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Published: July 19th 2020
Mt. TerijuaySunday, 12 July, 2020
At the Lares pass, between the towns of Calca and Lares, you really feel like you're up in the Andes.
Day 123 of Covid in Cusco
The stats, the numbers, everything just keeps going up. How many cases of Covid in Cusco, in Peru, in the world? How many people have died? How many people have lost their jobs? How many people have slipped back below the poverty line after recently working their way out of poverty? How long have we been dealing with this virus? Are there any numbers, anywhere, that are going down?
What questions do I have to ask to get numbers that are going down? What questions do I have to ask to find some positive news? I keep going back to air pollution, with so many flights cancelled and so many people staying home. That’s definitely been good news for a while now. Is there any other positive news in the world?
I don’t even know if the Covid Relief Project is positive news anymore. There are just so many families in need. Yes, we are helping a lot of people and yesterday we took food to a hundred families. Most of those families will be able to feed themselves for a week or two with what they
Prohibido el paso
This is the checkpoint from the main road to the road up to Perolniyoc. Two weeks ago I was welcomed in Perolniyoc, as part of the Covid Relief Project taking food and children's clothes to families in need there. Today, I was just another outsider that the community didn't want to let in.
received yesterday. Still, the longer the borders are closed and the longer people don’t have work, the more families will need our support. The Peruvian government hasn’t sent any help lately and every mayor we contact gives us the name of several communities that haven’t received any help, even from the government.
Can we really keep this up for all of 2020? Can we actually get enough donations to keep this going until tourism returns and stabilizes? Am I going to be working on this in 2021? How do I not get burned out?
Yesterday, taking food to families in Taray and Picol was beautiful and like the previous times, I felt energized and optimistic when we were actually in the communities, distributing aid. Also, like the previous times, I feel exhausted, overwhelmed and a little depressed the next day. The need is just so great.
It reminds me a lot of living in Bangladesh. The biggest contrast is that here I do get the days of optimism, when I feel like I really can help and that what I’m doing actually does make a difference. The days of feeling optimistic and helpful in Cusco far outweigh
Puente en riesgo de colapsar
This is the bridge in Pacchar, on the main road that goes from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. I've driven over it dozens of times but never before noticed the sign that says it's at risk of collapsing. Unless you're standing right at the beginning of the bridge, the sign is hidden behind the wooden building you can see to the left of the sign.
the days of feeling overwhelmed and helpless. In my two years in Bangladesh I had very few days of feeling optimistic or helpful, while almost every day I felt overwhelmed and helpless. (See my blog from December 21st, 2014).
I honestly don’t believe that it’s at all possible for the situation in Cusco, in terms of poverty and hunger, to ever be as bad as what I saw in Bangladesh. Still, it’s bad enough and I really don’t want to see it get any worse. Considering the questions that I keep coming back to, I just don’t see it getting any better anytime soon. Monday, 13 July, 2020
This morning I walked over to see if the Alianza Francesa had opened yet. Of course, the doors were closed and the gate locked. I didn’t really think it would be open yet, but it was worth walking over to find out. The café next to the Alianza was open, so I went in to see if they had any more information.
The Alianza has been doing all of their French classes online since the quarantine was announced on March 15th. Apparently the demand dropped so much that
This is where I finally found a place without any communities nearby, a place where nobody would care if I was hiking during a pandemic. All trails that pass near or through communities have been blocked off as isolated communities try to stay isolated from anybody coming from somewhere that has Covid cases.
they have had to lay off a bunch of staff and aren’t looking for new teachers. I’ll have to keep checking in, since going back to teaching French is what I’m counting on if I can’t get any work in tourism by September.
I’m still not tempted to go back to the US this year. If I wanted to teach for the 2020-2021 academic year, I would have to be doing interviews now and probably go back in the next couple weeks. Considering that borders here are still closed, I don’t see how that would be possible. Plus, the numbers of Covid-19 cases are soaring in the US and I also don’t see how schools will be able to open safely in September.
At the beginning of this pandemic, back in March, I thought it was terrible timing to leave the security of education to go into tourism. In March it was already obvious that tourism in Cusco was going to be dead for most, if not all of 2020. I was holding out hope for some tourism to resume in August or September, but now don’t have any hope for any tourists to come here until the
Some of the structures at Ankasmarka are still original but many have been restored. The more complete buildings show the unique curved walls and oval doorways.
Christmas-New Year’s holidays, at the earliest.
Now, I am actually glad that I chose this time to take a break from education. I would still have a monthly income if I were teaching, but I would also be stressed out about how exactly I could teach in the current conditions. I would have had a very stressful end of the school year for all of March, April and May. I would have been trying to teach online, which all teachers know is infinitely more difficult than teaching in person.
