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Hello folks, yes, at long last, I've finally gotten around to making something of a photo-essay of my time teaching English in Peru. Once again, a huge thankyou to everyone who supported me with donations and encouragement. It was an amazing experience, one I'm still thinking about, and I definitel want to do more volunteering in the future. Not sure yet whether I'll go back to Umasbamba (it's a long way and hellishly expensive) or try something a little closer to home - maybe Timor Leste or Laos. This blog is adapted  from the letters I wrote to my mother while I was in Peru....

11th November 2008
Umasbamba

My first week in Peru has been so overwhelming I donít know where to start. I started with a week of Spanish lessons, which went well and extended the peninsular Spanish I already had, but I offended my teacher when she asked my religion and I said I was agnostic "Es no famoso en Peru!" she said sourly, but she was a good teacher nonetheless. I started in on the second day distributing breakfast to homeless children. In Cuzco, there's no official place for children to stay who's parents are caught up in the justice system, on remand and waiting for trial, so they just live in the police station. There's a single dingy room, full of smelly mattresses, and I went in every morning with one or two other volunteers, to hand out a bread roll, a piece of fruit and a cup of warm, thin gruel. Some days there wasn't enough to go around, because there's been confusion about how many children would be there. It varied from 15 to about 35. Many of these children go out to work in the daytime, selling matches or shining shoes. When the parents have been sentenced, depending on the outcome, they either go home (if the parents have been released) or are sent to an orphanage. One kid had apparently been there for 3 months, but most of them were only there for a few days. My, they were sad little things. It was a bit of a heartbreaking gig, that one.

In the evenings, to get some practise before coming to the village, I went to the Biblioteca Quosco Maki, a community centre that runs free English classes for the urban poor and homeless and helped Nando, the main teacher there with the classes. It was a good setup because there were two other volunteers, one English and one American, and that meant we could model the sentences for the students and they could get some practise at dealing with our different accents. Most of htem want to get work dealing with tourists, so they're going to be dealing with all sorts. I really liked that place. The students were adults, mostly, and very keen to learn. I met some very cool people there, who I ended up hanging out with after class a bit. I also found myself a one-on-one practise partner through Maximo Nivel - a lovely woman, who helped me with Spanish in exchange for me helping her with English. I like Cuzco - it's very vibrant, colourful and chaotic. I can see why  most volunteers prefer to work from there. There's support. Out here, well, it feels a bit isolated. The villagers are warm, but very shy and formal with me. I'm the only English speaker for about 50 km. That in itself feels a little daunting, though I'm sure I'll manage. Senorita Mery has reassured me again and again that it's very safe out here. Much more than the city. I dare say she's right.

Iím now in the village of Umasbamba and I taught my first class today. Officially, I start tomorrow, but the women in the village asked me if I would teach them as well as the kids. I was expecting this, but I wasnít expecting what it was like. They are lovely women Ė all so weather-beaten that you would think they were in their fifties, but most of them are about the same age as me. They have never spoken English in their lives before. Their native language is Quechua, and they have varying fluency in Spanish, but English is a real strain for them. The consonants and vowels are an enormous challenge. Words like No and You come out as Noi and Yui, and ďtsĒ and ďthĒ are totally absent from their phonology and hard for them to learn. I saw phonetic flashcards when I was shopping for teaching aids in the states, and didnít buy them because I thought they were just for little kids. I wish Iíd known better.

  My first day teaching here was a lesson in Peruvian village culture. I said 3 oíclock, and at half-past four, a few women began to drift in with their small children. It turned out someone they know had had a baby the night before, so most of them were off paying their respects and celebrating the new bambino. I was expecting 25 women but I had my hands full enough with the 8 that showed up. The power failed at by the time they arrived it was getting late and the end of the class was conducted in the dark. But hereís the real kicker Ė theyíre all almost totally illiterate! They can write their own names and thatís about it. So there I am trying to teach the alphabet song to a bunch of middle-aged Quechuan mothers in the middle of Sweet-Jesus-Nowhere. Iím not sure how much I can achieve with them in 5 weeks, but Iím determined to try.

  The women are really lovely. Theyíre all tiny Ė they barely come up to my shoulder - and I'm only 5 foot 3. The village is basically a subsistence community Ė they grow all their own food. The men farm and the women tend the animals and sell their handcrafts and occasionally tourists will come to learn some weaving. Mery is their benefactress. She is an educated Peruvian woman who runs a travel agency, and Umasbamba is her pet project. She only brings a select few tourists there, but itís her agency that has sponsored the building an equipping of the community centre in which Iím teaching, and I think she might also be involved in the renovation of the mud-brick church which is currently going on.

The house I am staying in is mud-brick, and luxurious by Village standards. It has electricity and a flush toilet. And I have my own room, which after sharing for a week in Cusco is a great boon. Itís probably the only luxury I really need. Most other things I can do without. The house is built around an earthen courtyard, which looks like itís mud a lot of the time. The kitchen has a dirt floor, and is the home of several chickens and guinea pigs. All cooking is on an adobe hearth, the rooms are unheated. Margarita, my hostess, is extremely conscientious about my food, itís been explained to her that all my water must be boiled and my gringa stomach must be treated with the utmost care. She mostly feeds me vegetable stew with an egg in it, boiled and boiled so that nothing has a hope of surviving. Actually, I think as gringas go, Iím in pretty good shape. All those years at Gembrook without a fridge and keeping chickens and growing my own food and burying my own poo means that Iíve got more intestinal flora than most whitefellas. I donít fancy taking any chances, though, so I gratefully accept Margaritaís ministrations. She also plies me with herbals teas made form local plants, all which are pitched at strengthening my stomach and my chest, as she has noticed I have a cough still from the cold I had last week.

One problem is that itís hard to tell the women apart. They do all look very similar. Theyíre all about four foot 10, with long black hair in braids, identical hats, wearing full, grubby skirts with several petticoats and an unidentified number of cardigans.  Rafeala is something of a leader in the town, and is easily identifiable because her hat is blue while everyone elseís is brown. I donít know if thatís a coincidence or not, but sheís the leader of the Association of the Pure Virgin that is restoring the church and sheís sharper than most. Sheís the one who seems to burn to improve Umasbamba. Certainly, itís a pretty poor place in material terms. Mostly just a huddle of mud huts and dirt roads surrounded by fields that are all tilled by hand or with oxen or donkeys. Chickens, pigs, dogs, all roam at will. Horses, donkeys and cows are mostly tied to stakes and moved around daily.

 

  My room has glass in the windows, but thatís a rarity. Little is done to try and make the houses or the streets beautiful. Thereís no flower gardens or anything like that Ė though Margarita has a few pot plants in her tiny compound. Some of the buildings have been painted in the distant past, but itís all flaked off now. The town square, which is very old, is surrounded by a wall that has crucifixes and some triangular windows set into it for decoration, but thatís about it. Actually, itís possible that the triangular windows are not decorative. They may date from the time when there was armed conquest and the wall may have been a defensive ramparts and the holes there to shoot through. Someone told me the church and the compound could be close to 500 years old. I went in the church the other day. Itís completely ruined inside, just a mud floor. The men are thatching the roof with a kind of bamboo frame and on top of that they will lay clay half-pipe tiles. Halfway up one wall was one of those odd little pulpits that Iíve often seen in Europe, where the priest goes up and preaches from a little circular balcony. You could see from that, and that only, that the inside of the church was once very ornate. It has intricate woodwork and faded gold leaf, but itís only hanging on the wall by a prayer. Iím kinda curious. It would seem that Umasbamba has had no church for a very long time. Why theyíd want one back is a mystery to me, but itís a big church. It canít have been entirely accidental that it was allowed to fall into such disrepair. Perhaps the locals reverted to their indigenous religion for a time. Thereís no blatant displays of religiosity that Iíve seen. Iíve seen no-one say grace or pray or cross themselves or anything like that. All Iíve really seen is these little crucifixes on some on the roofs, usually accompanied by clay sculptures of a pair of oxen, and the kids have been drawing Xmas-themes pictures in Julioís class Ė they also read from bible-themed books, and Hector showed me a bible stories book in Quechua.

