Monday, May 31, 2010

Back From the Dead

So, the blog has been on hiatus for a while, but it seems like time to get into it and write another chapter. A lot has happened since last time I was on here: midterms are over, the last and probably most important month of school has started, I went with Ryan Waite to Cusco, to Macchu Picchu, and saw some interesting new things in Lima, and it is crunch time for my language project. I thought I would talk about a little of each.

Let's start off with the pictures first. Most importantly, I have grown a mustache, although I think it is about to meet its end in just a few days when I get around to getting a haircut.
This one is a preliminary mustache photo and it has filled in a lot, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Ryan arrived in Lima on the 18th of May and after spending a couple of days seeing different sites around Lima we headed out to Cusco, the town closest to Machu Picchu: Aguas Calientes, and the site of Machu Picchu itself. The way to Machu Picchu is complicated as a large part of the train tracks that make their way there were washed out by floods earlier this year. To get there from Lima we had to take the flight from Lima to Cusco, take a taxi service from Cusco to a town called Piscacucho, and then take the train from Piscacucho to Aguas Calientes. From there it is a half hour bus ride (there are so many visitors that you have to get up at 4am if you want the early bus) to the entrance to the city.

Machu Picchu itself was amazing. It was also exhausting. The scale of the city and the incredible precision with which it is all built is not something that comes across in the photos. Im tempted to go on about the city and all the things we learned there, but I think I will try to be brief and just post a couple of photos. It is pretty difficult to take a bad photo at Machu Picchu, the views are amazing, and we got there early enough to avoid the crowds. We also took the hour and a half hike up to the top of the peak that is seen over the city. It is another ruins where an alternate view of the city can be seen.

There are llamas all over the site that maintain the grass and stroll around. They are pretty great. This guy was checking things out before the sun rose.

The view from the top tier of the city was incredible. This is still about a half hour before the sun came up. We heard that we were lucky to get there on a day where the fog had already cleared by the time things were open.

After we hiked around for the first half hour we decided it was time start looking for some of the places we had heard about. There are a lot of things to see and it is incredible the amount of time it can take to get from one part of the city to the other. To get from the far side by Waynu Picchu to this part in the photo would take two youngsters like Ryan and I about 40 minutes of straight walking and climbing.This is a photo of the Inca bridge. It is built on the back side of the mountain and was designed to keep intruders out if the need arose. you can see in the picture how steep the slope is that one would have to come up just to get to the bridge, and the two logs that form the cross members can simply be lifted out and the bridge becomes impassable. There is a door near the bridge and visitors to the site are not allowed to walk on it. I think that's an understandable restriction; its pretty intimidating just to look down from there.

After we got back from the Inca Bridge the sun had started to come up and it became even more obvious that the city was immaculately maintained. It makes you wonder how much of the existing city is an accurate reflection of the original. Some workers install walls, rebuild floors, and generally obsess over keeping things clean and neat. It is hard to realize what is new and what is old.

After touring around other parts of the city Ryan and I made our way towards the entrance to Waynu Picchu. We had to get there early to get our tickets stamped for entrance to the trail that leads up to it, but it was well worth it. This view of the city is probably one of my favorites. It took over an hour of almost non-stop hiking to reach this view point (still about 15 minutes shy of the top), but it was great. The city itself is supposed to have been designed to resemble a condor. The condor was supposed to have had great importance in the Inca culture as a predictor for the quality of the harvest, a bringer of luck, and other things that I really don't know enough about to discuss in any great detail. We sat for about 5 minutes trying to envision the condor in the shape of the city from this vantage point, but didn't come up with anything concrete. Let me know if you see it.

This picture was taken from the top of Waynu Picchu. About 5 minutes before this we saw a lady of about 60 or so who had made it all the way to the top. I was genuinely concerned for her safety. There are two groups of tickets for the climb up, she had come with the 7 oclock group, and we had come with the 10 oclock. So, by the time we arrived shortly after 11, she was just making the top as well. Talk about determination! You can't totally grasp it from the pictures, but the stairways around Waynu Picchu are so steep that in most places you have to crawl in order to get up or down. In this picture the young lady who is trying to climb up is doing just that. I got the chance to take this picture because none of the stairways are wide enough to pass with more than one person at a time.

I have lots more photos of Machu Picchu on my Facebook account, and Im sure Ryan will post some of his soon, too. There are some other really good ones, but I hope that the few that I have posted show how beautiful it was.

After coming down from the mountain we decided to visit one of the attractions in Aguas Calientes: the natural thermal baths. Those trunks and towels were rented on the walk up to the baths. Ryan chose that lovely blue and yellow number to match his mustache. Don't worry, any risk of anything unclean is obliterated by the incredible amounts of sulfur, zinc, and iron in the water from the baths.

After we left the baths things started to go seriously wrong in Aguas Calientes, which up until that point had seemed like a strange, if single-minded little town. We went to an ATM (one of only two in town) only to discover that it was out of service. The other ATM in town was also out of service. They weren't slated to be fixed until after our train would depart, so we were stuck for the next twelve hours with only $9 US, and nothing to do. We had to convince the owner of our hostel to loan us the money for the taxi on the way back, as well as let us leave the money for our two nights at her hostel with our other hostel in Cusco. It was an adventure in patience to say the least.

I could go on about how much I enjoyed Cusco and Machu Picchu for quite a while, but I think it's better to stop here because I would eventually have to also complain more about Aguas Calientes. If you ever go, make it a point to only stay there one night...enough said.

