COVID in Cusco: Week 26

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September 12th 2020
Published: September 14th 2020
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Masks are in - stylish and required by lawMasks are in - stylish and required by lawMasks are in - stylish and required by law

Masks are mandatory in public in Peru and many people have also started wearing full body jumpsuits or long rain jackets, like the woman on the right in the photo. We definitely should be wearing masks, but I haven't seen any studies that say that Covid is effectively prevented by covering our clothes. Side note: what looks like black corn is really purple.
Sunday, 6 September, 2020

177 days since Covid arrived in Cusco

If a pregnancy is 40 weeks, Peru is more than halfway through carrying our Covid baby. People have a lot of unique ways of tracking time. I’m sure very few here in Cusco are counting the days and the weeks like I am. Maybe they’re counting the months. Maybe they’re counting how many family birthdays they can’t have parties for. Maybe it’s how many times they have to go to the bank and ask for an extension to their credit. Or how many job applications they fill out. Or how many times they have to ask their landlord to give them more time to pay rent.

We are now at the end of what would normally be the high tourist season. People should have been working almost every day since May and saving up for the rainy season. The rains haven’t started here yet, so nobody is really able to plant much yet. Those who have irrigation rights are still able to grow food, but that’s not everybody. Potato and corn harvest were a couple months ago and quinoa harvest has also passed. This time of year,
Outdoor marketsOutdoor marketsOutdoor markets

Many people have abandoned the indoor markets and started selling in the street. Especially in August and September when it's really windy, people feel much safer selling outside.
waiting for the rains, is when food becomes scarce. Here in Cusco the markets are still full of food, for those who can pay for it. The small rural communities we visited with the Covid Relief Project are in a very different situation.

In the city, things are starting to look more normal. We’re still not allowed to leave the house on Sunday, but on other days there are more shops open. I’m using my day at home to do some more nesting in my new apartment. I’ve got the landlord to take away the big tv and am replacing it with books and flowers on a silk weaving I bought in 2005 when I visited my friend Anisa in Cambodia. It’s comforting to have some of the same things with me for every move, in every apartment I’ve lived in from Istanbul to Cusco. I’ve gotten pretty good and making my home wherever I happen to be.

Monday, 7 September, 2020

The past week or two, as schools start to open around the US, I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends who are teaching this year. I keep an eye on the news and check
Api and ice creamApi and ice creamApi and ice cream

This Aruba ice cream seller is trying to sell on a chill, windy day. The api seller next to him, had a much better business going. Api is a hot drink, made from purple corn. It's thick and flavored with something very similar to mulling spices.
in on my teacher friends. Despite having all summer to get ready for the first day of school, it sounds like there’s a lot of chaos.

My friends in Cusco ask me what it’s like in schools in the US and I have to explain that in every state the rules are different. Even within the same state, school districts and sometimes individual schools are handling the situation very differently. This approach puzzles my Peruvian friends, who are used to a very nationalized system. Everywhere in Peru, the situation is exactly the same: everybody has to stay home.

Children are supposed to stay home and access the national curriculum online, on tv or on the radio. Weekly and even daily lessons are the same for everybody, done by the national Ministry of Education. Individual teachers are tasked with helping their students understand the material, grade assigned work and answer questions. This creates way more work for them than a normal year and teachers find themselves answering questions from their students all day long, not just during normal school hours.

Another huge challenge for teachers here is that many don’t have enough experience with the technology required to
Api, api!Api, api!Api, api!

Api is always sold hot and usually sold with some kind of fried bread to dip in it. The bread really reminds me of the fry bread that's so common among the tribes of the four corners region in the US.
do their new jobs. School started in April, so few teachers were able to access training in time for school to start. Since then, trainings have been few and far between. At least the government has committed to paying for internet for their teachers. In a country where few communities have broadband internet, this often amounts to the government paying for a certain amount of data for their teachers’ phones. The Peruvian government said in April that it would buy tablets for students and teachers who didn’t have any technology at home, but those tablets never materialized.

