COVID in Cusco: Week 35


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November 14th 2020
Published: November 16th 2020
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We ask flowers to have perfume and people to have educationWe ask flowers to have perfume and people to have educationWe ask flowers to have perfume and people to have education

As Peru descends into political chaos, I try to be outside enough to see what the protests are like while avoiding getting mixed up in the crowd itself. I want to know what's going on but also avoid tear gas and Covid.
Sunday, 8 November, 2020

239 days since Covid was first diagnosed in Cusco

Trying to train for the Ausangate trek in two weeks, I went for a 7 mile hike today. I’ve been wondering what the burn from early October looks like up close - and if anything is starting to regrow yet. I blogged about the fire while it was happening and you can see photos on my Week 30 blog.

As with any hike around Cusco, you start at high elevation and just keep going up. My phone recorded my elevation gain as equivalent to climbing 159 flights of stairs. The highest elevation we get to on the Ausangate loop is just over 17,000, so I really can’t train enough. It is a little comforting to know that I am able to run at 11,000 feet and that most people who hike Ausangate live at sea level. So, I should be in good enough shape and acclimated enough - I hope.

The burn itself is much bigger and much worse than I imagined. It looks big from town, but I discovered that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once I got up and over the hills that
The big burnThe big burnThe big burn

About five weeks ago there was a big wildfire on the north side of town that blackened the hills around some of our most important archeological sites.
line the north side of Cusco, the burn on the other side was even worse. In eight hours of hiking, I never got past the burn zone. There were little pockets of unburned land here and there, but otherwise it was complete devastation.

The biggest loss was several areas of queuña trees. I wrote about these endemic trees’ importance in restoring native habitat in the Cusco region in the Week 24 blog. The loss of these groves is a big setback for habitat restoration. Several large groves of eucalyptus also burned, though their loss is mourned by me. People plant them because they grow tall and straight, which makes them better than native trees for building and firewood. However, they suck so much moisture and nutrients from the soil that they prevent native plants from growing nearby - and thus destroy the habitat.

Still, the fire was devastating all around and obviously burning any forest releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the pace of our quickly changing climate. As I’ve written before, wildfires in the Cusco region are not normal. We do not naturally have the kinds of fires caused by lightning in the Rocky Mountain West. All fires here
Wildfires and CovidWildfires and CovidWildfires and Covid

From the entrance to Puka Pukara, you can see the blackened hills from September's fire and a big sign about avoiding Covid exposure. Note that there are a few people at the archeological site even though the entrance is clearly supposed to be closed.
are caused by people, usually by farmers burning the stubble from their fields so they will be ready to plant when the rains come. At this point, the rains are more than a month overdue and the extended dry season is intensifying the problem of escaped field fires.

Monday, 9 November, 2020

Today the Peruvian congress voted to remove President Vizcarra for “moral incapacity” which sounds ridiculous to anybody who knows how corrupt these congress members are. The president of congress who rallied congress members behind him for the impeachment, Manuel Merino, is widely considered as one of the most corrupt politicians in Peru. There are dozens of charges against him, including accepting bribes and even rape. For Merino to lead the congress in ousting Vizcarra is the pot calling the kettle black. What Vizcarra is accused of is accepting bribes over ten years ago when he was regional governor of the Moquegua region in southern Peru (between Arequipa and Tacna).

In my opinion, and apparently the opinions of the thousands of Peruvians protesting in the streets, accusations of accepting bribes years before he became president is no reason to throw him out of office five months before elections - especially
Loss of habitatLoss of habitatLoss of habitat

Every year it seems like the wildfires get worse and the loss of habitat is more extensive.
considering the pandemic and economic collapse in Peru.

Vizcarra has high approval ratings and has been popular among Peruvians throughout the pandemic. I wrote many times in my blogs about how much I admire his handling of the pandemic, which I couldn’t help but compare to how the current administration in the US has mishandled the pandemic since it began. I translated and transcribed many of his speeches on my blog, including one from March 22. Around the world leaders are getting blamed for how they handle the pandemic, some deserve the blame and criticism more than others.

