COVID in Cusco: Week 37

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November 28th 2020
Published: November 30th 2020
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Baby alpaca!Baby alpaca!Baby alpaca!

The higher you get in the mountains, the more alpaca you see. Baby alpaca wool is prized for being incredibly soft and warm. Wool can only be called baby alpaca if it's the first time that an alpaca has been sheared. We saw lots of alpaca that have recently been sheared and they looks just as silly as a shaved cat.
Saturday, 21 November, 2020

The Ausangate trek started at 4am today! Well, the drive to the trailhead started at about 4am. We didn’t actually start walking until about 10am. The drive from Cusco to Ocongate is over 3 hours. We had breakfast in Ocongate and bought a few last minute supplies.

Another half hour up a dirt road and we stopped where our arrieros were already getting the horses ready. Arriero is usually translated as horseman, the person who owns and cares for the horses on a trek. Rather than the usual backpack trip that I grew up with in the US, when you carry everything in your backpack, including your tent, sleeping bag, food and clothes, we had opted for what tourists in Peru normally do: hire porters or horses.

It seems extravagant, compared with the backpacking trips I did with my parents. However, when organizing this trip for my friends and I, there were several good reasons to hire two cooks and two arrieros. First, none of these four men have had any paying work in 2020. Pandemic and quarantine hit right at the end of the rainy season, when tourists should have been coming back
First campsiteFirst campsiteFirst campsite

At our first camp we were still on the north side of Mt. Ausangate, with the same view of the peak as you get from Cusco.
to Peru. Few people work in January or February and they count on working almost every day in June, July and August. These months are not only the dry season, they’re summer vacation in the northern hemisphere, where most of our tourists come from. Due to the pandemic, nobody had worked at all during what should have been the normal tourist season.

Second, though everybody in the group has been living for months in Cusco, at 11,000 feet, we were planning to hike and camp at about 14,000 ft, with several passes at well over 16,000 ft and the highest pass at just over 17,000 feet above sea level. No matter how acclimatized you are, 17,000 feet is high, and it’s best to have as light a backpack as possible.

Third, it’s so nice to get to camp and have the tents set up and lunch or dinner ready and waiting. Maybe that part of hiring four people is a bit extravagant, but we all definitely appreciated it. Our cook was named Gabriel and he brought an assistant named Richard. Both of them are from villages near the town of Ollantaytambo. Our arriero was Pancho and he brought
Upis LakeUpis LakeUpis Lake

Just an hour uphill from our first campsite at Upis, is the lake with the same name. The shallow areas were frozen solid, with ice chunks floating in the rest of the lake.
an assistant named Pablo. They are both from the rural area near the trailhead.

So, this morning, as Pancho and Pablo packed the food and camping gear on our horses, we organized our daypacks and got ready to start hiking. Today was an easy day, mostly a warm up to get us used to being up at 14,000 feet. We only hiked about four hours, then had both lunch and dinner at the campsite.

After lunch, most of the group went to soak their feet in the hot springs that literally boil out of the earth only a few minutes walk from camp. I stayed to help Auqui do a Pachamama ceremony for Sonia and David. Actually, the ceremony was for David’s close friend Keiko, who died two years ago, yesterday. Keiko was Peruvian and the reason that Sonia and David came to Peru in the first place. Therefore, Keiko is also the reason that Sonia and David have been trapped in Peru the past eight months of quarantine and closed borders.

A Pachamama ceremony involves creating a bundle of offerings, called a despacho, that are either burned or buried, fertilizing the Pachamama, which can be loosely
Green LakeGreen LakeGreen Lake

The lakes around Mt. Ausangate are mostly named for a color, in Quechua. This is Qomer Cocha, with translates to Green Lake.
translated as Mother Earth. The best of what the Pachamama provides for people is sacrificed to be included in the offering. This includes fruit and natural sweets. It may seem odd to some people that oranges, chocolate and caramel would be things to sacrifice, but for me those are some of the best things that the earth provides and therefore a real sacrifice to give them back. Also included are coca leaves and animals. Coca leaves are sacred for all kinds of things and an absolute necessity for any offering. Real animals aren’t sacrificed anymore and instead are represented by animal crackers and a chunk of lard, which should be from a llama rather than a pig.

