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December 27th 2007
Published: December 28th 2007
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Indeed, Ica is now well and truly finished. It's done.
86 or so woven cane classrooms constructed, touched up, demolished (not the ones we built...obviously) and rebuilt in the capital of the region. The place the Governor lives. The place that received 10 million soles out of 20 million for reconstruction, when Pisco received 5 million and Chincha 3 million. And do you know why it was such a fun five weeks down there? Because it was hardly affected by the earthquake so the bars and restaurants and water system and swimming pools were all working perfectly. That said, the larger buildings were pretty badly damaged (though not fallen down...unlike Pisco and Chincha) - schools, churches - so it wasn't all in vain. It appears that the governor of Ica Province has had a little argument with the mayor of Chincha, so no relief money for them, no siree. In fact, Chincha was almost as badly destroyed as Pisco, and would have had a similar number of fatalities had Pisco Cathedral not collapsed and killed all 150 mourners at a funeral.

But I'm ahead of myself. In fact, in the last month I finished leading the SuperTrouperCrackWhipStar Team of aula temporale Construction Saviours. In between that and the last two weeks of rather slower work, I've been to Cusco and Macchu Picchu and back, used an 18 lb sledgehammer like a man, pushed down a wall with my bare hands like a feminist maniac, mastered the art of the pneumatic drill, and nurtured my new friend - Eugene - a potential stomach parasite. He says hi, and is looking forward to meeting you all in March.

Cusco was lovely, and perversely I found the BEST shepherd's pie I have ever eaten (sorry Mum - I'll teach you how they made it). There was also a fair amount of falafel had, and a marked (wondrous, impassioned, fantabulous) absence of rice. Ceviche was on offer, but after 17 hours on a bus up torturous mountain passes, I was feeling far from fresh myself, and so I figured raw fish and seafood might just give me that "travel experience to remember" they all promise in the brochures. I almost had a rebirthing experience twenty metres down a pitch black cave in the middle of a plain above the city, when a security guard offered to help me exchange my "soiled" energy for the power of Pachamama (Mother Earth). I told him, ever so politely, that as much as I wanted to partake of hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus experiences, our horses were waiting and we should be off. Next time, he said. Sure, I said. Next time I pass by the Temple of the Moon, forty minutes' horse ride away from the nearest road on a continent thousands of miles away, for sure. Cusco also meant an indulgence in all things woven, so you're all getting "efnic hippy crap" next Christmas, sorry.

We arrived at Macchu Picchu by the backdoor, being rather tightfisted and disorganised. Some of the other volunteers had got there by first taking a bus from Cusco to Santa Maria, then a combi (like a public minibus) to a hydroelectric plant, and finally walking along the railway lines for two hours to Aguas Calientes, at the base of the great mountain itself. So off we set, night bus (always recommended in South America), while the heavens opened and we got battered by hailstones. Passing rockslides along the road sliding towards the edge of what we imagined were sheer cliff drops (but, thankfully, couldn't see for the fog), we wound our way up and up and up. There were times when even the Peruvians leapt up from their seats and hammered on the door of the bus to tell the driver to take it easy. I assume this is normal friendly behaviour, so was asleep for most of the journey. But there was in-house entertainment in the form of a magician who threw sweets at us at regular intervals and made fun of the gringos in the front. All very amusing.

We finally arrived at Santa Maria at 2am, dark, empty, isolated and very far from anything resembling a bed. Kristina and I nearly fell off the side of a cliff while trying to pee in dignity, so that's the last time I find a quiet corner to relieve myself. It's the gutter all the way from here. Somehow we found some guy who had a combi who was willing to drive us for two hours to the Hidroelectrica, and this time the journey really was end of my night-bus experiences. For a start, there were no paved roads, just wet, muddy tracks spiralling upwards when you thought you couldn't get any higher. The barrier between a sleepy bus driver and sudden, terrifying death was on occasion a bank of earth, sometimes plants, sometimes your imagination. There was an Argentinian girl in the front of the bus who talked non-stop for two hours to our driver, loudly and irrelevantly about everything and nothing, and I credit her with saving our lives.

There followed a two hour walk along the train tracks which sounds poetic in theory but in fact was quite boring as you have to keep looking down to step on the sleepers. We sang. We ate birdseed bars. We took photos of mist rising and curling from the river below. We got bored of that. We slipped into dazed, sleep-deprived silence. But we made it to Aguas Calientes, and then spent about the same length of time looking for the hostel. It was a charming place, full of character and stoned traditional musicians, and a real manifestation of the eternal reciprocity of indoor-outdoor living space. It was just a yellow-glass greenhouse, basically, leaking and open to the elements. With centipedes as a bonus on the walls of the bedroom and beetles peeping up your towel in the showers. It would have been lovely had it not been one of the wettest and most miserable couple of days they'd seen for a while. There were eight of us in total, volunteers from Pisco who we'd picked up along the way.

After a good rest we awoke at 4.30am to begin our eager ascent to the fabled city. Or rather, we would have started out at 4.30, like the other guests in the hotel, had we been more organised and not kept forgetting tickets and water and hats and cameras. Having chucked a yogurt drink down my neck for sustenance on the easy walk to the base of the hill, we began the steep climb up hundreds of steps to the top. This is when I realised that 2 litres of sugary peach-flavoured yogurt tends to repeat on you at altitude when doing strenuous exercise at 6am. It's funny how you discover these things. Anyway, I struggled valiently on, as the boys raced on ahead, and John and Kristina kept pace with chat about what their families were doing that very day, on Thanksgiving. It actually only took us an hour and a half to ascend, which was quite good going, and we soon caught up with the people who had passed us further down, leaping past them, as they hobbled upwards with their walking sticks (so what if they had knee injuries, we still beat them).

So we made it up there for 6am, before the crowds got too big, and got into Macchu Picchu. The view which greeted us was one to remember, and can only be compared to a miserable, foggy November day in England. We saw...pretty much nothing. For the first couple of hours at least. On occasions the mist would lift a little and you could at least see that you were about to tumble down a precipice (in the land without Part K balustrades). We wandered around for a bit, finding nice old Inca ruins and rocks to sit on as we played word games - like name as many places as you can beginning with A, then B, then C and so on - before crashing and succumbing to the temptation of coffee and birdseed bars in the real Inca caf. We then decided to get a guided tour, which really brought the place alive for us. By this time the weather was clearing a little, and much like a white-out on the mountain when skiing, you could stand in the same place for five minutes and have clouds and mist and rain and then bright, strong sunshine roll over you. The swirling mist brought a sense of mystery and sacredness to the place; experiencing Macchu Picchu as it would have been experienced by the Incas for most of the year lent power to the stories of transsubstantiation into condors by shamans, of the rituals and Creation myths in the numerous temples, of the dexterity with which they built a huge community perched on a cliff. So I didn´t get The Photo of Macchu Picchu with the blue skies. I think I felt another side of the legend.


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