COVID in Cusco: Week 33

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October 31st 2020
Published: November 1st 2020
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A subdued HalloweenA subdued HalloweenA subdued Halloween

Last year the Halloween decorations around Cusco were impressive. This year only a few shops, like this polleria, put up a few decorations. Throughout the pandemic, Cusco has been robbed of its usual enthusiasm for any excuse for a party.
Sunday, 25 October, 2020

226 days since Covid was first diagnosed in Cusco

Tourism is back! After over seven months of being shut down, Machu Picchu will open in one week! Even better, for the first two weeks, it will be free! Unfortunately, all of the free tickets for Machu Picchu are already gone. What is left are free permits to hike the Inca Trail from KM104, which does take you to Machu Picchu, but you have to walk there. There are obviously a lot more people who want to take the train to Machu Picchu than who want to walk there.

Getting permits to hike from KM104 ended up being more complicated than I thought it would, but I did manage to get train tickets and Inca Trail permits for myself and six friends, with Auqui as guide. All of them have been in lockdown in Peru for over seven months and five have never had the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu. Two of them were convinced that they would have to leave Peru before Machu Picchu would open. All of them are crazy excited that their Inca Trail permits and Machu Picchu tickets were free.

I am so happy to report that I was able to vote from Peru and that my vote was counted in Washington State! (Photo credit: Amanda Beane, 2016)

Anybody can buy a ticket for Machu Picchu, or train tickets. However, only licensed travel agencies that also have a special Inca Trail license can buy Inca Trail permits - even when they’re free. Also, any group on the Inca Trail must be accompanied by a licensed guide who also has the special Inca Trail license. It may seem like over-regulation, but the Inca archeological sites along the trail really are so exceptional, and vulnerable, that any harm or vandalism would significantly damage this UNESCO World Heritage site. I get why guides have to go through a special licensing process for the Inca Trail and why protections for the area are so strict.

What most people come to Peru for, and what the tourism industry calls the Classic Inca Trail, is a four day hike from KM82. This is not yet open. What they are going to open on November 1st is the section of the Inca Trail that you can hike in about five hours. You take the train to KM104, where you get off on the side of the train tracks. There is no train station and no platform where you get off. As long as you
Pan wawaPan wawaPan wawa

On November 1st, Peruvians buy each other a very traditional kind of bread. It's kind of like a sweet challah bread and slightly similar to the Mexican pan de muertos. People buy "pan wawa" for women and "pan caballo" for men. Pan wawa is supposed to look like a swaddled baby and pan caballo is supposed to look like a horse.
have requested the stop ahead of time, the train will stop for about ten minutes for the people who are hiking what the tourism industry calls the Short Inca Trail.

Our plan for next week is to go from Cusco to Ollantaytambo Tuesday evening, which is only about an hour and a half from Cusco. We’ll spend the night in Ollantaytambo because the only train tickets available when we went to buy them are for the train that leaves at 5am. PeruRail wants people at the station a half an hour before departure, which is obviously a very early morning. We’ll start hiking around 6:30am, which will give us more than enough time to see everything along the trail on the way to Machu Picchu.

The way we’ve planned it, we’ll hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but not use the entry tickets that come with the Inca Trail permit. We’ll take a lot of photos from the trail, then either take the shuttle down to the town of Aguas Calientes, or walk down. It’s a very steep downhill walk on very uneven stone stairs, but the bus is $12, which is an extravagant amount by any
Panes caballos y wawasPanes caballos y wawasPanes caballos y wawas

Like the advertisement says at the bottom, these traditional breads are sold at the Saturday market I usually go to. Wawa means baby or small child in Quechua, the native language of the Cusco region. Quechua is a very onomatopoeic language, and obviously wawa is the sound that babies make. Caballo is a horse, with the implication that these breads symbolically make people more fertile.
standards, for a half hour shuttle. For people living on the economy of Peru, $12 is about s/43, which is what I spend on groceries for a week.