What about the schools in the US that want kids to come in person? Even if it’s not every day? What my Peruvian friends have a hard time understanding, and what sounds like causes chaos to me is that “the federal government left it to the states.” The states left it to the schools and the schools left it to the parents. How are the parents supposed to know what the right answer is, to any of this?” Of course, some states and some schools are better organized than others. Some have a defined approach, while others seem to fluctuate daily on what their Covid policies might be.

This vendor at the Saturday Tupac Amaru market, protected from customers' germs by a plastic shield, is selling several cold drinks. The one she is pouring now is chicha made from quinoa, the tub that's mostly empty was the sweet chicha morada made from purple corn, and the orange one is actually just orange juice.

In Peru, there is some comfort in knowing what the approach is, even if it doesn’t work for everybody. The uncertainty in many US schools sounds much more stressful to me. This week’s radio show/podcast for This American Life is about that first day of school, with the apt title: Long-Awaited Asteroid Finally Hits Earth.

The show features schools all around the country, from South Carolina to Utah. Uncertainty and even chaos seem to be the dominant themes. Unlike Peru, many schools in the US are trying to find a way for children to actually go to school in person. They report that in Georgia and Alabama “teachers have plexi-glas in front of their desks” to create a barrier between them and their students.

One teacher they interview in South Carolina says that “these teachers are terrified and it feels twisted this year because we really don’t know what our safety looks like and we don’t know what our students’ safety looks like but you still have to be the boss in front of the class.” As frustrated and frazzled as teachers are here in Peru, they’re not afraid of catching Covid from their students.

Some schools are trying to figure

These beautiful, hand pained Kero cups were another splurge at the Tupac Amaru market. They are an ancient Andean style of cup, traditionally used for drinking chicha. I have already put them to good use with chicha I brought home from the same market.
out how to have 50% or 20% of students in school in person and the rest on Zoom. I’ve taught simultaneously online and in person before and it was the most difficult situation I’ve ever tried to teach in. One teacher just can’t track who is understanding and who needs help while teaching such a split group.

Even scarier, are the crazy conspiracy theories that the reporters find. South of Salt Lake City, in Utah County, parents said in a public meeting that they didn’t want their children to wear masks in school because masks trap CO2 and are bad for their health. I have to wonder, have they never been to a hospital and seen doctors and nurses wear masks all day, everyday that they are at work? Wouldn’t they be the people to notice first if wearing masks was bad for their health?

Another crazy conspiracy that the parents in this meeting believe is that if kids wear masks they will get “abducted and sex trafficked.” As the reporter explains, “the fear is that, if kids are wearing masks, they’ll be harder to identify and rescue.” Really? In Utah County parents are afraid that their children
From my doorstepFrom my doorstepFrom my doorstep

The cheerful colors of my new home are beautiful in the afternoon light.
might get sex trafficked? That may be a concern in Bangkok or Phnom Penh, but I honestly don’t believe that’s a real risk in rural Utah.

What makes me even more concerned for my friends who are teaching in the US now is that these same people “held another rally and told parents to tell their kids to fight back against their teachers” if they are told to wear a mask in class. Thankfully, this is a small minority of parents. Still, with everything else that teachers have to deal with, having to enforce that kids wear masks is just too much. Teachers are worried about much more basic things, like if they’ll be able to recognize kids with their masks on. WhenI taught in a classroom, it was so important to me to know every kid’s name by the end of the first week, if not the first day.

Of course, most parents are not telling their kids to “fight back against the teachers” about wearing masks. One school admin, who had spoken to a lot of parents said that “The consensus is that they’ll make their kids wear masks, if it gets them out of the
New home!New home!New home!

With my plants and flowers and books all in place, plus the photos on the fridge from last week, I feel all settled into the new apartment.
house.” That is certainly not an option in Peru. Not only are all schools completely closed for in person learning, under the continued quarantine rules, “children under 14 years old are permitted to be outside of their residence for 30 minutes per day, but must be accompanied by an adult and must remain within 500 meters of their residence.” Not only are they confined to their homes for 23.5 hours per day, when they go outside, they are not allowed to play together in any way.

Coming back to the endless variety of policies and strategies that are being rolled out this week in the US, I’ve found that is a great resource. Today they published an article about how Chicago Public Schools are starting the school year with one of the strategies used in Peru: Everybody stays home.