  There appear to be no shops, thereís no post office or even a post box. The population is about 200, but there are another 400 in the outlying areas. However, it does have a school, and the children go every day. The children are far more educated than their parents, and can read and write. The women can count well enough, Iím not sure what the men are like Ė they mostly seem to ignore me, whether through shyness or tradition, Iím not sure. The women and men seem to lead mostly separate lives. Iíve barely seen Margaritaís husband since I came. Iím happy to teach the men, too, but they havenít approached me. Itís possible they donít have time.

  In the morning of this, my first day, Margarita cooked me breakfast, and then Rafaela came to fetch me, I went to her place, which has a much nicer courtyard Ė bigger, more open to the sky, with a patch of grass to sit on Ė and began to teach me backstrap weaving. Gradually the courtyard filled up with the village women and they put in their request to be taught. I was a little crestfallen when so few of them showed up to the class, but there is a different sense of time and obligation here. I think theyíll show up to the next one and I guess Iíll just have to cover the same ground again. That might not be a bad thing, weíll see. Iím hoping the kids will be less difficult. As much as I like them and as much as Iím determined to help them, itís really an uphill battle with the mothers.

  My Spanish is woefully inadequate for this gig. There are many conversations that simply have to be abandoned because I just canít work out what theyíre trying to say to me. The Spanish spoken in the village is very different to Cuzco - I think it's a bit of a creole with bits of Quechua thrown in, and the accent is very thick. And because they canít read, I canít do what I usually do, which is hand the other person my Spanish-English dictionary and get them to show me what theyíre saying. Sometimes I can find the word phonetically, but itís hit and miss. All the same, I love it here. Thereís a sense of living in the real world, somehow.

Thursday 13 November

  Three of the volunteer co-ordinators turned up unannounced today to see how I was going. Well, of course they were unannounced. Itís not like thereís a phone here or anything. I have a mobile that Iíve rented, but thereís no reception, except in the field behind Margaís house, where I can just get enough to receive a message, but I had neglected to give them the number. It was good to see them, and funny. How city-fied they seemed in their freshly laundered clothes and spotless shoes Ė even in a few days here, I have adjusted to the mud and the grime. Most people here are pretty grubby, wearing the clothes they work in all the time and Iím not a big exception. Iím mostly wearing my old jeans every day because I donít want to trash my nice new peasant skirt that I bought in Cusco or my old favourite brown one. I was worried about having appropriate clothes for being a primary school teacher but I really neednít have bothered.  

The women from Maximo Nivel showed up at a good time. I was deeply frustrated because only one woman had showed up to class this time. It turned out there was some village celebration on Ė some equivalent of Fatherís day, and they all went to that. It was good to have some fluent bilingual speakers to voice my frustration to. They were able to discover that there was a lot on this week, not just socially but agriculturally, and the women are expected to turn out in force from now on. I was also able to clear up a few minor misunderstandings. Just as I was about to close the school and take the girls to Margaís so they could see for themselves that my living conditions were ok, women started showing up. Ok, I thought, village time. I waited for you, now you wait for me. I was grumpy because Iíd put in hours of preparation and made them an alphabet chart and planned a really thorough lesson. They seemed unperturbed and settled in with their toddlers and their gossip.

  Thereís only been one volunteer on this village before, and she mostly helped with fixing up the classroom and working in the fields. She didnít teach. But apparently she got quite sick, so the girls were anxious to check that I was being looked after ok. I doubt that they would want to stay here themselves, theyíre city girls and all their work is in Cusco, mostly administration and co-ordination for the constant stream of volunteers coming into the city, but my accommodation, however rustic, seemed to satisfy them. Iím not sure what they thought of the kitchen. I think their main aim was to check that I was going ok, and once satisfied, the hopped back into their taxi and off they went.

  So I went back to my class. Most of the women at this one hadnít been at the previous one, which was a good thing really, because I was able to bring them to a similar point. The lessons seemed to go well Ė much harder than teaching the kids, but I was able to let them know that I was aware that the main reason they want to learn English is so they can sell their handcrafts, and they were most excited when they heard Iíd be teaching numbers next week. I got some use out of my alphabet chart, too. Margarita was most enamoured with it, and wanted to know if we could make one to stick up in the kitchen.

  The visit from the co-ordinators helped a lot with Margarita and her family. Her husband has avoided me like the plague and I wasnít sure why, if it was traditional for me not to hang out with men much, or if he had a problem with me being there, or what. He and Margarita would be totally silent in my presence and as soon as I excused myself and went to my room, Iíd hear them laughing and chatting Ė but it turned out to just be extreme shyness Ė indeed, all the adults except Rafaela are extremely shy Ė and in the evening, the whole family made a point of hanging out with me in the kitchen and it really helped me break the ice. Margarita wants so badly to learn English. Sheís frustrated with her own slow progress, though and while she gets a lot of one-on-one coaching because Iím in her house, itís easy for her to get discouraged.

  I taught my first kidís class yesterday Ė it went really well, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The kids are SO keen to learn. Theyíre a far cry from western kids. They hang around the classroom even when Iím not teaching and follow me around calling out ďhello, teacher! Whatís your name?Ē (which is the first thing I taught them.) They even gatecrash the mothersí class. This is a little bit of a problem, because theyíre so quick and answer all the questions before the mothers even try. I also think the mothers work better when the kids arenít there, itís better for their fragile confidence to have a private class. The toddlers are ok, and all the kids are pretty good-natured and well-behaved, but the larger kids tend to dominate the class, and I have to shush them or kick them out. Some of the older girls are useful, because they sit with their mothers and help them. But the kidsí class itself is fun. The mothers are so shy and inhibited, and you canít really engage them in much by way of games, but the kids are right into it. Iím so glad their regular teacher was there, though. Heís used to handling kids and I think I would have gotten in a real muddle without him. I learn a lot from watching him with them, heís really very good. He only has about 5 words of English, though, so communication is still a little bit of a struggle. At least he can pick words out of the dictionary.

Monday 17th  November

I had a bit of a dummy spit on Friday, after the kidsí class that didnít go so well and the terrible muddle I got into with the regular teacher. I broke down and had a big bawl and scared the hell out of the locals, because such extravagant displays of emotion really arenít the way things are done here. I just had to get out of the village for a couple of days and some talk to some people who speak English. I must have babbled like a madwoman for 40 minutes when I saw Eliza at Maximo Nivel. I met up with my women friends that I made when I first got here on Saturday afternoon and we went shopping and ate at restaurants and went out to a bar and drank wine and danced to a salsa band and generally carried on like a bunch of westerners. It was just what I needed, and I confess I was pretty glum when it was time go back, but actually, I feel better now Iím here. I thing Iím finally stating to get my stride. The kidsí class went pretty well today, and I always feel better when it does. The regular teacher was late, and I think he was feeling guilty and expecting me to be a mess, but actually, I coped fine. It gave me some satisfaction to have him walk in all shamefaced and find me cool, calm and in control of the class. The beginning is the easy bit, because thereís less kids. The class starts with about ten and gradually swells to about forty. It turns into bedlam by the end. But I did a better job of maintaining order and that helped. The trick seems to be to always have something for the quick ones to do. Itís such a challenge handling a multi-level class like that, especially with the irregular attendance.

  The other day Marga took me for a walk around the fields and up onto the mountainside. Proudly she showed me round her various plots of potatoes. I have no idea what the land tenure system here is, but I think itís possible the land is owned by the women. Certainly, she referred to the plots very clearly as hers, rather than owned by her husband or the pair of them. Then she took me up to higher ground and began to teach me about the different medicinal plants. Thatís been fascinating. Theyíre not stupid these women. She constantly asserts that their way of growing food, without chemicals or mechanisation is better, and sheís deeply sceptical of western medicine.