The pandemic in Peru has been one of the worst in the world, but from what I’ve seen, the main culprits are the poverty that prevents people from staying home and the lack of any effective healthcare system. Vizcarra almost had to start from scratch, building hospitals and adding ICU beds as fast as possible in a developing country that doesn’t have the kind of resources that any developed countries have.

Peru closed schools and borders sooner and faster than most other countries and in the beginning seemed to have prevented the pandemic from getting out of control. Here in Cusco, we
Hope for regrowthHope for regrowthHope for regrowth

Five weeks after the fire, there are some signs that the area will recover. What we really need to make that a reality is for the rainy season to start. It's overdue and many farmers are fearing a drought year.
had no deaths and only a handful of cases in April and May, though the poorest neighborhoods of Lima were dealing with a major outbreak. Peru also started giving families financial support in March, sending cash directly to them, with a second round of cash grants in September. I honestly have been impressed with how much Vizcarra has done, when he has had so little to work with.

How ironic that impeaching a highly unpopular president in the US didn’t remove him from office, while a simple vote of the Peruvian congress removed a very popular president.

Tuesday, 10 November, 2020

Last night Manuel Merino was sworn in as president and the protests really got going. Both among Peruvians, and internationally, this is now seen as a coup. Not only is Merino widely considered one of the most corrupt people in Peru, getting rid of Vizcarra is clearly in his personal best interest and just as clearly not in the best interest of the Peruvian people.

Vizcarra became president in March, 2018, when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from office the day before congress was going to vote on his impeachment for corruption and graft. Kuczynski joined the list of the most recent presidents of Peru who
Hiking for hours through the burnHiking for hours through the burnHiking for hours through the burn

Though I hiked for about eight hours, I never got to a section of trail that wasn't burned. The scorched area is much bigger than it looks from town.
are under investigation or already convicted of corruption. This list includes every president, going back to 1985: Alberto Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo, Ollanta Humala and Alan Garcia (who committed suicide the day that police came to arrest him).

Since his inauguration, Vizcarra has worked hard to combat the corruption that has gone hand in hand with presidential politics since Fujimori’s new constitution in 1993. Vizcarra used one of the extraordinary powers of this constitution last October, when he dissolved congress. Though previous presidents have used the extensive powers of the new constitution to increase their own influence and wealth, Vizcarra dissolved congress because they would not approve the anti-corruption laws that he had proposed. Politics in Peru are such that politicians don’t even have to try to cover up their corruption. Congress members didn’t pretend that their opposition to the anti-corruption laws was in the best interest of the Peruvian people. They don’t really answer to the Peruvian people in the way that I previously thought all politicians have to answer to their constituents.

So far, Merino has promised that the elections scheduled for next April will take place. However, considering the sweeping power that presidents in Peru enjoy, that promise has been met with some scepticism. It’s just that none of this has any obvious benefit
Queuña treesQueuña treesQueuña trees

The bushy queuña tree is fantastic habitat for birds, small mammals and fertilizes smaller plants growing underneath. It is the cornerstone of a healthy habitat in the Cusco region but it is endangered and we need substantial government programs to replant the mountains with queuña.
for the Peruvian people. The benefit for individual politicians, especially Merino, is clear. So, if the government leadership is so transparently acting in its own best interest, why would we believe that they would hold elections as scheduled?

According to Steve Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who is an expert on Peru: “To go after a president and destabilize the country’s democracy in the middle of this type of crisis for no serious reason is beyond reckless.” The root cause of the impeachment really goes back to Vizcarra’s focus before the pandemic. As reported by AP News: Vizcarra “has been unable to find friends in Congress, dismissing lawmakers last year in a brash move cheered by citizens as a victory against dishonest politicians. He has also pushed through initiatives to curb corruption by changing how judges are chosen and to bar politicians with crimes from running for office.”