Teaching at any point in 2020 would be so difficult and my heart goes out to all of the educators who are trying to make it work. Like all of the teachers I know in the US, I am worried about how prepared or unprepared schools will be when they are supposed to open at the end of August or beginning of September. How many teachers will catch the virus from their students? How many students will catch the virus from each other? How can schools possibly make teaching and learning safe this year?
The other bit of intel I got from the French café owner is that
The village of Ankasmarka is high on a narrow ridge, overlooking two valleys. It would be impossible to approach the place without being seen. Why the Inca didn't use the location is a mystery, but there are no examples of Inca architecture at the site. Everything is very pre-Inca.
the Alianza Francesa in Arequipa is doing better than the one in Cusco. Arequipa has a lot more Covid cases than Cusco and they are still in a very restrictive quarantine, so currently Arequipa isn’t a better place to be than Cusco. However, Arequipa will recover first economically because it has other industries besides tourism. Cusco is completely dependent on tourism, but Arequipa has other options and therefore will have more opportunities for work before tourism recovers in Cusco.
I don’t really want to move to Arequipa though. I moved to Cusco last year because I want to live in Cusco. I moved here without a job, prepared to live off my savings until I found work. I suppose that means I can also live here for a while on my savings while I look for work again.
The uncertainty into which this pandemic has plunged the world is so complicated for all of us. How long do I hold out hope for work in Cusco? Do I continue to think of July as vacation and devote my time to the Covid Relief Project and any hiking or camping trips I can go on? Do I start now
The buildings are laid out with obvious paths between them, small plazas paved with stone and clear evidence that everything was built with some planning.
to find work, any work, in Cusco? Searching for work and applying for jobs is a full time job. Do I really have to do that right now? Can I take a couple more weeks in good conscience to enjoy my new ability to leave the house and even to leave Cusco? After so many weeks cooped up in the house, working online, I really want to go camping and hiking and just be outside and not on the computer. Am I being irresponsible by pretending that I’m on vacation in July, rather than laid off? Can I really spend my time hiking and camping, rather than job hunting? Tuesday, 14 July, 2020
Things are looking up today! One of the women I met last Friday at yoga has put the word out to her friends in Australia about the Covid Relief Project. One of her friends started a fundraising campaign and has already raised half of what we need for August 1st! This is amazing! Just when I was hitting another low, feeling overwhelmed with fundraising and how many families are depending on me to come up with another $1000 USD, I got some much needed help.
Most of the reconstructed buildings look like they would have had thatch roofs, but the small structure was rebuilt with a stone roof. There was no sign of smoke on the inside of the walls or roof, so my first guess that it was a community oven must be wrong. It's so small my only other guess is storage - unless people built such elaborate dog houses back before the Inca Empire.
Much needed and much appreciated. If a group of Australians who have never been to Peru can come up with $500 USD, I have to be able to match that with my other fundraising sources.
What I’m increasingly trying to rely on are the guides in Cusco reaching out to people they know who have come to Cusco as tourists in the past. I really want to be getting donations from people who have been here, gone on treks through the mountains here and seen what the conditions are in these isolated mountain communities. People were poor and situations were precarious before the pandemic. Obviously, like the rest of the world, people who were already struggling here are in dire straits now.
And yet, Peru continues to open back up, slowly. National flights are supposed to start again tomorrow - after a full four months of all airports in the whole country being closed. For four months, there hasn’t been one flight in or out of the Lima airport. All evacuation or repatriation flights leaving Peru have been from the air force base in Callao. I’m trying to imagine any airport in the US closing for four months.
Everything about these structures was round. The shape of the building was circular. The walls curved inwards and the doorways were rounded too. None of them had windows, but I would have expected those to be round also.
Peru is a very centralized country and almost all flights are to or from Lima. There are no direct flights from Cusco to Arequipa or Piura or Cajamarca or Ayacucho. Everything goes through Lima and most of the Covid cases in the country are in Lima. I don’t know a single person in Cusco who thinks it’s a good idea to let flights from Lima land here. I also can’t imagine that any other city in Peru is looking forward to allowing people from Lima to land there. I can’t even imagine how many more cases of Covid we will have in Cusco if we start allowing people from Lima to come here. Wednesday, 15 July, 2020
Today I tried to go camping again. If I’m going to pretend that I’m on vacation, rather than unemployed, and if I want to get outside while the quarantine restrictions have been lifted, then I have to leave the house.
I naively thought that I would be able to go see the Perolniyoc waterfall and archeological area. On June 27th I had taken food there with the Covid Relief Project and while there was a community-run checkpoint from the
All across the hilltop, there was a pattern of several houses close together with a terraced open space next to them, like a little plaza.
main road to the road up to the community, they were happy to let us through then. Today, with national flights starting and many more restrictions being lifted, surely they will have opened up.