Tuesday, 8 September, 2020

Though many cities and countries around the world have relaxed or eliminated the travel restrictions that they enacted back in March and April, in Peru there are still very strict restrictions on traveling between towns, or even within a town.

Internal flights are very limited and commercial international flights are still banned. Even companies like DHL are driving between Lima and Cusco. This is one of the reasons that a package my mom sent to me, which left Boise over a month ago, is still in Lima. Another reason is
Pensive statuePensive statuePensive statue

This woman, dressed in traditional Andean clothes, is in the Plazoleta Santa Catalina, next to the Santa Catalina Convent, which I used to pass every day on my walk to and from work.
the snail’s pace of all government bureaucracy, especially customs. It only took a week to get from Boise to Lima, but it’s been in Lima for almost a month and customs still won’t let it out of their clutches.

Within Cusco, taxis are now allowed, as long as there is a physical barrier between the driver and the people in the back. Also, only two people are allowed in a taxi, each sitting by an open window. The seat in the middle has a big red X on it, showing that nobody is allowed to sit there. Public busses are running, but every other seat has a big red X and there is no standing allowed. This puts each bus at about 30% capacity and all windows remain open at all times. Even with all of these restrictions, all passengers are required to wear both a mask and a plastic face shield. If you don’t have both, you won’t be allowed on the bus.

So, while air pollution is starting to get back to normal levels in many countries around the world, in Cusco we still have much less car exhaust and no jet fuel exhaust, since the
Beer factory muralsBeer factory muralsBeer factory murals

The beer I drink here, Cusqueña, is produced in a factory about four blocks downhill from my apartment. I buy the liter bottles because they're returnable and reusable.
airport remains closed. Unfortunately, the smoke from fire season does impact many days in Cusco. At least it’s not the extreme situation currently playing out up and down the west coast of the US. I have been horrified by the satellite images of the smoke blanketing the west coast, as well as the tragic numbers of fires raging across Washington, Oregon and California. Check out the interactive map of fires here.

My lifestyle in Cusco definitely has much less impact on the environment than when I lived in the US. Not only do I not have a car and am able to walk everywhere I need to go, my ability to buy local foods also had a huge impact. Almost all of the food I buy is grown within less than a day’s drive from Cusco. Most of it is grown within an hour of Cusco.

Even my beverages are made locally. I do buy some Chilean wine, but Cusqueñian beer is made in a factory about four blocks from my house. Even better, I have started replacing beer and wine with chicha. Chicha is a traditional Peruvian drink, made of fermented corn. It’s lightly alcoholic, with more alcohol than kombucha but
Traditional meets urbanTraditional meets urbanTraditional meets urban

Women in traditional clothes are not only in statues and murals. Cusqueñians still wear their traditional skirts and hats, with everything they have to carry bundled in traditional cloths that most of them make themselves.
less than beer. Even though Cusqueñian beer comes in returnable bottles, which are reused, chicha is by far much more environmentally friendly than beer.

Chicha is a homemade beverage. There are no factories built for chicha. It is made in giant clay vessels called raqui and not normally bottled. Some people sell it on the side of the road in reused plastic Coca Cola or Inca Cola bottles, but it’s usually sold by the glass, at a chicheria. There are a couple people who make chicha in my neighborhood, and I take my own bottle to be filled when I go. It’s also much cheaper. For a liter of beer, with the returned bottle I pay s/7 but the same quantity of chicha is s/2.

When it comes to reducing our impact on the planet, every little bit counts, right?

Wednesday, 9 September, 2020

Last week I started teaching English on Zoom to a couple in Lima, Angela and Fred. She works for the Peruvian equivalent of the FDA, approving medications for sale and distribution. One of her tasks is also to review the inserts in every box of medication. She’s the person who reads the
Empty San PedroEmpty San PedroEmpty San Pedro

These used to be juice stalls, where you could get anything from a simple strawberry blended with milk to a mix of several fruits that you can't get in North America. They also have long lists of additives, like maca.
fine print of possible side effects, interactions with other medications and the dozens of other things that almost nobody ever reads.