  Today I went out really laboured in the fields for the first time. Iíve helped the women cut alfalfa for the cattle in the morning with sickles, but that only takes a short time. The men had two oxen yoked together, and one pair of workers drove the oxen to break up the soil, then I worked in a team with two other men. A younger man used a mattock to lift the earth, while I threw either two large or three small seed potatoes in the hole and an older man, Margaís father, I believe, threw a handful of manure on them. I struggled to keep up at first, with a sheet of tarpaulin slung around my neck filled with seed potatoes, but once I got the rhythm, I was ok, and you can cover a surprising amount of ground in a couple of hours if everyone is working smoothly like that. The men are starting to come out of their shells and talk to me, but they still havenít asked to be taught. The week is pretty full now, I teach a class every day, so I havenít offered. Iím not sure if theyíre too shy or if theyíre not interested in learning or if theyíre not into being taught by a woman or of it would be improper or what. But I feel Iíve got enough on my plate right now, and I realise the importance of pacing myself, so Iím just letting it ride for now. The women certainly seem to consider me to be their possession, and gender roles in the village are sharply defined.

  The mornings tend to be slow and the afternoons hectic. By the time I get to mid-evening, Iím buggered. Here I am sitting in my bed in the village, a collection of mud huts in a nook of the Sacred Valley, in probably the swishest room the village has to offer. Electric light. Glass in the windows. And enough blankets to cook an Eskimo. My hostess, Margherita, is scrupulously attentive to my welfare. In deference to my gringa stomach she feeds me soup, soup and soup. Potato soup, three times a day. Good soup. Safe, because itís boiled. But soup. I am grateful for soup. Iím even more grateful to wrangle my way into Cuzco on the weekends and eat something else.

  There was a celebration going on when I got back last night. A new house has just been built. Itís not actually finished, but the shell is completed, and there was music and much blowing of what sounded a lot like a conch shell. I donít think it could have been coz weíre so far from the sea here, but it was some kind of trumpety thing. The new house belongs to senorita Rosalita, and I can see why sheíd be happy. It was her compound I went to the other day to help preserve the winterís leftover potatoes and her place is a ruin. Itís kind of confronting even for me how squalid some of the compounds are, and as it rained while I was there, I was taken into the kitchen. Village folk generally donít invite people into their houses, if you visit, you visit it in the yard. Rosalitaís kitchen was dark and dirty, with a low roof and a bench running all around the walls. Very unlike Margarita's which is light and airy, with painted walls, the dirt floor always swept clean, much more pleasant to hang around in. They have taken out some of the tile roof and replaced it with clear plastic to let light in, otherwise I dare say it would be as gloomy as Rosalita's, which has a room above it, so no skylight possible, and no windows, the only light is through the open door.

Senorita Rosalita clearly cooks up big, though, because she had a massive cooking range in there. She insisted on feeding me. The only problem about being included more in village life, is that I get offered food by people who are not as conscientious as Margarita when it comes to hygiene. And itís terribly rude to refuse. But most of what she gave me came out of the huge boiling pots of vegetables and I figured that was ok. I left the tomato and onion on the plate, wary of anything raw, but I couldnít resist the two pieces of fried fish. They were delicious. I seemed to suffer no ill effects, so I guess that went ok. I had a similar dilemma today when I was planting potatoes. I thought we would go back to Margaritaís house for lunch, seeing as it was only a couple of hundred yards, but no. An old woman opened several layers of dirty cloth and revealed a steaming pile of potatoes, beans and choclo, which is a special kind of corn they have here with enormous kernels nearly and inch long. The potatoes were unpeeled, and people peel them with their fingers, discarding the peel and the worms that seem to live in every one. Margarita rushed off with a plastic bottle to get me water to wash my hands with, and I was a bit disconcerted that she got it from the part of the stream where sheíd parked her pigs, but I washed my hands and dried them thoroughly and dug in to the potatoes. The blanket looked a bit too grubby for me to want to eat the beans or corn, but I figured the potatoes were sterile enough under their skins. Also Margarita produced some of the cheese I brought back from Cusco in a tea towel that was clearly brand new, so my lunch wasnít too dull. Apparently if you eat something bad, it hits you within a couple of hours, so once more I seem to have survived.

Itís been a funny business after not having anything to do with children all my life to suddenly be interacting with them so much. Hector, Margarita's son, is my special little friend, and light permitting, likes to take me on walks around the area. This evening, he took me up on the mountain behind the church. I huff and puff in a terrible manner at this altitude and have to stop frequently to catch my breath, but the view from the mountain is spectacular. He was disappointed I wouldnít go all the way to the top, but it was getting dark and I didnít trust my footing on the steep slope. Iíve said that if thereís time we can go to the very top on Wednesday. I must be sure to take my camera, because the view is spectacular up there. Hector pointed out the huge mountain with the glacier down the side and told me the Inca gods used to live there before Christianity came to Peru.

Hectorís very smart. He picks up English very quickly. Iím going to try and establish an advanced class for the brighter kids, I really want to make sure they get the most out of me before I go. Hopefully another volunteer will come and continue the teaching, but itís a bit of a tough job to fill. Iím a good choice in a lot of ways because Iím not fazed by living conditions that would send most Westerners scurrying for the next bus back to civilisation, and Iím right into jumping in with the village work but what the place really needs is someone whoís more fluent in Spanish than me. Julio is a nice man, despite having upset me on Friday, but his English, all five words of it is atrocious, and the two teachers really need to be able to communicate. Julio has a special value because he can speak some Quechua. Finding someone who could speak Spanish and Quechua and English and is prepared to hike out to Umasbamba three times a week for no money is probably a bit much to ask.

Tuesday 18th November

I just spent the whole morning in the school, tidying up after yesterdayís class, marking the kids work, making posters and preparing the next lessons. Iím gradually developing a system with which to handle the different levels in the class. I think I need to go back and fiddle with it some more, actually. A lot has to do with being able to telegraph to the kids whatís expected of them. To make it obvious, because it cuts down on the time I spend struggling to explain to them what to do. Iíve come up with a system by which I go through all their exercise books before the class, and see where theyíre up to, mark the work with ticks and stickers and stuff, and slip the next handout into the book. Then I lay the exercise books out on the tables, and they each find theirs when they come in and sit down. The idea being that thereís something ready for them to go on with. The really little ones get colouring-in and alphabet pages. I can judge from the work which things theyíre struggling with, and also where my teaching might be off. For example, a lot of kids made the same mistake when they copied something off the board, and I realised it was my writing that had thrown them off. Iím also making a series of posters, so I donít have to keep writing the same stuff on the board anymore. 

Itís such a strange thing. I never saw myself in this role, ever. Even when I decided to volunteer in Peru, I donít think I quite twigged that Iíd be a primary school teacher. It makes me cast back my mind to Mrs Littlejohn. I wonder how sheís getting on. I wouldnít be surprised if she were dead by now. Damn, I could use some of her advice. She was great. Holy god, itís full-on enough just doing a class for and hour or two. I have no idea how anyone copes with doing it for a whole day.

It turns out there are shops in Umasbamba. I just didnít recognise them as such. A couple of the houses have little signs up Ė for example, advertising a soft drink or the presence of a public telephone. You have to knock on the door and wait until someone comes and opens up. Or else come back later. I went into a couple yesterday in search of loo paper. The first one I went into, the old woman was most disappointed in me. She didnítí have loo paper, just a selection of sugary drinks under a dusty glass counter. The other shop was darker, dirtier but more useful. He scrabbled around on a shelf until he found a dunny roll among the debris. Disconcertingly, it seemed like it might have been the only one he had. But he did have a telephone. He overcharged me for the loo paper Ė that happens all the time. I had a huge argument with a local taxi driver the other day because he tried to charge be 5 times the local fare for bringing me from Chinchero to Umasbamba. Anything up to 10 people will squeeze into a station wagon, and the fare is 1 sol. He tried to charge me 5. I was furious. In the end I paid him two, but if he tries it again, Iíll tell him Iíll walk. Itís an hour from Chinchero to Umasbamba on foot, but itís important to stand your ground about stuff or they just rip you off. Usually if you start walking or looking for another taxi, they drop their prices pretty quickly.