The Pachamama also likes port, which can be replaced with red wine if necessary. Auqui had brought a bottle of port and red and white carnations, plus several kinds of incense to burn, including myrrh. There is a specific order to what is added to the offering, starting with a square of natural cotton and the fruit in the middle. The flowers and coca leaves frame the offering, covering the cotton and forming a square, which is filled piece by piece with
Andean GeeseAndean GeeseAndean Geese

The Huyata mates for life, like swans. The male is larger - obviously the one on the left. They are endangered but we were fortunate to see several pairs at every lake all four days.
everything being offered to the Pachamama. After participating in several ceremonies, I can follow the order but don’t know any of the prayers associated with each item, since they’re in Quechua. Ceremonies like this were changed very little by Spanish influence and are a direct link between modern Quechua people and their Incan ancestors.

After the ceremony had concluded, Pancho dug a hole for the despacho, which we buried not far from camp. We opted for burying, rather burning partly because we were so far above treeline that we would have had to pack in the firewood on the horses. Also, Keiko died and was buried in Vietnam. Burying the despacho was symbolic of him finally having a burial in his home country. His family was from Lima, so he probably never came to Ausangate, but it’s such a sacred mountain, called Apu in Quechua, that it seemed appropriate anyway.

Dinner was served almost immediately after the ceremony, as always starting with soup. At altitude, hot liquids are needed as often as possible. Lunch and dinner always start with soup and breakfast always includes a pitcher of maca or quinoa drink. We all crashed immediately after dinner, tired
Mt. Ausangate peakMt. Ausangate peakMt. Ausangate peak

The triangle of snow in the center of the top is the highest point on Mt. Ausangate. The mountain itself is a wide, jagged section of a range of mountains, so it's not really obvious which point is the highest, if you don't have a pro with you to point it out. Thankfully, Auqui has guided this mountain literally hundreds of times and knows every part of the trail.
not from hiking, but exhausted from the early morning, the cold and the change in altitude. At 14,000 feet, it is always cold, year round.

Sunday, 22 November, 2020

Today we woke up to a deep blue sky and as soon as the sun reached the camp, we warmed up quickly. Gabriel made us a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried plantains, toast, coffee, maca and a hard boiled egg to either eat for breakfast or take with us as a snack on the trail. We packed our backpacks as light as possible, leaving almost everything for Pancho to load on the pack horses.

Our first destination was Upis Cocha, a lake less than an hour from camp. The campsite last night was named Upis and cocha just means lake in Quechua. It was beautiful, with shallow areas near the shore frozen over and mini ice bergs dotted across the lake. All of yesterday, and most of today, we were approaching Mt. Ausangate from the north, the direction of Cusco, and the face of the mountain we saw was the exact same angle and face that you see from Cusco.

This was a much longer day
So many lakes!So many lakes!So many lakes!

Not all of the lakes have names, and not everybody agrees on the names of each lake. On the right side of this photo, the highest point of Ausangate is in the sun. The part on the left looks taller, but that's just because it's closer to where I was on the trail.
than yesterday and as we approached the mountain, we started to veer off to the west, starting our counter clockwise loop around the main peak. Mt. Ausangate is part of a massive section of the Andes, so though we were hiking almost 360° around the main peak, we were surrounded by other peaks for most of the four days.

We hiked about four hours before lunch, then another four hours afterwards. Our campsite was just below a beautiful lake and Auqui did another Pachamama ceremony for us before dinner. I asked for safe passage around the mountain, for nobody to get hurt and for the rainy season to start on Wednesday - when we are back in Cusco.

Monday, 23 November, 2020

After another hearty breakfast, we started from camp up to the highest pass of the trek. Palomany Pass is at 5,200 meters, which is just over 17,000 feet above sea level. It’s definitely the highest I’ve walked to, though I was at over 17,000 feet in 2013 on a road trip near Arequipa.