The two of them want to improve both basic English and their ability to talk about work. Fred also works in pharmaceuticals, but he works mostly in a lab with oncological radiation meds. They both attend lots of conferences and webinars online, which are almost always held in English. They tell me that they understand the technical terms, the medical terminology is similar enough in English and Spanish. It’s the small talk before things get started and some of the context for the medical terms that are hard for them.

They have a one hour lesson four days a week and we usually do a half hour of small talk and a half hour discussion of work and public health topics. Today, our small talk went way off course for what I had planned and it took the whole hour. I started asking about their family and out tumbled a long story about Angela’s nephew Fabián.

Fabián is four years old and his family lives in the Peruvian Amazon, near the town of Chachapoyas, northeast of
Missing vendorsMissing vendorsMissing vendors

I hate to think how many families lost their only source of income when the markets closed in Cusco. Without any tourists allowed in Peru, it may be a long time before its worth their time for vendors to come back to touristy markets like San Pedro.
Cajamarca. The Amazon regions of Peru are notorious for the lack of decent medical care. Covid has hit the region especially hard, as I discussed on my blog back in June.

Fabián and his whole family had Covid in late July, including his two year old brother. They all recovered without any serious complications but there is still something wrong with Fabián. Angela’s English isn’t good enough to tell me about symptoms, but she said that what Fabián needs is a pediatric neurologist. They have no idea if his problem is a complication of Covid, or something completely unrelated.

Due to the travel restrictions still in place, it took the family several days to get a permit to drive to Lima. Once they got the permit, they drove about 18 hours straight, with a rambunctious 2 year old and a sick 4 year old in the car. They had Covid long enough ago to no longer be contagious, but Angela said that they are still taking extra precautions. Fabián’s family are staying at one of Angela’s aunt’s houses and the aunt is staying with Angela. Visits to Fabián’s family are short and they keep their masks on, even in the house.

The hardest
Closed chocolate shopClosed chocolate shopClosed chocolate shop

This is truly tragic for me. The Dayna shop has amazing chocolate and was my only source for chocolate husk tea. It was shuttered for about four months, open for two weeks and now abandoned. Looking through the window I could see that even the counters, display cases and shelves were gone.
decision for the family is if they allow Fabián to be admitted to the hospital, or if they try going every day to manage his testing and procedures as an outpatient. Obviously, going back and forth to the hospital every day is hard on a sick 4 year old, as are the Covid protocols that you have to follow each time you enter the hospital. If they allow Fabián to be admitted, neither parent will be able to visit him. Except for infants who are breastfeeding, nobody, even toddlers, are allowed to have any visitors.

Having a four year old who needs a pediatric neurologist sounds horrible enough. Not being able to visit your four year old in the hospital when they are undergoing testing and procedures sounds like torture.

I asked Angela to update me tomorrow, if she has any news.

Thursday, 10 September, 2020

This morning I got a message from Henry, who has been helping with the Covid Relief Project since day 1. He included me on a new Whatsapp group chat called “Ayni for Alfredo.” Ayni is a Quechua word that means “today for you, tomorrow for me,” or vice versa. It’s
Purple cornPurple cornPurple corn

It looks black if the light isn't bright enough, but this really is purple. It is used for several different sweet drinks, desserts and even dye for wool. The color is very strong and will stain just about anything.
an important concept in traditional Andean culture. Alfredo is an older gentleman who used to be a driver for the trekking agency that I work for. Like all of the guides, porters and cooks, the drivers have been out of work since March 15th when Peru closed borders and put all of us in quarantine, effectively killing tourism.

Henry included about 30 people in the group chat and told us that Alfredo is really not doing well and he needs help. Henry asked all of us to donate something and said that he will collect it this evening and take all of it to Alfredo. Almost everybody on the chat said they would contribute something, from bags of rice or pasta to a full cooking gas tank or cash. I volunteered a couple liters of vegetable oil for cooking, since nobody had suggested that.