 

I had my third womenís class today Ė Las Amigas, they call themselves. A few of them even came on time. Iíve realised that the best way to approach the class with them is to focus on what they practically need Ė enough English to sell their weaving. So after recapping the Alphabet, I started on numbers for awhile. I wrote out a huge table on the board of first of the numerals, then the words in English, Spanish and Quechua. I got the women to help me with the Quechua, and allowed then to have a good old laugh at my expense as I wrestled with the pronunciation. I try to keep myself on a level with them as much as possible, and acknowledge their own talents and skills, as some of them are very sensitive about their lack of education. Margarita, especially, is prone to discouragement. There are several women in the class who are quicker than her, and have a better grasp of their letters, and I can tell it pains her. Especially as she is living with la Maestra (thatís me) and I give her extra coaching. She works hard to send her kids to the school in Chinchero and her oldest daughter is at University in Cuzco. She has explained to me a couple of times that her mother died when she was small and she had no education at all. Tonight I sat with her and we made her an alphabet chart for her kitchen. Her main problem is the phonetics. She really struggles just to get her mouth to form the words. He accent is particularly thick.

After numbers, I moved on to colours, giving them a handout and coloured pencils, and getting them to colour in the square next to the word in Spanish and then write the English word. This lesson went quite well. It also allowed me to see which women had writing skills and which ones didnít. Most of them could at least copy words from the board, even if they got a few numbers wrong. I have to be careful not to humiliate the women that have no letters at all. Two of them asked Basilia, one of the more literate ones, to fill out their handouts for them tonight, even to the extent of her writing their names for them. I donít object to this. The focus of my class with the women is more on getting some spoken language happening. The written stuff is not as important. I just use writing as a support, mostly in the hope that they might pick up a few more reading and writing skills in the process. So I waited patiently while Basilia filled out their sheets and then stamped them with my ďpassĒ stamp.

Friday the 21st November

There was much bustle and activity this morning. Margerita was readying to plant her lucerne field. A bit pot of potatoes was boiled up as lunch for the workers and she chivvied the children off to school with more than her usual bossiness. Even so, it seemed to take forever to get ready. A young man who must be some sort of relative who's been around the last few days turned up and she fed him breakfast, and for the first time, she loaded me up with one of those traditional bundles on my back, full of lunch, and other bits and bobs while she carried the seed and the tools. On the way, we met up with her father and his team of oxen. She gave me a hoe and showed me how to remove grass from the ground, as grass will choke the alfalfa. Then there was much ado as they yoked the oxen together with a wooden bar and a long strip of leather. I was worried for a minute. The Oxen were rambunctious and one started pawing the ground. They donít de-horn their cattle here and for a moment I had nightmare visions of the old man being gored. But no, he lashed them up (the horns are the bit they tie the yoke to, so I guess thatís why they leave them on) and they most unwillingly set to work. The young man steering the team was having trouble controlling them and they zig-zagged all over the field at first, but between them Margerita and the young man got them under control and they began to furrow up and down. Itís a very small field, and they had difficulty turning them in the confined space, but after awhile, a rhythm was established and they started getting through it quickly. I was given the job of working where theyíd already ploughed, pulling out the weeds and throwing them to the side.

However, it began to rain and the rain settled in. I actually didnít mind working in the rain that much, because it wasnít cold as long as you were moving, but Margherita insisted that I stop. First she insisted that I put a blanket around my shoulders instead of my own coat, but I had to take it off, because it stank. Then she decided that I had to stop, and sit of a rock for awhile. This wasnít so good for me, coz once I sat still, I did begin to get cold. Then she decided I had to go home, and brought me back here to the house. This was a little frustrating, and of course, shortly after she left, the rain cleared up, so I could have stayed out there. I think she and the others will. I think she said that she would stay out and work if the rain passed and come back if it didnít. I donít really mind the solitude. Thing is, I feel quite isolated anyway, but when I actually am alone. I can at least relax, instead of always being alert to the social situation around me and trying to understand and fit in with whatís going on. Besides, I have a stash. An Earl Grey teabag in a plastic wrapper, from an assortment of teabags that my friend Evan in Vancouver gave me. I plan to sit and have a real cup of tea, as there is currently a can of condensed milk open. Oh, yeah.

Another thing happened this week that was interesting. The school (not my school, but the regular one) had some sort of annual celebration - 30 years since it was established, I believe. Margarita took me down and the teachers all welcomed me like royalty, making a place for me to sit amongst them, and offering me some of the Coke that seems to get passed around on special occasions. The teachers are clearly not from Umasbamba - they come from elsewhere in taxis of a morning, dressed smartly in western clothes. They knew who I was, though. I was a bit embarrassed. As often happens, I had no idea where we were going when I left the house, and was dressed very shabbily in my village gear. They ignored this, though, and I sat with them and watched as the children performed a variety of traditional dances, and speeches were made. They had a PA system that was being run by a guy who clearly didn't know how to use it properly. I cringed as the feedback whined and howled, but didn't think it was wise to jump up and take over. I don't think I could have explained that I've spent my life working with audio equipment, and the guy who was running it was all solemn with self-importance.

 

The dances were colourful and beautiful, but I was a bit disconcerted in places - a recurring theme was the boys running in and throwing the girls over their shoulders and running off in what seemed to be some sort of simulated sexual abduction. The adults, mothers and teachers alike, all chuckled every time it happened, as if to a suggestive joke. Hmmm, I thought. But the costumes were lovely, and at the end, the older kids staged a play that was something to do with the legend of the local lake, Lake Puiray. It had rabbit spirits and a wise woman, and an old man, as well as what appeared to be a group of people who lost their way and ended up in the land beneath the waves. 

I swing between loving it here and really struggling with it. Sometimes I feel so frustrated and isolated, and I donít feel like Iím achieving anything because it is so hard to teach, what with the language barrier and the fact that English is so completely foreign to the people here. They are what in Tesol jargon you call pre-beginners, meaning there has been no background noise in English in their lives. Radio, television, scraps picked up here and there. Other times, I feel incredibly privileged to be here, and to be taken into people's lives like this. The kids keep me going, they  have such energy and spark.

  

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday the 23rd November

Something a little awkward happened tonight. Marisol asked me to be her Godmother. This may be totally innocent on Marisolís part, but Iím worried because this happened to another woman I know and it turned out to be a real problem, because the family then asked her for 1000 Soles Ė about $500. I told her I couldnít do it. Fortunately the date of her confirmation is not until after I leave, though I was unsuccessful in explaining why I couldnít just change my flight. This dovetails rather uncomfortably with a conversation I had the other day with Domingo, the father. He wanted to know if I could adopt the boy, Hector and take him home to Australia with me. Itís bad enough when shopkeepers and taxi drivers try to rip me off because Iím a gringa, but it makes me very uncomfortable when the people around me start looking for ways to get what they can out of me. Thereís no real malice in it. Theyíre so poor you canít really blame them. Itís just very hard to convince them that Iím not rich. By their standards Iím rich, but I donít have the sort of wealth they imagine.

  I know this sort of thing is only to be expected in the developing world, but itís still disconcerting. The thing is, quite a few of the volunteers are rich, and the only volunteer whoís ever been here before left a large donation so the women could go to Machu Picchu. This is all very well, but it creates an expectation for those who come after. I spent all my money on my teacher-training course, and on resources for the classroom, I donít have extra to splash around. Having said that, I  told a number of the women Iíll count my money at the end of the trip and see if I can afford to buy some of the weaving (which is wonderful) but thatís as far as it goes

The trouble is, people in Peru are so poor, they really have trouble understanding the concept of people working for free. Even though quite a lot of volunteers come through Cuzco and the number is growing all the time, itís still hard for the locals to understand their motivation. They tend, I think, to assume that weíve got more money than sense, and the idea that there might be people like me, who would actually go into personal debt in order to help them probably seems quite crazy. After all, Iím a complete stranger Ė why would I want to help them?