We’ll spend that Wednesday night in Aguas Calientes, then take the shuttle up to Machu Picchu the next morning at 5:30 so we can be up there for sunrise at 6am. I’ve been there for sunrise several times already, but it’s a magical experience and not something I would ever pass up. You only get 4 hours in Machu Picchu with the current regulations, but you can see everything in about 2 hours, and there’s nobody paying attention to how long you’re there anyway. Even with the recently imposed time limit, I don’t think people feel rushed.

Our train doesn’t leave Aguas Calientes until 6:30 in the evening, so I’ll finally have time to check out the museum and maybe even the hot springs for which the town is named. We’ll have plenty of time for the hike on Wednesday and also plenty of time for Machu Picchu on Thursday. For me, that means plenty of time to take photos, even if they’re photos of places I’ve already been several
My pan wawaMy pan wawaMy pan wawa

The traditional of pan wawa is cute, but on some level seems just a bit cannibalistic. Men get to eat horses, but women are supposed to eat babies?
times. Machu Picchu is a fascinating place and I’ll never get tired of it, no matter how many times I get to visit.

Monday, 26 October, 2020

Last week I was nervously checking the Washington State website for tracking ballots. Today I was so relieved to see that my vote was counted! I have officially voted for Biden & Harris in the presidential election. Washington is so solidly blue that my vote doesn’t have any effect on the electoral college, but it will count in the popular vote.

Explaining the electoral college to Peruvians is not easy. Explaining it to some Americans isn’t easy either. I honestly don’t see how it makes sense in the 21st century. Maybe it was needed when it was created but I would love to see every state abolish their electoral college votes and make the popular vote what actually matters. In the past elections when Republicans have won, the popular vote has been like a dissenting opinion. It doesn’t really change anything: even though Hillary Clinton won by about 3 million votes, she still lost the complicated math of the electoral college. I just hope that this year the popular vote
Pandemic recoveryPandemic recoveryPandemic recovery

This is a new government campaign aimed at helping people start new businesses. They have created a new branch of town hall with employees whose job it is to walk people through the paperwork necessary for starting a new business. They also reduced the fees by 60 percent.
and the electoral college align.

Today was the last repatriation flight from Lima to Miami. According to the US Embassy in Lima, almost 14,000 Americans have been evacuated from Peru since the US Embassy started to organize repatriation flights on March 20th. In the beginning, most of those were tourists who happened to be here when Peru closed the borders without warning. In Europe many countries gave people a few days warning, or gradually worked their way up to closing the borders. In the US, even when borders were “closed” to places like China, there were still exceptions for several groups, like US citizens in China. When Peru closed the borders, it was without warning and completely closed.

In March and even in April, I didn’t consider taking one of these flights. I didn’t feel like I had any reason to go back to the US and my Mom reassured me that I was safer staying put than trying to travel. I still agree with that assessment. Staying home in Cusco, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing is much safer than traveling through three or more airports, since there are obviously no direct flights from Cusco to
The new normalThe new normalThe new normal

Outside every restaurant, even ones open only for take out and delivery, is a hand washing station.
either Seattle or Boise.

As things wore on, in May and June, I did consider going back to the US, but not very seriously. At that point there were still only a handful of cases of Covid in Cusco, with no deaths in April or May. I was convinced that Cusco would escape a serious outbreak and that it was one of the safest places in the world. In July, when Peru opened up transportation within the country and allowed more businesses to open, cases skyrocketed. August brought a huge wave of Covid cases in Cusco, which didn’t calm down until mid-September.

Still, when I consider the risks of travel, and the massive outbreaks in the US, I don’t think I would be any better off leaving Cusco now.

Tuesday, 27 October, 2020

There was an interesting article today in CNN comparing the problems of “overtourism” in 2019 and the death of tourism in 2020. Cusco is the first really touristy place I’ve lived, and the first time I tried taking a break from education to see what it’s like to work in tourism. As sad as it has been to see my friends in Cusco become unemployed in March, and watching them burn through
Covid info in the busCovid info in the busCovid info in the bus

This sign is inside a city bus, where people are still only allowed to sit in every other seat, with nobody sitting next to another person. The sign tells you that before you touch a mask, to put it on, you should wash your hands with soap and water, or use an alcohol based sanitizer.
their savings as tourism continues to be shut down, for me it’s mostly been interesting. I have savings and have managed to make enough work for myself that I feel underemployed, rather than completely unemployed.