I am so thankful that not only did we have perfect weather, I felt really good. I didn’t feel any of

These furry guys live on rocky slopes, like the pika of the Rocky Mountains. They're related to the chinchilla and are probably one of the favorite foods of the Andean condor.
the usual altitude sickness symptoms of headache or nausea. I didn’t even feel tired and made it to the top a good 10 to 15 minutes before anybody else. I had time to take photos with my camera, selfies with my phone and eat some chocolate before the rest of the group joined me.

The sun is so strong at that altitude - especially so close to the equator. With no clouds and no wind, it actually felt warm up there, though that altitude is almost always very cold. We were higher than some parts of the glacier, which we could see on both sides of the pass. My only regret is that two other people in the group saw a vicuña, but I missed it.

Vicuña are a protected wild species of camelids. They’re related to llama and alpaca, but have much shorter fur and are all a light brown color, similar to a deer. Both llama and alpaca come in several shades of brown; everything from white to black. Vicuña grow a big puffy pompom of white fur on their chest, which is one of the softest furs in the world. It’s similar in softness to
Camp TwoCamp TwoCamp Two

We got to the second camp early enough to enjoy the sun and relax before dinner. It was so nice to have pack horses on the trip! Hiking with more gear in my backpack would definitely changed my enjoyment of the trail. Also, the horses can carry fresher and heavier food, so we had three hearty meals every day.
chinchilla or rabbit, though it is much warmer. Vicuña also are adorable because they all have giant eyes, like babies.

We didn’t actually see any other vicuña on the trip, probably for two reasons. First, they are illegally hunted and their population is declining, despite being both protected by the government and considered sacred in traditional Andean beliefs. Second, this is the time of year when they are legally gathered by indigenous Quechua families to harvest the fur. They are not hunted or trapped, but rather
">bunched together by long lines of people clapping and singing. It’s a beautiful tradition, called
">chaccu, that goes back hundreds of years before the Spanish invasion. Now, government regulations require veterinarians to be present both to check the wild animals for disease and in case any are injured in the process.

Even though I felt great in the morning, an hour before lunchtime I was ready to lay on my back, with my feet up on my backpack and not walk anymore. After we left Palomany Pass, we descended to a beautiful lake named Surococha. I saw a condor, lots of vizcachas and a few horses, but no vicuña or puma. After Surococha, we walked through wide meadows
17,000 feet!17,000 feet!17,000 feet!

Palomany Pass is at 5,200 meters, which is about 17,000 feet above sea level. I am so thankful that I didn't have any trouble with the altitude and felt great for that part of the hike.
in a classically U shaped glacial valley. It was a completely different landscape than the bare slopes of stone up near the pass.

After lunch is kind of a blur. I know that we walked another five hours, which felt like ten. Since we circled the peak counter clockwise, my left ankle got very tired of always being the uphill ankle. The trail after lunch was uneven, with lots of loose rocks, since mostly we were following dozens of interconnected alpaca trails that crisscross the mountainside. Since we were walking on the east side of the mountain, that late in the afternoon the sun was on the opposite side and we were walking in shadow. It got very cold, very quickly, and I was happy to have my down jacket, hat and mittens in my backpack. Thankfully, the weather stayed clear and we didn’t even have much wind to deal with. Dinner was ready when we got to camp and I crashed almost immediately after dinner. I was probably asleep around 8:00.

Tuesday, 24 November, 2020

We were all so tired last night that we all fell asleep early, which meant that most of us were up
Family portraitFamily portraitFamily portrait

Auqui, Kerry and I have been quite the team these past six months of post-quarantine pandemic. It was wonderful to be able to do this hike with the three of us together.
and enjoying a hot cup of coca tea as soon as the sunlight hit our tents at about 5:30. Nobody seemed particularly tired, even after how far we hiked yesterday, probably because we were all very motivated to get to the hot springs at Pacchanta (the double c means that you pronounce it pac-chanta).