There was some kind of election tonight, the local council or equivalent. It wasnít a cliff-hanger or anything. There are two parties, Blue and Red. Blue being the conservative and Red being the socialist. But Blue voters far outweigh Red ones in this area so there was no mystery about the outcome. People stood around in the square and cast their votes under the thatched shelters that stand there, and them milled around for a long time, drinking this evil corn beer they brew here. Iíve tried it, but I declined to drink any more, because itís obvious itís still fermenting and I donít want to run into any yeast problems while Iím here. Also, thereís a food hygiene issue for me. They keep the stuff in plastic petrol containers and serve it up in huge communal plastic cups that look really filthy. As a budding anthropologist, I probably should have stayed in the square and observed all night, but I was far too tired. I had a tourist day in Cuzco, and climbed the mountain behind the city to view the Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The name means ďsatisfied falconĒ but it sounds so much like ďsexy womanĒ that thatís what all the gringos call it. The ruins were impressive Ė I took lots of photos, but it was also ruinously expensive to get in. I wanted to save money by climbing the mountain instead of catching a taxi, but I regretted it later. That sort of exertion in this altitude leaves me absolutely wrecked. Iím frustrated that I still donít seem to have adjusted much, despite having been here for 3 weeks.

For the first time, at the election, one of the men came to me and asked to be taught English. I wasnít sure what to say Ė the week is full, now, unless I start doing extra classes in the evenings. I guess I can do that, but theyíve left it a bit late. Iíll be gone in 3 weeks. I told him to come to one of the womenís classes, but I just found out thereíll be no class tomorrow because some important people are coming to town. Generally, Iíve been cautious around the men, because I havenít been sure what the sexual politics were. Most of them have been quite formal and a couple have been bit leery, and thereís been little by way of any real conversation. I had a conversation with Domingoís brother last night at the election, which was interesting. Heís something of a musician and offered to come over and have a jam that evening, but by the time he turned up Iíd gone to bed. I hope he wasnít disappointed. One of the hard things about the language barrier is never being quite sure about whatís been said and agreed to, and not being able to easily make explanations if things donít go to plan

Iím also a little worried that Margerita may be feeling a little jealous. Her husband, having gotten over his shyness, seems quite animated around me, not that heís had any encouragement. Theyíve been married for 20 years, even though sheís a year younger than me. I donít even know if itís a sexual thing Ė I think heís just very curious about me because Iím a being from another world. Iíve had some strange conversations with him. First he wants to know how much a kilo of potatoes sells for in Australia, then a kilo of eggs (they sell eggs by the kilo and not by the dozen) then he wanted to buy my camera, then my computer, then he wanted me to adopt his son. Then he wanted to know what Jack did, and when the learned that Jack was not rich and we had no children, if I would change husbands and get a better one. These conversations reflect the realities of village life, I guess. Everyone wants to know how much it costs to fly from Australia and how long it takes. Itís not even a question I can answer, because I came via other places. I tried to explain that my friends and family all donated money so I could come, but Iím not sure if that was understood or not, the language barrier makes things hard.

 

Monday 24th November

Everything seems fine in the morning light Ė Margarita seems perfectly pleasant and friendly as usual and there seems to be no problem with her. I was worried sheíd be disappointed about me refusing to me Marisolís godmother, but it seems ok.

Tuesday 25th November

I have finally, after several classes, come up with a system that is haphazard, but works. Because the kids are all different ages and work at different paces, not to mention turn up at different times, itís been extremely difficult to get any consistency happening. Itís also hard because of the language barrier. Even relatively simple commands become a complex business when you donít speak the same language as the children. I came up with this system of numbering the handouts and getting them to bring them to me as they finish. I give then a stamp and let them choose a sticker when theyíve got it right. The only problem is that itís very labour intensive, and they donít get enough speaking practise. Another teacher to help with that would be great, as the subsequent handout needs to be explained to many kids individually, in this system.

 Senorita Mery sent a carload of tourists today and the women all got gussied up in their traditional clothes and put on a show. They gave me an outfit to wear, which I readily put on. I think the women just didnít want me to spoil the look of the place with my jeans and T-shirt. They had swept the square with brush brooms and laid out all their weaving on the grass on mats, and set up a clay dyepot on a fireplace (even though they usually use aluminium saucepans) and also had a warping frame set up with stakes driven into the ground. Iíd already taken a couple of weaving lessons (and I used to weave as a hobby, remember) and when they sat me down at a weaving spike with the belt Iíd been working on, I was able to pot along with only a minimum of help.

This morning I was almost ready to chuck in the towel and go back to Cuzco, go back to teaching at Bibioteca Qosco Maki where I was the first week I was here. I bumped into Nando, the head teacher there, and he said the students had been asking after me. I know heíd like me to go back. But I guess Iíll stick it out a little longer. Pride mostly. The valley is beautiful, and the village fascinating though dreadfully squalid in parts, but the pace of village life is very slow and I do find myself getting bored and even a bit depressed at times. The classes have been whatís given me purpose and energy. But the days waiting for the class are long and slow.

  I have learnt one of the most simple and important lessons of the third world: always carry a stone in your pocket in case you meet an unfriendly dog. This has happened to me a couple of times in the village and brandishing a stone makes them back right off. Pretending to brandish one works just as well, but I prefer to be able to back up my threats, especially after the episode in Cuzco. I was attacked by a dog in the street and spent the next two days trying to get a rabies vaccination. In the end, it just wasn't possible - the hospitals had all run out of vaccine. Eliza, one of the volunteer co-ordinators at Maximo Nivel helped me track down the dog and we were able to find some people who knew it and reckoned it had been vaccinated 3 months before (the government goes around and rounds up every dog they can find and injects them) and that had to be good enough. Seeing as 3 weeks have passed and I'm not dead, or frothing at the mouth, I guess I'm ok - thought the bite will leave a scar, I think. I managed to prevent it getting infected. But if I'd had a stone, I could have avoided all that. They really should put in in the volunteer's advice package.

 I had a good evening with the family, tonight. The daughter Marisol seems to have gotten over her disappointment that Iím not going to be her godmother and has begun to teach me some songs in Spanish and Quechua. Domingo peppered me with more questions about Australia and Margarita served up her usual soup of potatoes, broad beans and strange Peruvian herbs. This morning, I nearly gagged getting the soup down, coz I'm getting so sick of  eating the same thing 3 times a day, but woofed it quite happily this evening.

Wednesday 26th November

Kidsí class went pretty well tonight. I think I finally managed to get the bulk of them off the 3rd handout.

Something important is on the radio tonight Ė so much stuff just goes right past you when you donít have the language. I think it must be political, because there is much strident speechifying and all the radios in the village are tuned to the same station. Itís quite eerie, the sound of them all echoing across the valley together like that. There are no televisions here, but most houses have radios and they blare day and night. Usually music, strange, loping, circular songs the like of which Iíve never heard before, but if I had heard them out of context, I would have thought they were more African than South American.

The dogs have got some politics going on too Ė theyíre all barking tonight. Sometimes you hear the most dreadful dogfights at night. No one makes any attempt to break them up. The dogs are mostly left to their own devices. One day one of Margeritaís dogs, Oso, was in a terrible fight and came back with his nose all bitten up, but no-one took any notice. That was when I made friends with him, though, because I sympathised with him when he was curled up in his kennel crying, small hurt noises of humiliation. Dogs here are not pets, theyíre kept to guard the property, but Oso will present himself to me shyly for a little pat, and the family laugh at me for indulging him. Itís a very utilitarian attitude to animals here. They are quite tough about them. But one sunny afternoon I came out and sprung Margerita lolling in the grass, hanging out with her sow and two piglets. She blushed and got up smartly. She loves that pig, and lovingly coos ďChanchoĒ (pig) every time she puts scraps into the special pig-slops pot she keeps on the stove. And she adores the piglets, which are very cute, white with a brown band around their middles. Not sure how she got them out of the mother, whoís srcaggly black. Must have been a very handsome boar. The piglets will be sold for meat, but she loves them while theyíre here. The pigs in the village have a pretty good life on the whole. The adults tend to be tethered to stakes, but theyíre outside, and the piglets just run free. Theyíre everywhere.

Iíve booked a couple of trips for the next two weekends, determined to see something of the country before I go home. This weekend Iím going to Macchu Piccu, and next weekend, Puno. The only sad thing about this is that it means I will never spend a full weekend in the village, and I will probably miss out on something because of that. There is some kind of festival this weekend, which the family seem sad that Iím not going to be here for. Iíve really needed my weekend trips to Cuzco, though. Theyíve kept me sane.