Considering the outrage amongst Democrats over Trump getting to replace both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think that many Americans understand that how judges are appointed really affects the citizens of any country. Honestly, the whole situation is a disaster for the Peruvian people. Just like Americans needed Congress to focus on a stimulus package when they were spending days in hearings for Judge Coney Barrett, Peruvians need congress to focus on helping us through
Clear cutting near the Temple of the MoonClear cutting near the Temple of the MoonClear cutting near the Temple of the Moon

As if the wildfires weren't bad enough, the community near the Temple of the Moon decided to cut down all of the trees that they planted. The Ministry of Culture is rumored to be trying to take back the land that surrounded some of the most important archeological sites and the people who planted trees there decided to take their trees back before they lose control of the land.
the pandemic and economic crisis. For Congress to be spending their time jockeying for position in advance of April’s elections is, to say the least, “beyond reckless.”

Wednesday, 11 November, 2020

The political chaos in Peru has been so riveting that I’ve hardly had time to focus on my individual situation. The good news for me this week is that I pulled out my contract with the trekking agency that I started with September 1st, last year. I realized that not only is my contract complete, but that I’m entitled to a year end bonus. As I get busier with the Covid Relief Project, Super Cute Plants, my own writing, getting ready for Ausangate and Auqui’s new business Responsible Treks Peru, I’ve been happy to not have to spend my morning working for SAM Travel.

With my contract complete, I don’t have to quit to make more time for all of the other things that I’d rather be doing. Cusco is a very small town and it’s in my own best interest to not burn any bridges here. Considering Saul’s reaction when I showed him that my contract is complete and that he owes me a bonus,
Archeological areas exposedArcheological areas exposedArcheological areas exposed

The hills around Cusco are covered with important archeological areas. The recent clear cutting has exposed them even more to ravages of time and weather.
I am positive that he will not offer me another contract. He might be almost as relieved as I am that the contract is complete.

Also, if he does pay me the bonus that I’m entitled to, I’ll have enough to get by in November and December. That means I’ll be able to make the Covid Relief Project my top priority again. I really want to go all out in my fundraising efforts. With tourism resuming, hopefully there will be more employment opportunities soon and the project can retire. My goal was to help the communities that are most in need while borders were closed and there was no tourism. I’m not saying that these communities will be fine after Christmas, but the Covid Relief Project will have met its goals for being temporary assistance during the pandemic.

The new political chaos will bring new challenges and if that kills tourism before it really gets started, then perhaps a new project will be needed. I’m not ready to contemplate that, though. If I do start a new project of some sort, I’ll have to first find a new set of donors. I think that my current group of
November 13: World Kindness DayNovember 13: World Kindness DayNovember 13: World Kindness Day

After Thanksgiving, this is my favorite holiday and one I am happy to celebrate!
donors and the people I have contact with, are tapped out. I started this project thinking that the guides in Cusco would contact people who have come here as tourists and know the porters and horsemen in the Cusco region. Since most of the communities here were supported by the tourism industry, I thought that former tourists would be interested in helping. I don’t really know if the guides didn’t follow through like they said they would or if the tourists they are in contact with weren’t interested. Either way, most donations came from my contact, rather than theirs.

I am trying once again to get them to reach out to their contacts. Hopefully we will get donations from more people than my family and friends. I really need the guides to get word out now, since the political chaos has crashed the local currency and the exchange rate right now is fantastic for people who have dollars. The maximum I can get out of the ATM here at a time is s/700 Peruvian Soles, which used to cost about $212 USD. Now it costs only $192 for the same s/700. That might not seem like a huge difference
Birthday shoppingBirthday shoppingBirthday shopping

My friends Kerry and Amanda teamed up to help me pick out my own birthday present.
to people in the US, but $20 goes a long way here and it makes a big difference for me.

Obviously, what the congress here did to Vizcarra is not good for Peru, but the silver lining for me is that the crashed currency will help feed more Peruvians this Christmas. I just need people to donate before the Peruvian Sol starts to recover.

Thursday, 12 November, 2020

As if it couldn’t be more obvious that Merino took Vizcarra out so he could be in power, today he appointed all new cabinet members. With only five months till elections, why couldn’t he work with the cabinet that has been in place throughout the pandemic? If Vizcarra was the one that congress had an issue with, why can’t they work with his cabinet members? It’s disruptive enough to force the president out. How could it possibly help to put in all new cabinet members?