Not everybody in the group is in a position to donate something. Most of them are guides, who have been burning through their savings like everybody else, just trying to get by. At this point, most of them haven’t had any work in six months. Of course, even before March 15th, we had the

The plant looks like a turnip but I have never seen it fresh at a market. It is always dried and powdered, apparently because it has a bitter taste when fresh. It's a popular hot, sweet drink here. It has a creamy flavor but a grainy texture.
rainy months of January and February, when there is little to no work, even in a normal year.

I wonder who will be next. Everybody I know here needs ayni.

Friday, 11 September, 2020

Taking advantage of some shops finally opening up, I went on a bit of a shopping spree today. After everything but pharmacies, grocery stores and markets were closed down on March 15th, it has taken a long time for other businesses to open up. Some have tried, and failed. One business I’m sad about losing is the Dayna chocolate shop. I saw it open last week and decided that I’d go in and buy some chocolate soon. Unfortunately, today when I walked by on my way to the San Pedro market, it was closed. I looked in the window and saw that they had emptied the place. The counter, display cases and shelving were gone. If they do come back, it could be years.

Even at San Pedro, very few vendors had their stalls open. Many rows were completely empty, everything closed up. Like the chocolate shop, it could be years before all of them are able to come back. I don’t
Cat's clawCat's clawCat's claw

This is one of the stranger names for ingredients, but it's really just a vine. The vine is dried and sold like this, to be boiled into a sweet drink with all kinds of medicinal properties that have not been approved by the FDA.
expect tourism to come back in 2021 as strong as it was in 2019. It will probably take a while for it to slowly build back up, as people cautiously start to travel internationally again over the next few years.

I bet that the first people to come back will be the more adventurous solo backpacker folks. Maybe some couples who weren’t as economically impacted by the pandemic as most of us. I doubt any of them will want to share space with people that they don’t know. Busses, trains and shared vans will be avoided. Will any of them want to stay in a hostel, with a shared kitchen? Will AirBnb, currently dead in Cusco, come back stronger than ever? I would want my own kitchen, where I can control how food is made and who touches it.

What will it take for them to come back to the San Pedro market? When will people buy souvenirs again? I saw one basket stall open and went over to see if she had the kind of basket I’ve been looking for to use with onions and potatoes. She seemed so desperate for a customer that I went all
Amazon patternsAmazon patternsAmazon patterns

This is one of the patterns that have become so popular on face masks. They're traditionally printed on light weight cotton fabric, which is probably why they are so often used during our new pandemic fashion statements.
out. I got a basket for onions and potatoes, one for bread and a large one for laundry. I’ve been holding off buying a plastic laundry basket, sure that I’ll be able to find a handmade wicker one for the same price or less. A wicker basket might last longer than a plastic one, and even when the wicker basket breaks, it doesn’t become plastic trash. It’s biodegradable.

I also bought a few foods that I’ve been meaning to try, but haven’t bought because I don’t know what to do with them. I got a kilo of dried purple corn, a half kilo of maca and a small bag of cat’s claw. I still don’t really know what to do with any of them, but when I get home I’m sure I can find recipes online.

I’ve had purple corn mostly in sweet drinks. Chicha morada is the most famous of these. It’s a sweet and lightly spiced cold drink, but not fermented like the chicha I wrote about on Tuesday. Api is similar, but served hot. It’s the Peruvian version of a non-alcoholic mulled wine. It’s about the same color, but much thicker and tastes like it

It looks like chopped liver and sounds terrible, but really doesn't have any flavor. If you can get past the idea of eating blood, it's pretty good.
has something very similar to mulling spices.

Purple corn only grows at a certain altitude, in very limited little pockets of a specific micro-climate in Peru. Maca is a root vegetable that looks like a turnip, but apparently is bitter when it’s fresh, which is why I have only ever seen it for sale in dried and powdered form. Cat’s claw is some kind of vine, with little curly tendrils that look a little like a cat’s claw. I think that what they sell is the dried stems.

With my arms full of baskets and the baskets full of food, I left the market and went to some of the fabric sellers that line the east side of the market. I bought some traditional, artisanal fabric at one of them a few weeks ago and went back today. Last time I had wanted some weaving to cover the top of my dresser. Today I was looking for similar fabric to make into place mats. My new home has rubber placemats on the table which stick to everything and are already falling apart, leaving little rubber bits all over the table.