Suddenly all the radios have gone quiet at once. Itís 8.30 pm and the whole village is in bed with the lights off.

 

Friday 28th November

Women's Class was very small tonight Ė just the one woman Frida, whoís a joy to teach. Very quick, literate, and makes a good fist of the pronunciation. I think she was embarrassed to be the only one there, but Iím quite happy to give individual lessons. It relieves me of the constant juggling of trying to work with different levels of ability. I taught her for about an hour and a half, and when her eyes started to go glassy, I sent her home.

 

Tuesday 2nd December

A quiet night in the village, after a very quiet class. Iím not sure of the women have lost interest in the womenís classes or if everyoneís just very busy with seasonal work, but Margerita was the only one to show tonight. Contrast that with the kidsí class last night, which was completely packed. The kids seem to really enjoy the class. I expected the attendance to fall off when the novelty wore off, but while several have dropped out, there are still new kids turning up and the regulars are starting to do quite well. Actually, I was glad to have Margerita in a one-on-one class. I try to teach her in the house, but sheís so shy about it, itís hard to get her to persevere. She tells me again and again about how her mother died when she was a little girl and she never went to school. In the classroom, she made more of an effort and I actually managed to get her to write tonight. She forms her pothooks slowly, laboriously, copying every stroke I made on a separate piece of paper. Sheís dreadfully self-conscious about it, but she can actually write when she puts her mind to it. I was glad to be able to get her to do some writing, because trying to remember a foreign language without writing anything down is very hard. Youíre just trying to remember sounds, basically. I managed to get her all the way through the verb ďto haveĒ and also got some family vocabulary in there, and some work on the names of things she sells and the prices. I think it went quite well. I donít mind only teaching one student. Itís a welcome relief from the chaos.

I was supposed to run a class for the men tonight, but none of them showed up. This is frustrating, because I go in there are prepare, and sit around in the cold. But I canít make them come. If they donít want to make use of me while Iím here, itís their problem.

Village life is very quiet, itís true. I get pretty bored too, at times, but I quite enjoy helping Margerita. Today, all I did was wind balls of wool. Last week, she was dyeing, red, blue and black. Big post bubbling away on her adobe hearth. The skeins had dried and I wound them into balls Ė each one takes about an hour, as the yarn is fine, and tangles easily. But it was a warm, pleasant day, and I was tired after my trip to Machu Piccu, so happy just to sit in a sunny corner of the compound and do something simple.

Machu Piccu was amazing. I went to Cuzco on Friday night, and got up early to catch the train. Itís about a 4-hour trip, winding higher and higher into the mountains, beyond where the roads stop, and thereís only the train and a power line that runs from a hydro-electric power plant in the same area. All along the railway line there are tiny smallholdings, clinging to the scrap of flat arable land between the tracks and the riverbank. Some of them look dreadfully poor Ė really, really wretched and Iím not sure how the people living there survive. There are also tiny makeshift shops alongside the track near the stations. Women walk along beside the train selling flowers or what-have-you through the windows. At a certain point, the Inka Trail begins, where the keen and the athletic get off the train and walk Ė four days Ė to Machu Piccu. Actually, I would have loved to have done that walk, but it was booked out, and I donít have time. Parts of the Inka trial are actually paved  with stoneĖ the original paving from Inca times, when it was the main road from the city of Cuzco to the religious community of Machu Piccu. People donít carry most of their stuff, porters do. The porters carry a lot of extra stuff, too. I saw them loading up with camping chairs and gas bottles and all sorts of gear to make the tourists comfortable.

My tour was booked for the Sunday, so I had the afternoon to pass in the town of Aguas Calientes. The name means hot waters because of the hot springs there. I decided to give myself a real, pampering day off. I hired a towel and a bathing suit and went and soaked in the sulphurous springs for as long as I could stand it. The water was cloudy and kind of soupy, but supposed to have healing properties. Most of the people there were Peruvian, as the whitefellas tend to be a bit squeamish about the cleanliness of the waters. A big pack of Peruvian teenage boys turned up at one point, and I felt a bit uncomfortable with them making noise and carrying on and taking up all the room in the pool I was in with their noise and bravado, but then something funny happened. A group of Japanese tourist girls tuned up in their swimsuits, their perfect porcelain bodies gleaming in the sun. The boys went quiet, dumbstruck, and then turned tail and fled to another pool. A short while later, they were back, having plucked up their courage, and one of them tried to impress one of the girls with his cheap clunky camera. Of course, being Japanese, and used to the ultimate in high-tech gizmos, they werenít interested at all, and after a few attempts, the boys gave up and left, loud and self-conscious. The girls couldnít have cared less. I watched all this with considerable amusement, as did an older Peruvian woman with whom I exchanged a number of sly smiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the hot springs, I went and shouted myself a three-course lunch in a restaurant, and then went and had an Incan Massage. The masseuse was silent, but efficient, and did a good job, generous with her time going over the allotted hour. Then I went to bed for a nap before meeting with my tour guide for the briefing for the next day. There were two other young women booked for the same tour, so we went out to have dinner, but to my surprise and delight, I bumped into a friend Iíd made in Cuzco in the street an ended up spending the evening with her and her boyfriend instead.

Jessi and I were staying in the same house in Cuzco in my first week, and she and I had really hit it off. She had been a real source of support to me in my first couple of weeks, and especially when I came back to Cuzco after my first week in the village when I was so all over the place. I was really glad to see her, because I thought that maybe Iíd missed her and I wouldnít get to see her again. She and her boyfriend Marc had been to Macchu Pichu that day and told me all about it. They climbed the really sheer mountain Waynupiccu, behind Macchu Piccu and said it was very difficult, but well worth the view. We sat and ate pizza and drank pisco sours late into the night. A torrential storm began and the steep streets were sluicing with rain as we sat under a verandah at the restaurant eating and drinking. I had found out that day that the town of Aguas Calientes has been all but destroyed in a flood six years before, and much of it is still being rebuilt. I suddenly could see how that would happen, especially in the spring when the snows are melting. Aguas Calientes is nothing but a tourist town to service Macchu Piccu and the people who come to the springs. Itís quickly and shoddily built, and everything is terribly expensive. You canít move without a tout trying to sell you something and itís quite tiring in that way. Itís also incredibly steep, just clinging to the mountainside at the confluence of two rivers. The only flat patch is where the railway line runs.

  Still, my room was pleasant and it had a really hot shower Ė the first Iíd had in awhile. I was pretty excited about that. Outside my window, the river raged down the gully, and a few shanty-town shacks of tin and rough wood housing local workers clung to the banks, a makeshift bridge of planks and rope strung across the maelstrom. One of them had a flock of turkeys pecking around outside.

  The girls from the tour wanted to get to Macchu Piccu at first light Ė on the 5.30am bus. I decided to go with them, even though the guided tour wasnít until 8.15. It was worth going early. I got separated from them at the gate because I had to stop and argue with the staff about the size of my backpack, but that was ok. Macchu Piccu was ghostly, shrouded in mist, and I wandered around the ruins by myself for two hours in the eerie, swirling fog. The crowds were yet to start and for much of the time I was all alone. Then, at about 8, it lifted, just in time for the tour,
 revealing the ancient city in all its splendour. One of the girls, Jane was so keen to climb Waynupiccu that she decided to skip the tour, but the other girl Pardis, was there. The tour was worthwhile, to hear about the history and purpose of the place. Essentially, Macchu Piccu is like Peruís Stonehenge. It was built as an observatory, to study and track the movement of the sun and the stars, and especially to pinpoint the solstices and equinoxes, when the sun hits certain stone structures in certain ways. In historical terms, itís actually not that old Ė only about 550 years. It was built in the 15th Century, and the people who lived there were priests and priestesses, very high-class people, and their servants. There were about 400 residents. The city had two zones, the urban zone, where the houses and temples were, and the agricultural zone, where terraces were built on the side of the mountain in which to grow food, herbs and sacred orchids. The residents were all vegetarian, except at the winter solstice when they would eat sacrificed llamas. There were no children in the city, it was a celibate religious order. The amount of work that must have gone into building it is staggering, about 200 terraces, only about 6 feet wide, each one holding a tiny strip of fertile soil. 1000 workers built it in 50 years. The place was only inhabited for a few decades and was never completed. It was abandoned because of the Incan Civil War and a plague of leprosy. The priests and priestesses fled into the jungle and perished.