The trail today was a gentle downhill, getting increasingly closer to habitation. We started seeing older women sitting on the side of the trail, knitting and waiting for us. As the first group to hike the four day loop since the pandemic started, I was surprised that they were there. I asked Auqui if they knew that we were coming and he said that word spreads fast in the mountains. Somebody saw our camp being set up last night and probably the word spread down the valley.

Most tourists are happy to buy souvenirs directly from the people who make them. Buying a scarf or decorative weaving from the woman who raised the alpaca, sheared the wool, spun the yarn and knit the item is true fair trade in my book. Unfortunately, everybody in our group has lived in Cusco long enough that we

Peruvians make stacks of rocks called apacheta, which are similar to a cairn. Like their counterparts in the Himalaya, they are used more to ask the mountains for safe passage than to mark trails.
all have baby alpaca scarves and more bracelets than we can wear. I did buy a small blanket, which is incredibly intricately woven but beyond a few bracelets, nobody else bought anything from any of the women along the trail.

We had prepared for this though, and had school supplies to give to them, as well as dried fruit and nuts. All of these items are very difficult to buy for people living so high in the mountains. Even if we weren’t going to buy anything, at least we could give them something to help in such difficult times.

We also asked them how their children were getting education this year. In March, the president of Peru, who until recently was Martin Vizcarra, declared that for the 2020 academic year, all students and all teachers would stay home. Not even everybody in cities in Peru has access to the internet, so the national curriculum is accessible online but also broadcast on national public tv channels and radio stations. This high up in the mountains, there aren’t even any radio signals, and the children have to hike down an hour or two to get somewhere that has a radio
Group shot!Group shot!Group shot!

On the way down the other side, after Palomany Pass, we stopped for some group shots down where it was easier for everybody to breathe.

One of the children also told us that since so many families don’t have radio signal or access to tv, that the teachers in the area had organized a rotation so that every child went to school once every two weeks. The teachers would give each student the assignments printed out and collect all of the assignments completed in the past two weeks. I don’t know how students who struggle with the work can possibly get enough help with this system, but it’s better than nothing. At least they are doing everything they can to both keep school going somewhat and to protect these isolated families from getting Covid.

As I’ve written before, none of these families have any access to a pharmacy, government clinic or hospital. The closest town, Ocongate, is five hours walking and another hour on motorcycle or horse from some of these families. There is a small government clinic, but no hospital in Ocongate, and any seriously ill patients would have to be evacuated to Cusco, another four hours by winding mountain road. There are still no cases of Covid in the area we were hiking in and we really can’t let it
Glacier, glacier and more glaciersGlacier, glacier and more glaciersGlacier, glacier and more glaciers

Like the numerous lakes, which don't all have names, there are so many glaciers on and around Mt. Ausangate that they don't have names either. Mt. Ausangate itself is off to the left in this photo. We were walking through mountains on all sides as we did our counter clockwise loop around the peak.
spread up there.

It was only about four hours of walking slowly, taking photos and stopping to talk with people to get to Pacchanta. We arrived before Gabriel had our lunch ready, so we got drinks and sat in the sun, next to the stream that we had been walking along all morning, since we left camp. We were back on the north side of the mountain and again had the same view that we have from Cusco. Of course, the mountain was much closer and more impressive than when you see it in the distance, looking south from Cusco.

After lunch we soaked in the hot springs and enjoyed our last up close views of Ausangate. There is a cold stream next to the hot springs, so you can hop out and cool off easily. There are at least six pools (I really should have counted) and the caretaker can add more cool water to any of them, if needed. The pools aren’t very big and they seem to assign each group their own pool. In a celebratory mood, we even bought some beer, now that we were back down to about 14,000 feet and in a
Highland livingHighland livingHighland living

The homes are few and far between, but people do live up in these mountains. This woman makes beautiful blankets and I bought one from her.
town that has a road to it. It always impresses me how quickly the human body can adapt to high altitude. Pacchanta actually felt lower to me, after four days hiking at higher altitude.

Eventually we had to put back on our filthy hiking clothes and get in the van. Since we were trying to pack light, I had clean socks and underwear for after the hot springs, but didn’t bring an extra shirt. I wore the same pair of pants all four days and was very much looking forward to having clean clothes to put on the next day.