So the death of tourism, for me, has been fascinating, but not personally devastating. This article, comparing last year and this year, of course mentions Machu Picchu. 2019 was the first year that limits were imposed on how many people entered at a time. The daily limit was capped at 5,000, which is obviously still a lot of people. Tickets were sold for a specific time slot and for the first time people were not allowed to spend more than four hours in the archeological site.

Next week, when Machu Picchu finally reopens, the limit will be only 75 people at a time, with a daily limit of 675 visitors. It’s a drastic change and I suspect that these first two weeks with free permits will mostly be a practice run for the new rules. The ruins are extensive, so it shouldn’t be too hard for groups to spread out and maintain social distancing. Group size is now limited to seven people, plus
Kaylee and Rimba (Kalanchoe sexangularis) (Sedum rubrotinctun)Kaylee and Rimba (Kalanchoe sexangularis) (Sedum rubrotinctun)Kaylee and Rimba (Kalanchoe sexangularis) (Sedum rubrotinctun)

I'm having fun putting together more combinations of plants for my new mini-business Super Cute Plants.
guide, which is exactly the number in our group. I’m very curious to see what other changes will have been put in place since I visited with my friend Amanda, in February.

Unfortunately, skimming through the news today, I also saw that Peru has recorded its first case of diphtheria in 20 years. It’s a young girl in Lima, which could be very dangerous. Lima is a crowded city and the last thing we need in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic is a diphtheria pandemic. Hopefully, they’ve caught it early enough to contain it. Health officials should be good enough at contact tracing now that I hope they can trace where this kid got infected and who else she might have exposed. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, 28 October, 2020

One of the interesting effects of the pandemic here has been the number of people selling from their cars. Most of them sell food and roll slowly through the neighborhood, yelling at us through megaphones that they have fruit or freshly baked bread or fresh, unpasteurized milk straight from the farm. Partly, this has become popular because people are trying to avoid going to stores and markets, where you have a bigger risk of
Opus (Opuntia monacantha)Opus (Opuntia monacantha)Opus (Opuntia monacantha)

I'm also having a lot of fun picking names from baby name websites that go with each plant's scientific name.
breathing in the exhalations of somebody with Covid. Now, the vendors come to you and you can just step outside the door and buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

I very rarely buy from these vendors because I don’t want to encourage them. The megaphones are obnoxious, as is the loud music they play to try to get your attention. The worst are the milk vendors. They play the same annoying song in a loop, interrupted periodically by a loud recording of a cow mooing. I prefer to work and write without interruptions or even music. However, the sounds of the vendors can be so distracting that I have to put music on anyway, just to drown out the piercing music and scratchy megaphones.

Only the ice cream sellers don’t bother me. They still have the piercing music and obnoxious megaphones, but since I grew up thinking that somebody driving through the street selling ice cream was normal, at least that one doesn’t get to me. The fresh bread in the morning isn’t bad either, though it’s always announced by an old fashioned horn honking, which isn’t the best way to wake up. Fresh bread sellers start combing the
Ellis (Echeveria crasas)Ellis (Echeveria crasas)Ellis (Echeveria crasas)

All of the Echeveria are getting names that start with E.
streets at about 6am, which is a bit earlier than I really want to hear honking.

Thursday, 29 October, 2020

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mayor of Cusco dying of Covid. I hadn’t realized at the time that the mayor wasn’t elected. He was the second in command who had been appointed when the elected mayor was charged with corruption and relieved of his duties, pending an investigation and trial.