  The guide showed us around the various temples, and showed us how the stones were quarried and split Ė most of the stone was cut on the site, and also how the cunning system of small aqueducts distributed water around the city. She showed us subtle marks on the alters that I never would have noticed otherwise, where the first glancing rays of the winter solstice sun hits the stone. She also talked about the man who rediscovered the ruins in 1911, and the treasure and mummies that were found there. For all its majesty, the stonework was not as impressive as Sacsayhuaman. It was much cruder on the whole, except for the main temple. The stonework as Sacsayhuaman is incredible, each piece perfectly cut to fit the next in a gigantic jigsaw, and polished smooth, some of them 15 feet tall, for a single block of stone. God knows how they manoeuvred them into place. The stones were much smaller at Macchu Piccu and I donít believe the masons were as skilled Ė except for one temple that had a similar standard as Sacsayhuaman, one stone having 22 angles. Of course, Macchu Piccu was a long way from the capital. A couple of weeks journey in Inca times. The site was chosen because of the good clear weather, and because the way the mountains framed the site made it perfect for the lining up of the temples with the sun. The surrounding mountains were for the most part, incredibly sheer. So, so steep. Perpendicular. I wonder how they found and decided on it.

  After the tour, I teamed up with Pardis for the rest of the day. It was nice to have some company. We both decided we werenít up for scaling Waynupiccu, which involved wooden ladders and sheer cliffs, but we climbed the opposite mountain instead, to visit the Sun gate, where the first rays of the winter solstice sun cut through a gap in the mountain to shine on the altar in the temple far below. This climb was not as gruelling, though it was actually as high, it was longer and not as steep, and much of it was on the old paved road of the Inka Trail. This turned out to be a wonderful idea, and the views were stunning, and there were a number of other ruins to look at on the way. We met llamas on the trail and saw a centipede as long as your hand, as well as some amazingly exotic jungle flowers. We bumped into Jane on the way back down, she was determined to climb to the Sun Gate as well as Waynupicchu, and as a result, barely spent any time among the ruins of the city itself at all. But she was very pleased with herself for climbing both mountains, so she was satisfied. We arranged to meet later for lunch, which we had before catching the train back to Cuzco.

  I arrived back at Gloriaís house in Cuzco at about 10, and Jessi and Marc and Stephanie were there. We sat around for while and them went to bed. I was exhausted. In the morning, I had to say goodbye to Jessi, and she and her boyfriend were leaving Cuzco that day. I was really sad about this. We both were quite teary, actually. Iíll miss her. She lives in Montana. God knows when Iíll see her again.

Yesterday morning I came back out to the village. Margerita and her family were all agog, wanting to hear about the trip, and I loaded my photos onto my computer and showed them. They were most impressed. Peruvians hold Macchu Piccu in awe. They see it as the evidence of the greatness of their past civilisation, before the conquistadors came and took over their country. The attitude to the Spanish is pretty ambivalent here. And even though the country is supposedly 90% catholic, I think thereís some ambivalence to that as well. The boy, Hector, certainly doesnít seem to think much of the project to rebuild the church. Certainly the crucifix outside the church is creepy. Itís very old, and on one side has a carving of implements of torture. Donít ask me whatís going on there.

  Friday 5th December

  All is quiet at Margaritaís today. She has gone to Cuzco, and Iím glad to have the house to myself. I am boiling myself some eggs, and some extra water. All the water I drink here must be boiled. Margarita supplied me with a flask which she generally keeps topped up, but when sheís not around, I tend to secure myself some extra, because sometimes itís not enough and I worry about getting dehydrated.

A friend of mine from Cuzco kindly made the effort of come out and visit me for the day, and it was an interesting day for her to visit There was some serious politics going on all day. A spontaneous meeting of about 25 women around the edge of a hollow in the ground outside the one of the villages two meagre shops. They had been talking all day Ė Iím not sure what about, but I suspect it was something to do with tourists that come to the town to view the weaving and coo at the picturesque side of Umasbamba that is presented to them. There had been a tour out there that day, which I had missed, because I had gone into the nearby town of Chinchero to meet my friend at the bus stop.

Rafaela held forth, passionately and at great length. Much of it was in Quechua, and I couldnít follow it, but I know it had something to do with me, and another volunteer who didn't like the village and wouldn't stay and Senorita Mery, the travel agent who arranges the tours and who brought me out here on my first day. There seems to be some confusion about the money. The village women seem to be expecting Senorita Mery to pay them for my accommodation and food, because she pays them for other things. But I donít think sheís got anything to do with it. Certainly it seems that Margarita hasnít been paid, which she should have been by now because I paid my fees weeks ago. I think Iíll bring it up with Eliza when next I go in. I've been told there are bank accounts and the women are given debit cards with which they can access the money. But there are no ATMís in Umasbamba and I donít think thereís even one in Chinchero. I think the nearest one is in Cuzco. Iím not at all sure Margarita understands this system and Iíve not seen the debit card. Margarita has a tendency to pretend sheís understood when she hasnít. One of the Maximo staff insisted that everything had been explained in the past and the women understood, but itís clear to me that somethingís not right. I managed to get a phone call happening, ring Eliza and put her on the phone to Rafaela. Something Rafaela clearly found reassuring, but Iím not confident that the problemís been solved.

So, I do the kids class tonight  Rafaela said in the meeting Ė one bit I did understand, that there would be at least 8 students at the next two women's classes. That's good, but I'm feeling the pressure of time. 6 weeks is nowhere near long enough. 15 lessons Ė I had hoped to achieve more. But itís only a start and someone else will have to continue. What this place needs is someone whoís prepared to come for the long haul. But they would have to be a special kind of person, someone with no ties, who can handle the sleepy rhythm of village life, and is content to just settle in and stay for while. Preferably someone with a flair for languages, and an interest in learning Quechua. The family have been asking me to stay, saying they donít want me to go. But what can I do? I have a life elsewhere, that I very much want to return to. Iíve been on the road long enough. I want to go home.

I have booked another tour for this weekend. This time to Lake Titicaca, to see the islands. I have to go and pack now, because I will be catching the car to Cuzco as soon as class finishes, and itís nearly time to go to the school.

Monday 8th December

Itís raining in Umasbamba. The sort of steady, gentle but soaking rain that falls straight down from above. No wind to drive it, but no wind to blow it away, either. Itís December, and the start of the rainy season here. Iíve just gotten back from my weekend trip to Lake Titicaca. Iím so glad I went, it was a fabulous trip, and not very expensive. The trip to Macchu Piccu cost me $215 US dollars, but this one was only $85.

  It started with an overnight bus trip, which was a little gruelling. Jonathan, the travel agent that looks after the volunteers told me to meet him at Maximo Nivel, where he teamed me up with another Australian woman to travel with. Her name was Marlene, and she was from Sydney, but now lives in London. He took us down to the bus station and saw us onto the right bus. Jonathanís good like that. His English is awful and his itineraries make little sense, but he usually drops you off and picks you up, which is very sweet of him. He tells me he never gets a day off, ever.

The bus station was crowded and chaotic, and Iím glad he was there to guide us through it. The ticket-checker nearly ripped the tabs of both my tickets, the outbound and the return, but I managed to realise what she was doing and stop her in time. We had the front two seats, which I usually like, because I like to see out the front, but it can be a little disconcerting in Peru, as the drivers are all pretty hectic. I managed to sleep a little. It was a surprisingly good bus, actually, quite new. We arrived in Puno at 4am, and took a taxi to our hotel, which we had the use of until 7.30. Just enough time for a nap and a shower, basically, and they served us breakfast there. We were a bit nonplussed at first, because the hotel was dark, lurking behind bars and with no doorbell. I kicked at the gate for a good ten seconds and the lights came on and the concierge came out and let us in, much to my relief. I went upstairs and flopped into bed.