Everybody else probably was too, but when the van rolled into Cusco, four hours later, we all flinched at the bright lights and loud city noises. I also saw everybody staring at the people in the streets, who of course were wearing masks. Ausangate is so remote that we had actually escaped the global pandemic and it was a shock to find ourselves back in pandemic life again. Cities always feel too loud and too bright after I’ve been in the mountains for several days, but I’ve never come back to a pandemic before and I did feel

I admired the blankets but Sonia, Kerry & Eva were more interested in talking with the two young girls, Alexandra and Gertrude. Kerry asked them to pick out their favorite bracelets that they had made for her to buy.
sad, facing reality again. Like always, I started calculating when I could get out of town again for an extended period of time.

Wednesday, 25 November, 2020

Having a hot shower and sleeping in a bed again last night were really nice, but this morning I’m back in the world of pandemic and politics.

Today the congress in Peru is discussing an idea that’s been kicked around quite a bit this year: taking away the monthly salary that former presidents and congress members receive, for life. The idea seems ludicrous to me, but it has been law since Fujimori basically decided that he and his buddies should get paid even after their terms are up. The law does not make exceptions for those convicted of corruption or even death. Former president Alejandro Toledo is in jail, but still received his monthly salary. Alan Garcia shot himself when police arrived to arrest him for corruption, but his family still receives his monthly salary. As I’ve noted before, when faced with issues about the Peruvian constitution: it was written for politicians, by politicians, with very little regard for the Peruvian people.

Also, today is day 255 of the State of Emergency, which was declared two days after the
Pacchanta Hot SpringsPacchanta Hot SpringsPacchanta Hot Springs

On the last day, we were all so happy to soak in the hot springs before we had to go back to Cusco. They guy in the hat is Pancho, our arriero, whose home we hiked past on the second day of the trek.
first case of Covid was diagnosed in Cusco. The current stats aren’t great, but if you compare them to Cusco in August, or to the US right now, it’s not that bad. I wish I could compare us to places like New Zealand, but that’s just unfair for Peru. I’m sticking with “at least it’s not as bad as the US.”

Today in the region of Cusco we have 214 new cases and 2 deaths. That’s down significantly from the average of a thousand new cases throughout August and most of September. In other good news, of Cusco’s 27 ICU beds, now only 20 are full. Back in August it was 26 full with only one available. Our total accumulation has the city of Cusco up to 47,452 cases and 791 deaths. The region is still holding the same gender distribution that we’ve had all along with about 70 percent of deaths being men and only 30 percent women.

So, maybe that is all good news. Maybe some of the most ridiculous parts of the Peruvian constitution, like the salary for life of all former presidents and congress members are going to get corrected. Maybe the pandemic is slowing down in Cusco. Still,
Traditional blanket from AusangateTraditional blanket from AusangateTraditional blanket from Ausangate

This is the blanket I bought on the forth day, as we headed down to Pacchanta. It really was handmade by the woman I bought it from and it's alpaca wool. The seam in the middle is because her loom is narrow enough that she can only make fabric half as wide as the finished blanket.
it’s hard to come back to that kind of reality after hiking through some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.

Thursday, 26 November, 2020

Today is Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. Due to the pandemic, my parents are having Thanksgiving dinner alone. The friends they usually celebrate Thanksgiving with are having dinner alone. None of my cousins are going to have Thanksgiving with their parents. I’m certainly not going anywhere.

The CDC has recommended that we not travel for Thanksgiving and announced that “celebrating virtually or with the people you live with is the safest choice this Thanksgiving.” I am obviously not traveling, but I am breaking the rules by inviting over one person for Thanksgiving this year. Her name is Sarah and she lives alone, which makes her relatively safe. Even better, she lives in almost total isolation because she’s here in Cusco to have somewhere to hole up and write her dissertation on disaster preparation, based on her research from Hurricane Sandy.