The military is backing Merino, which is another suspicious turn of events. If congress legitimately has the power to dismiss the president, and if their reasons are legitimate, why does Merino need to have the military support him? The protests are getting stronger and bigger. I’m hoping
Double birthday celebrationDouble birthday celebrationDouble birthday celebration

It was really fun to get to share birthday celebrations with Chey! With her birthday on the 12th and our party on the 13th, my birthday on the 14th was fully celebrated.
that things will calm down and we will have elections in April, but most of my Peruvian friends are hoping that Merino will resign.

Thankfully, Kerry organized a lunch today for her friend Chey’s birthday. This is exactly what I need to get my mind off the news for a bit. I need a break from the chaos.

We went to a restaurant that recently reopened after closing back in March for the pandemic. There are no menus, to avoid having something that lots of people touch. There’s just a QR code on the table for the lunch menu and another for the drinks menu. Silverware is delivered in a sanitized and sealed plastic bag and we were also given paper bags to put our masks in. The accepted idea here is that taking off a mask and putting it on the table is a terrible idea.

We had cocktails and lunch, then went shopping at Kerry’s favorite store in Cusco: Hilo. Hilo means thread in Spanish and it’s owned by Eibhlin, who moved from Ireland to Cusco over sixteen years ago. Today is Chey’s birthday and besides the events today, Kerry has organized a party for
Pretty cake!Pretty cake!Pretty cake!

I've seen pretty cakes, but this is by far the prettiest cake I've ever had for my birthday! We joked that the chocolate covered gold fruit were my Inca fruit.
the two of us tomorrow, as they day between our two birthdays.

Kerry is a fantastic event planner and also very good at thoughtful touches. She contacted both my parents and my friend Amanda to get them to participate in today. My parents sent her money to give me for lunch and Amanda sent money for me to buy myself something at Hilo. The whole group got new outfits for tomorrow’s party, which was actually really fun. I usually dread clothes shopping, but the festive atmosphere and group of friends make it much easier and I got myself a red linen dress with big pockets.

Friday, 13 November, 2020

Don’t get too caught up with 2020 having two Friday the 13th. Today is World Kindness day! It’s my second favorite holiday, after Thanksgiving and I’m always happy to celebrate it the day before my birthday. I tried to avoid the news again today and enjoy a hike in the afternoon before I got ready for Kerry’s party. Besides food and birthday cake, Kerry also bought karaoke machines for tonight. Yes, that’s machines plural, because she couldn’t find one in Cusco with two microphones for duets.

I spent most of the
Celebrations in times of CovidCelebrations in times of CovidCelebrations in times of Covid

Technically, quarantine is over, but I had to laugh when my friend Ali sent this. We do still have a curfew and some lockdown rules in place here in Peru and it's obvious to all that the pandemic is far from over.
day taking it easy and really don’t have anything else to report.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Several members of the cabinet who were appointed just two days ago have already resigned. If a majority of the cabinet resigns, it should trigger the president to also resign. The protests are getting bigger and increasingly violent. If Merino doesn’t resign soon, they will continue to get worse.

I tried to limit my news intake today and enjoy my birthday regardless of the increasing chaos in Peru. My Mom made me a birthday cake and she and my Dad called this morning to sing happy birthday to me and blow out the candles for me. I had birthday cake from last night’s party for breakfast and spent most of my time talking with friends and family.

To celebrate my birthday even more, this afternoon I also walked up to the Temple of the Moon with a few friends. We took chicha and from the top of the temple we thanked the Pachamama for keeping us safe. We also toasted to all of the Apus, the sacred mountain peaks, asking for safe passage for the loop we will start around
Jade for saleJade for saleJade for sale

Now that I'm not working at the trekking agency, I have more time to focus on the Covid Relief Project and my new business Super Cute Plants.
Mt. Ausangate next Saturday. We are only one week away from the hiking trip and I’m so happy to have this to look forward to.

I think that the best way for me to detach from the political chaos is for me to unplug completely. Hiking the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu in the days after the US election helped me unplug from the uncertainty as votes were counted throughout the week. Being outside is a great antidote from just about anything, especially political uncertainty.

All of my blogs and lost more photos are on my website https://heatherjasper.com

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