I got two yards of a brightly multi colored
Shelling tarwiShelling tarwiShelling tarwi

Tarwi is the seeds from a domesticated variety of lupine. All lupine seeds are toxic, but the domesticated variety can be made edible by first drying them, then soaking them in water for about a week. The shells are very soft and I ate it for about a year before I learned that I was supposed to shell them.
fabric. The warp are very bright and every color of the rainbow, with a bright turquoise weft. (If you’re unclear on which is warp and which is weft, check here.) It’s made of kaito, a rough artisanal wool. At the price I paid, it must be sheep’s wool. Alpaca would be about ten times the price. I got two yards for s/50, which is about $15. For such beautiful handmade fabric, it’s a crazy steal.

At another fabric shop I got a yard of white cotton with an intricate print that is common on fabrics from the Peruvian Amazon. Interestingly, Amazonian patterns are very common on masks here. Masks are mandatory in public in Peru and although a lot of people wear some kind of disposable paper medical mask, increasingly people are buying washable fabric masks. There are Spiderman and Frozen prints for kids, with mostly plain colors for adults. The exception are the Amazon prints, which are designed to replicate the hand-painted cloth that is made by indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon.

Saturday, 12 September, 2020

I’ve found some recipes, and it looks like the purple corn, maca and cat’s claw are all for making
Tarwi saladTarwi saladTarwi salad

Tarwi is great in salads and can also be added to just about any kind of stir fry.
beverages. There are a variety of sweet drinks that I can make with the corn, though the most common is chicha morada. Maca can be also made into a sweet drink, added to smoothies or used as an ingredient is just about anything. Cat’s claw seems to be another ingredient that can be used as a supplement. It looks like it’s more used for medicinal purposes than for enjoying its flavor.

Eventually I’ll get around to trying all of these, though for now I’m going to start by adding maca to my morning smoothie.

Today, for lunch, I went back to the Saturday market at the Plaza Tupac Amaru that I went to last weekend. Again, I ordered my nabo for lunch, which I see about half the time spelled nabo and half the time navo. When to use B and V in Spanish is not always easy to figure out, especially if you are one of the 17 percent of women in the Cusco region who are illiterate. This time, I didn’t tell the vendor to leave off the sangrecita, like last Saturday. She said that it was cow’s blood and I asked for extra chile sauce.

Sangrecita is basically just cooked blood, but
Maqtillo Maqtillo Maqtillo

One of my favorite potatoes here, the maqtillo is a fun pattern of purple and white. I've peeled the one on the right so you can see how purple the exterior is. Some of them also have bright purple middles.
it doesn’t really have a flavor. If you can get past the idea of eating blood, it’s really not bad. Even though I’m mostly vegetarian/pescatarian, I figured that if I don’t dislike it, and it’s good for me, I should at least eat it once in a while. The higher the Covid case count gets in Cusco, the more time I spend worrying about how to stay healthy.

Hindsight is 20/20 and when I got home from the Tupac market, I started wondering how much risk I took by going shopping today and yesterday. I went to several stalls in the San Pedro market, two fabric shops and bought from several vendors who had a little blanket spread out on the sidewalk, mostly selling fruit and vegetables. Today I not only ate at the market, I drank chicha at the market, ate ice cream at the market and continued my shopping spree from yesterday. I bought handmade and hand painted Kero cups from a woman selling ceramics, then both a rolling pin and cutting board from a woman selling handmade wooden kitchen items.

Sometimes, I just want to pretend that things are normal. I just want to forget about the pandemic for a bit. Then I find myself in the predicament of one of the teachers who was interviewed for the This American Life episode I listened to earlier this week. The teacher had said that “it’s like this virus is this thing that you think about, then don't think about, then you worry that you’re not thinking about it.”

I generally try not to worry about things that I can’t change, but human behavior is the only thing that’s keeping this pandemic going. If everybody on the planet really did isolate from each other for two, or maybe three weeks, it would be over. If I get Covid because I was exposed to somebody, the only person I’ll be able to blame is myself.

All of my blogs, and lots more photos, are on my website


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