I spent most of the morning making an apple pie, which I haven’t made in a while. In April I was making one almost every week, stress-baking during the most restrictive part of the quarantine. This
Baratillo Market venorsBaratillo Market venorsBaratillo Market venors

This is the market where Auqui and I bought warm children's clothes for the villages that the Covid Relief Project is visiting in December.
morning I discovered that it’s not apple season anymore. Granny Smith apples aren’t grown in Peru, but it used to be easy to find ones imported from Chile. Today it was almost impossible and the ones I did find didn’t look very good. Thankfully, once they’re peeled and put in the pie, nobody will ever notice.

Sarah brought just about everything else, from roast chicken and potatoes to salad and wine. It was a far cry from the elaborate spread I got used to for Thanksgiving in the US and even a significant step down from my last Thanksgiving here in Cusco, but it was still Thanksgiving. We still had a lovely time and it was comforting to be able to hang on to at least part of the tradition, despite being in a different country and despite the pandemic.

Friday, 27 November, 2020

Today I tried to focus on organizing everything for the Covid Relief Project’s village visits in December. We’re planning on going to a village each Saturday: December 5, 12 and 19. So far, I have raised enough money to go to the first two villages and am almost halfway to what we need
18 bags of clothes18 bags of clothes18 bags of clothes

For about $200 USD, we got an incredible amount of clothes. There were 11 bags the size of the tall white ones and another seven like the ones piled on top.
for the third. I’ve been sending out requests to past donors to send donations next week, on Giving Tuesday.

I emailed everybody on November 1st and on Thanksgiving, basically giving information about what we’re planning in December and asking them to donate on Tuesday. Enough people have sent money in response to those emails that at least I have enough for December 5th and 12th. That gives me time to get the rest of the donations before I have to prepare for the 19th.

It’s fun and exciting to be focusing on the Covid Relief Project again. We pretty much stopped at the end of August, because Covid cases were spiking through the roof and I think my donor base was tapped out. Now, with infection rates slowing and a bigger network of donors, I’m really hopeful that we will be able to do a lot of good this December.

Saturday, 28 November, 2020

Today I got up early and went with Auqui to a used clothes market here in Cusco. The market was shut down for most of the pandemic, but has recently opened back up. It’s outdoors and the location was changed to a
Children's clothesChildren's clothesChildren's clothes

It took us about three hours, but we picked out the warmest children's clothes in the best condition that we could find. We got a wide assortment of baby clothes up to teenagers. We also tried to pick out the cutest baby clothes - like the red monkey onesie on the top right of the photo.
larger area so that the vendors are much more spread out. When we got there, I first saw the hand washing station at the entrance and lots of security enforcing social distancing.

My goal for the morning was to get enough warm children’s clothes for four villages. I brought the equivalent of $200 in Peruvian Soles and honestly did buy so many that I’m confident that we’ll have enough for four villages. If we fundraise for a fifth, then I’ll have to figure something else out for them.

I had no idea what to expect and am honestly so happy with how much we were able to buy with the money we had. Auqui explained the project to the vendors and we got incredible deals. Used clothes here are already very cheap but we were getting warm winter coats that usually sell s/5-s/10 Soles for s/1 or s/2. Baby clothes, like onesies and little sweaters and pants we got two or three for s/1. Currently, the Peruvian Sol is about 25 cents, USD.

We came home with 18 large bags of clothes. We sifted through piles and told vendors that we needed kids clothes of all sizes but only warm clothes. We were looking for long pants, long sleeve shirts, sweaters, jackets and coats. I normally hate shopping, but this was very different. We were helping vendors that haven’t been able to sell for months and they were giving us great deals when they understood what we were buying the clothes for. It was amazing.

Now, with so many clothes for each village, I can focus on the rest of our purchasing. Henry is going to work with a baker to make mini-panettones for each person in every village. Auqui has a contact who is going to sell us pure cacao bars at a great price. The two of them are still working on getting milk and we certainly will have enough money for sugar to make the hot chocolate and to buy a 5 kilo bag of rice per family.

One week to go and I think we’ll have everything pulled together by Friday, ready to set out Saturday morning!

Lots more photos of Ausangate are on my website


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