I was very wrong. Even though the two people at the checkpoint recognized me and remembered that I had taken food to them just over two weeks ago, they absolutely would not let me pass. A half an hour of chatting and being friendly and dropping every name I could think of did nothing. There was no way they were going to open the gate for me and let me walk up the road towards the waterfall. There is no cell service there, so I couldn’t call either of the people who had worked with me to organize taking food to the families of Perolniyoc. I caught a ride back to Urubamba to come up with another plan.
From Urubamba I went to Calca, to try to find a ride to Lares. I had hiked the Lares valley a few months ago (blog date January 11, 2020) and most of the trails didn’t go through any communities. Surely, they would be open. Plus, I
This building had a reconstructed thatch roof covering part of the top, although they left plenty of open space, like a giant skylight.
had heard that the Lares hot springs would be opening today, along with airports and a long list of other places.
From the main bus/taxi terminal in Calca I got a ride to Lares, arriving close to dark. At the entrance for the hot springs, there were several other cars and about a dozen people waiting. The gates were locked, but a few people went into town to ask at the Lares town hall if we could camp there overnight and if the hot springs would be open tomorrow. The responses were no and no.
The hot springs will not be opening in July, and if the community has its way, they will not be opening in 2020. On the one hand, this is frustrating because I really wanted to go for a hike today and camp out. On the other hand, I applaud these communities for banding together to keep out people coming from other communities, who could be bringing the virus with them.
This is one of the biggest reasons that I want to take food to isolated mountain communities. Besides them being out of work because tourism is dead, they also shouldn’t be going
The trail down
Walking from Ankasmarka down to Calca started out with a very steep descent. The hilltop village was clearly built in a strategically defensible location.
to Cusco or any other city to look for work. They should not risk leaving an isolated community that doesn’t have any Covid cases to go to a town or city that does have confirmed Covid cases. They should not risk taking the virus with them back up to their villages, which do not have access to a hospital, clinic or even a pharmacy.
That night, in Lares, I was told that I was not allowed to camp there. The other people who had been waiting to get in the hot springs were told that there would be nowhere for them in Lares and they decided to drive back to Calca. I still wanted to go hiking tomorrow, so I asked around until somebody agreed to rent me a room. They did ask me to be discreet, since the community had decided to not let in any outsiders. They asked me to peek out the door before I left and make sure that nobody saw me entering or exiting their place. Everybody was clearly suspicious of a foreigner and my assurance that I lived in Cusco wasn’t much of an improvement. There are still no cases of Covid in
Farming every inch
Any spots on the hillside that were "flat" enough to farm had been recently worked. This time of year, farmers turn over the earth so it will be ready for planting when the rains come back.
Lares while Cusco has had about 2,000.
To recap, today I took a van from Cusco to Urubamba, a shared taxi from Urubamba to Pacchar, another shared taxi from Pacchar to the checkpoint gate for Perolniyoc, a shared taxi back to Pacchar, another shared taxi back to Urubamba, a van from Urubamba to Calca, and a shared taxi from Calca to Lares.
I would have been so nervous about being in so many cars and around so many people back in March. Now, with all the research about how people catch the virus mostly from being in closed spaces, breathing in droplets, I’m much less worried about riding in cars or vans with all of the windows open. Everybody here wears masks and everybody gets their temperature taken when they enter the bus terminal. There are hand washing stations everywhere and people sprayed my hands with alcohol every time I got in a car or van. It doesn't seem that dangerous anymore.
Thursday, 16 July, 2020
This morning I tried to find a place where I could go hiking. Talking with the taxi drivers, I asked about hiking from Cuncani or Quiswarani or anywhere else I
I have a hard time identifying female hummingbirds. Most species are distinctive for their bright colors, but since females don't always have the same coloring, I have a hard time telling them apart. This bird is at just over 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet) in an area without any native trees.
could think of. I was informed that each place had a “ronda campesina.”
This is exactly what is protecting Perolniyoc. I don’t have an exact translation of ronda campesina, but basically it’s a security detail for a group of communities who have banded together to keep their communities quarantined. It’s kind of like an unarmed militia. They take turns working checkpoints to keep people out. I applaud their efforts and agree with the necessity of protecting isolated communities even though that means I didn’t get to camp last night and don’t get to hike anywhere today.
Eventually, I asked about going back to Calca. There is one archeological site near the road between Lares and Calca that isn’t near any community, so I asked if that might be protected by a ronda campesina. The drivers agreed that nobody was there and nobody would care, so I asked to be dropped off there.
Ankasmarka is a pre-Inca site, on the Calca side of the pass between Calca and Lares. It seemed reasonable to get dropped off there and then walk back down to Calca. The place really is amazing and I would highly recommend it to anybody interested
So far from Cusco, I was happy to see one of the birds that is the most common outside of my living room windows.
in pre-Inca architecture and history. There are no homes nearby and I didn’t see any people in the area, so it seemed safe enough. I spent a couple hours there, before walking down towards Calca. The whole time, I didn’t see anybody.