The new mayor in Cusco is a bit like Peru’s AOC. Romi Infantas is only 25 years old, which makes her the youngest mayor in the country. She was acting mayor for about a month, as mayor Valderrama battled Covid and spent weeks on a ventilator before passing away. Besides being the youngest mayor in Peru, she joins an exclusive group of only 5 percent of mayors in Peru who are women. Politics in Peru is often controlled by a carefully selected few oligarchs from a tightly managed “old boys’ club.” Changing the sexism and even misogyny imposed during the colonial era is progressing very slowly.

Thankfully, waves from the #MeToo movement have been felt in Peru and things are changing, however slowly. The word feminism still has a negative connotation in Peru. Last February,
Pinky the brainPinky the brainPinky the brain

Obviously a play on the cartoon Pinky and the Brain, I figured that this cactus earned the name.
participating in a training for tour guides, I actually heard the woman who was supposed to be presenting about machismo in tourism say that she wasn’t a feminist. I was so shocked that I didn’t even say anything in the moment. Only afterwards did I ask her what she could possibly have been thinking.

Like many countries around the world, salaries for women lag far behind men’s salaries. In Peru men make over 20 percent more than women. Like everywhere else, there is a complicated list of reasons for this discrepancy, and an equally complicated list of necessary changes. I only hope that improvements made in other countries will help speed up changes here.

Friday, 30 October, 2020

It looks like the predicted fall/winter wave of Covid cases in North America and Europe have arrived with a vengeance. There are new lockdowns in both France and Germany, with big spikes in cases. We all knew that when people started socializing more inside, as temperatures drop, cases would rise. In the southern hemisphere, we are on a completely different cycle.

Today is the 229th day of the State of Emergency and in Cusco we are up to 67,072 confirmed cases. We’re getting between 700 and 800 new cases every day
Jade's new homeJade's new homeJade's new home

All of the plants from Auqui's nursery start out in reused containers. This jade plant was growing in the top half of a plastic water bottle before I got her a ceramic pot.
in Cusco, but deaths are staying in the single digits. Even more encouraging is that there are 13 available ICU beds, which is a big improvement over the 1 or 2 available beds throughout August and September. The city of Cusco still has the vast majority of cases among the fourteen districts of the region of Cusco, with 44,183 cases. One of the lowest is Paruro, with 437 cases.

Paruro is the district that includes Mayubamba, one of the villages that I visited with the Covid Relief Project. It is a very poor community and one of the five that we’ve chosen to visit again in December. Trying to figure out how to make our Christmas events as safe as possible, we decided that everybody will have to bring their own mug from home for the hot chocolate that we’ll be making. This will also save the planet from the trash of hundreds of paper or styrofoam cups and lower our costs, so we can spend more on buying chocolate, milk and warm clothes for the kids.

After not visiting any villages since August 22nd, I’m really excited that we’ll finally get to take the Covid Relief Project back on the road. We’ve got a good start on fundraising and already have enough for the first village we’ll visit, T’astayoc. We have about half of what we need for Mayubamba, after which I’ll start fundraising for the village of Ocongate.

Saturday, 31 October, 2020

Today is Halloween! Having the holiday fall on a Saturday, with a blue moon tonight, is the perfect time for Halloween parties - except that we’re in a global pandemic. Last year I was astonished at how much Cusco went all out for Halloween. Kids don’t trick or treat here, though some businesses give out candy. Still, Cusco is very much a party town where it seems to me that all holidays from all cultures are fair game. The main square was so full of children and adults in costume that it was hard to walk through the crowd. People even had costumes for their dogs! It was very impressive.

This year, like every other holiday that Cusco loves, the festivities are cancelled. The plazas are guarded by military and police to enforce the moratorium on parades and gatherings. I only saw a handful of kids in costume and the party atmosphere is definitely missing. I went to a subdued little gathering, consisting mostly of the friends who will be doing the Inca Trail with me next week. Instead of mourning the loss of Halloween, we talked about how excited we are for the Inca Trail. Those who have been waiting to visit Machu Picchu are thrilled, which made the evening more about celebrating their imminent visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site and New 7 Wonder of the World. It was definitely a fun night, even if it had very little to do with Halloween.

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