As for the rest of things, I guess there is quite a bit I have left unsaid since the last time.

Midterm exams are over. They all went surprisingly well, although none of them turned out the way I would have guessed. The exam that I had initially thought I would struggle with the most, my nineteenth century literature exam, was the best exam I had. The one that I thought I would excel in, the Quechua course, was my lowest. They both went well and I was really pleased at the level of personal interest and feedback from my professors. They all seem to be experienced and understanding of some of the difficulties that international students face in trying to orient themselves to a new academic culture here. Also, it is really apparent that a lot more of my professors are studying and teaching things here in which they have a vested interest. I have had many professors in the US who might have a PHD in Linguistics, but they are asked to teach courses about basic Spanish grammar. The lack of personal investment in the subject can sometimes be apparent when you ask questions outside of class. My experience here has been that the professors are extremely interested and knowledgeable about the specialized interests of the class, and especially when you make the effort to see them outside of the classroom. Not to say that professors in the US are totally disinterested, just that I have been impressed by how open they are to students exploring things on their own, and it seems like a reflection of the fact that they teach courses from their own personal and specific area of study.

I have a little over a month left here and I think it is going to be a real challenge to make the most of the time I have. There are essays and final exams due in a couple of weeks, and the pressure is on to get all of the important pieces in place to finish the semester. I feel more and more urgently that this may be the only chance I have to do a lot of things, and I don't want any of them to go undone.

One of the things I have been starting to work on is my USOAR project from NIU about Quechua language attitudes and maintenance in urban areas of Peru. I visited the social center that I am supposed to partner with while I was in Cusco, and it was pretty intimidating. The Casa del Cargador works to provide job training, meals, lodging, counseling, and education to a changing group of about 100 native speakers of Quechua who live in Cusco, after having migrated from different parts of the Andes. The presence of a lot of the habitants of this center represents a real cultural and personal displacement, due in large part to the language barrier between Quechua and Spanish.
Quechua has been a spoken language historically, it was written by spanish monks in the sixteenth century, and is still being standardized from over 27 vastly different dialects (which presents another set of problems) in order to facilitate education in schools. One way to understand how large the gap is culturally between the largely non-literate Quechua population and the spanish population is that the Peruvian constitution was just translated into Quechua less than 8 years ago. Of the representative governmental body for all the provinces of Peru, many of which still speak Quechua as their official language, only two representatives speak Quechua, and only one of those is a native speaker. There is a social and economic divide here that is connected with use of the Quechua language, and for this reason the social center I work with works mostly with Cargadores. Cargador is basically translated as "carrier"; he is a guy who fills a giant tarp or burlap bag with bottles, hay, garbage, food for the market, and anything else that anyone will pay him to carry, and then straps it to his back with a lengh of rope, and carries it to where it needs to go. Workers in this position are notoriously underpaid, have no hope of finding other gainful employment, and are often homeless and illiterate. They are also ,almost exclusively, native Quechua speakers.

My hope is to get a perspective on how speakers of quechua at this center perceive their language, and themselves as speakers of the language. One of the main reasons that previous research has found that languages die out over time is that the populations of people who speak them have devalued them over time. They see them as disadvantages in the social world, they make it difficult to find work, they mark you as an outsider, etc. So, if you can determine the answers to questions like: Do you speak Quechua on a daily basis? Do you plan to teach your children to speak Quechua?and a lot of other questions with specific details about use of the language in "high value" areas such as at work, in school, in certain social settings, can help shed light on why certain dialects and groups who speak them are struggling to maintain the language.

I only realized the reality of working with a group who is in this position after I went to the center. It is a world apart from the tourist shops, clean streets, and friendly policemen that you find about 5 blocks away from the area where the center is located. For that reason, I say that the center was a little intimidating, but I am hoping to receive approval to do the project in the next few days and am really looking forward to doing the work.

Truth be told, things have not been everything I expected them to be here. I think after my last experience of studying abroad I had glossed over some of the more difficult parts and idealized the experience a little. It is a lot of work to adjust to all of the new things in another country, and it is taxing to be away from the people and places that you know and care about. I have had a hard time trying to focus on what I really want to accomplish here, partly because I think the day to day experience (that in a linguistic way is a lot like repeating your childhood) is now even more out of sync with my priorities than it was when I lived in Spain. The look at the center and the daunting task of setting up a full fledged independent research project with a group of people who experience a real daily struggle to work and live in their own country has been a shock to my perception of what all this really means. On one hand it makes me really appreciate where I have come from and how fortunate I have been, but it also makes me question my place here. I am going to press on and try to find some insight into the experience. I think the research project will provide a lot of that perspective, but it would be a lie to say that I am not really looking forward to coming home. I dont think I could live in another country as a tourist again. I would have to find a way to live. Something that makes sense for the rest of my life, and has a purpose that goes beyond observation and learning the language. Peru is an amazing country and I reccomend you visit if you ever have the chance, but it makes you appreciate what it is to know who you are and where you are from.

Thank you guys for reading along. I will do my best to get a few more of these out before I leave. Looking forward to hearing from and seeing everybody when I get back. See ya!


  1. YAY!! The blog is back!! I'm excited to hear more about your project.

  2. Great post. I am glad that you have had the opportunity to have such an experience, experiences like this help shape who we are and who we become and how we contribute to our world. I am proud of you.