The walk down to Calca is steep, but it was beautiful and I was just happy to be able to walk somewhere. About halfway down I went through the community of Totora, which seemed apocalyptically deserted. Friday, 17 July, 2020
One benefit of not working online today from 9am to 1pm is that I can go to yoga again at the Temple of the Moon. Last Friday Sonia, who has been teaching yoga online, decided to offer an in person, outdoor yoga class. It was such a success that she has now decided to make it a weekly thing.
It is so nice to have this weekly bit of normalcy. Sure, we’re wearing masks on our walk up to the Temple of the Moon, but it seems so natural to spread out under the eucalyptus trees that it’s easy to be ten feet apart so we can take our masks off. For that hour,
The Andes don't really feel like a desert, until I see the cactus.
I can focus on breathing and moving and not worry about the pandemic.
Unfortunately, when I got home I made the mistake of checking the news. CNN reported
that yesterday was a new record high of the number of cases reported in the US. The numbers are skyrocketing and outbreaks seem to be popping up all over the country. As worried as people are in Cusco about our numbers going up as restaurants and malls are allowed to open, I really hope it doesn’t get as bad as it is getting in the US.
So far, Cusco still feels like a relatively safe place to be. The department of Cusco, with a population of 1.2 million people, so far has 2,536 confirmed cases and 30 deaths
. That seems pretty good to me compared with Idaho’s 1.75 million people and 13,261 cases with 118 deaths. That’s 21 out of 1,000 people in Cusco with Covid-19 and 75 out of 1,000 people in Idaho with Covid-19. Washington state is even worse. I’m getting these numbers from Google, so forgive me if they’re not exact. Really, I’m just trying to reassure myself that being in Cusco is still safer than going back to the US.
Covid in Quechua
This is the first sign I've seen warning about how to prevent Covid in Quechua. It's at the entrance to the community of Totora.
course, anywhere on the planet, staying put and staying inside is safer than traveling. If I actually wanted to go back to the US now I’d have to travel to Lima, which has had a terrible and uncontrollable outbreak going on for months now. From Lima, there are few evacuation flights that allow US citizens to leave Peru and most of those go to Miami. Florida doesn’t look too good right now and I have no idea how that is affecting the Miami airport or what a flight leaving Miami to go back to Seattle or Boise would be like.
Regardless, I should just stay home, in my current home, wear a mask and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. That probably means no more attempted camping trips. Saturday, 18 July, 2020
Today I texted back and forth with my landlord about the two empty rooms in my house. This is a four bedroom house, but Viviana went home to Switzerland on a repatriation flight at the end of March and Andrea went to live with her brother in Lima on June 5th. Kerry and I haven’t worried much about trying to find new
Getting closer to Calca, I started walking by herds of sheep, always tended by children.
housemates because the market is flooded in Cusco with empty AirBnbs and apartments that people can’t afford to live in.
All of the Peruvians I know here have either moved in with family in Cusco or left Cusco entirely to stay with family in smaller towns that are more affordable. So many people are in Andrea’s situation of knowing that there won’t be work for them in Cusco at least for the rest of 2020. Andrea worked in the best restaurant in town, the kind of restaurant that gets reviewed in the New York Times
. The owners closed down March 15th and told employees that they might reopen in March, 2021.
Restaurant and hotel workers are in the same boat. There’s no work now and no work likely in 2020. The few restaurants that are opening up for delivery are employing family and friends. People who worked in the service industry, which is such a big part of the tourism industry, have all fled Cusco.
So, when we heard that somebody might be moving into one of the two empty rooms in the house, Kerry and I were curious. Who is moving to Cusco these days? Our landlord herself is tight lipped, but
Some of the kids tending the sheep were playing with each other, or with their dogs, but more often than not the girls were knitting.
her niece let the cat out of the bag: somebody fleeing Lima.
I am not comfortable with somebody from Lima moving into my house. May 31st was the worst in Lima, with 8,805 new cases confirmed. Yesterday Lima had 3,951 new cases, so it has gotten better, but that’s still a very high number and I still don’t want somebody coming from Lima to share my kitchen with me.
Of course, with two empty bedrooms in the house, it’s inevitable that eventually the landlord will find somebody to move in. Perhaps now is the time for me to start looking at the AirBnbs that have flooded the rental market here in Cusco. Even though I was so thankful to have housemates during the fifteen weeks of quarantine, maybe I would feel safer living on my own now. Kerry and Andrea saved my sanity those fifteen weeks, but now with things opening up, maybe I don’t need housemates to save my sanity. Maybe I’ll actually feel more sane if I live alone.
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