is a little restaurant

It was so refreshing to have a big cup of chicha and sit in the shade, especially after standing on a hot basketball court while we distributed the food and children's clothes.
hidden back behind several shops, just across the street from Town Hall. Technically, restaurants in Peru are only allowed to operate for take out and delivery. However, Town Hall employees and the local police have an arrangement with this restaurant, which is still not open to the public.

After dinner we were taken to a hostel nearby. Walking through the main square, and along the streets leading from it, was a surreal experience. I’ve gotten used to Cusco’s empty streets, but I had never before seen Ollantaytambo during quarantine. It felt as eerie as the first time I ventured out into the empty Cusco streets back in March.

Ollantaytambo is a very touristy town also. It’s the gateway between the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, so it obviously gets a lot of traffic. The mayor said it’s been unnaturally quiet the past three and a half months and they can’t wait until tourism revives.

All hotels are closed, but like the restaurant, there is a hostel open for government business. Since the whole place was empty, we each got to pick our room. I slept like a rock.

Saturday, 27 June, 2020

We had breakfast

Many community members joined us for a drink and to chat before we had to leave.
this morning at the same restaurant, accompanied by a couple tables of police. Afterwards we packed up food for 35 families in the back of a pickup and set off for the community of T’astayoc. It was beautiful and the full description of the day will be posted on the blog on

After T’astayoc, we went back to Ollantaytambo and loaded up the rest of the food in the back of two pickups and drove to the community of Perolniyoc. After distributing the food and the last of the animal crackers and clothes, we were invited to a house that is also a chicheria, where chicha is brewed from corn. This was the most popular drink during Incan times and something that I have definitely developed a taste for.

After a refreshing cup of chicha, sitting outside in the shade, we were invited into the house for lunch. We were served plates piled high with rice and stir fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. It was delicious and we got back in the truck, exhausted and full.

For the third event of the Covid Relief Project, this was such an amazing day. More details
Back through the checkpointBack through the checkpointBack through the checkpoint

This is the checkpoint across the river that we had gone through on our way up to Perolniyoc, with Auqui opening it again for the second pickup coming back down to go back to Ollantaytambo.
of the day and many more photos are on the link above.


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