Puno is the main city on the Peruvian side of Titicaca. 66% of the lake belongs to Peru, the rest to Bolivia. Punoís pretty plain. Peruvian cities are too poor to be pretty. For example, the buildings are often just raw concrete or brick. Thereís no money to paint or render them. Very little land is put aside for things like parks, though thereís usually a few squares, and there tend to be monuments on the tops of the hills. There are no street trees, and even the squares only have a few. Grass is a luxury. Where it exists, itís fenced off and no one is allowed to sit on it. The thing I really liked about Puno was the motorcycle taxis. They were like tricycles with a motorcycle at the front, and a canopy over two seats at the back.

  Our guide picked us up and we joined a small tour bus of people. Actually, I was glad to see them. I thought it was just going to be me and Marlene for awhile there. I had booked the tour on the recommendation of a friend, and I didnít really know what to expect. It was something of a magical mystery tour for me. The tour bust took us to the docks, where there was a small market. We were advised to buy a small gift of food or educational supplies for our host families that night. My friend had bought bananas and said that they went down really well, so thatís what I got and Marlene followed my example. Then we got on the boat and set off. The guideís name was Walter, and he was very good. His English was fluent, and he seemed very knowledgeable. He was also patient ad sensitive to the needs of the people on the tour Ė especially one woman who was sixty-one. Very gutsy, but needing a little more time for climbing hills and stuff. She was funny, actually. Another Australian Ė rough as guts and from Port Macquarie and with an accent you could fry a chop on. Divorced, and doing a lot of travelling on her own Ė and good on her, too.

  The first stop was the Floating Islands. Lake Titicaca is massive Ė really an inland sea, and Puno is in a sheltered bay. Puno bay is never deeper than 25 metres, and doesnít get the heavy weather that the rest of the lake can get, which is closer to 250 metres in depth. This means that a particular lifestyle is possible there. The people on the Floating Islands build their islands out of the root-masses of reeds, lashing the fibrous masses together with rope and stakes. On top of this, they pile layers and layers of reeds, which they cut from the same massive reed-beds where they get the root-mass. They put a fresh layer of reeds down a couple of times a month. Everything is made out of these reeds. Boats, houses, furniture, beds, the lot. Except the cooking stove, which is made out of clay. The islands are about one meter thick, and often have a hole in the middle where they farm fish in nets. Sadly introduced fish like trout are gradually squeezing out the native species. The islands are usually anchored to one spot, though the islanders do move them around from time to time.

We were welcomed onto an island where the local women sang and danced for us, displayed their handcrafts for sale, and explained, with the interpretive assistance of Walter, how the islands are made and maintained. They wore a similar cut of clothing to the women around Umasbamba, but much brighter, favouring garish lime greens and hot pinks, and with enormous pom-poms hanging from their braided hair. They must be doing quite well, because they were all quite plump and sonsy, unlike the weathered and wiry Umasbamba women. A reed island lasts for about 20 years, and then they abandon it and make a new one. At one stage, a woman lifted up a plug in the island and dropped a stone tied to a rope through it to sound the depth of the lake. 18 metres. It did feel quite strange to walk on, spongy, and not very solid. The people living there are descended from people who fled the conquistadors and took up residence on the lake, where they are still relatively unmolested. They pay no tax to the Government, and are considered to be part of the National Park. Tourism allows them to educate their children, who are picked up and taken by boat to one of three schools among the islands in the mornings, and buy things like solar panels, which they strongly favour. Before solar panels, it was not uncommon for entire islands to go up in flames due to one carelessly placed candle and many people had died over the years that way. The women put us in a giant reed canoe, and paddled us across to a neighbouring island, where we looked around for awhile, watching the fish farming in process and examining more handcrafts. I have been chipping away at my Xmas shopping though my trip here, and I bought a bright wall hanging with pockets to put socks and things in for little Sam here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 From there, we set off on a longer journey of a couple of hours. Out of Puno bay and into the main part of the lake, which was quite choppy. We eventually arrived on the island of Imantani (I'm not sure I've got the name right), which was a totally different proposition. Imantani is large, and a real, solid island of earth and rock. 9 different tribal groups live there. Itís very dry, much drier than Umasbamba, and there were far fewer domestic animals on it Ė probably because there isnít the grass to feed them. I saw a few sheep and a couple of donkeys, but that was it. There is no irrigation, and the potato plants looked shrivelled and stunted, though apparently the rainy season is about to start there too. The ground was very stony.

  All that said, I found the village I stayed in there much more pleasant than Umasbamba. Perhaps because it seemed cleaner. The animals roaming everywhere at Umasbamba tend to make the streets smelly, because thereís dung everywhere, and much of it is pig dung, which is very malodorous. Also, Umasbamba is wet. Itís always muddy here, and that tends to add to the pong in the streets Ė some puddles are more or less permanent, and filled with an evil-smelling black water, and sometimes aglae. The village on Imantani was dry, a little dusty, but much cleaner. Also, they had paved the streets with stone, and laid patterns into the paving in many spots. There are no cars or vehicles of any kind. The roads are about 5 feet wide and only for walking. But generally, an effort had been made to make the place pretty. There were flowers growing in some gardens and the houses were well-kept. Only a few houses in Umasbamba have been decorated at all, and the yards tend to be just mud and rubbish. Not here at Margeritaís. This is one of the nicest houses in the village with painted walls with animal designs on them and Domingo has just started painting the balcony (Bright blue, of all colours Ė maybe itís undercoat).

  We were met at the small port by the local families, and our guide asked us to organise ourselves into groups of two or three Ė then he assigned each group to a family. Myself, Marlene, and the older woman, Stefani, were assigned to a man named Leondro and his wife Sonia. We followed them to their house where we were given rooms and a lunch of quinoa soup, rice, potatoes and fried cheese. The fried cheese was delicious, but very salty. We also met the rest of the family. Soniaís mother and her and Leondroís two children, and Leondroís brother, and his daughter, who looked about 5 but was in fact 16, and suffers from retardation and dwarfism. Apparently birth defects hare high among the islanders due to inbreeding. After lunch, we were taken up to the soccer ground for a lecture from Walter about the history and people of the island, and for those who wanted to, a hike to the top of the mountain.

  Walter told us about the 9 different tribal groups, and explained that people on the island marry very young. He also talked about the climate and the agriculture. Tourism is very important to this island, because they suffer from land hunger. Every single inch that can be cultivated is, and there are potato patches clinging to cliffs, on the very edge of the water, and I was stunned to see one right up on the very top of the mountain. I pity the poor soul who has to trek all the way up there to tend their crop. Tourism helps bring in extra money and alleviate a situation that could easily turn to famine. Very little meat is eaten on the Island. Theyíre mostly vegetarian, though I assume they do eat fish. There used to be a fishing industry on Lake Titicaca, but the fish population has declined probably do to both overfishing and pollution, and the men no longer work in the fishing industry. Several of them are tour boat captains instead, working for the companies that bring tourists to their island. The other industry on the island is weaving, and we passed a gloomy building full of complicated-looking looms on the way to the soccer ground.

  Marlene and Stefani declined to climb the mountain. They were both suffering badly from altitude sickness, with headaches as well as breathlessness, and the mountaintop was at 4100 meters Ė even higher than Umasbamba. I seem to have finally adjusted. I huffed and puffed, on the way up, but I found it easier than the first few weeks I was here. The guide said there was a sacred site at the top, where at certain times of the year, ceremonies are performed by a shaman, and people bring offerings. We were told that if we walked around the crown anti-clockwise three times, you could make a wish. The first time, you must think of the past, the second time, the present and the third time, the future. The sacred site itself was fenced off, but I walked around it and made my wish Ė which of course, I canít divulge, because like wishes everywhere, you mustnít tell, or it breaks the spell.

  At the bottom of the mountain, 3 or 4 older women sat with blankets spread out before them, displaying their wares. Weaving, knitting - scarves and hats, mostly. Some gloves, bottles of water, bottles of beer, chocolate bars, crackers, cigarettes and assorted bits and bobs. As soon as we started walking they packed up. Then taking a different, almost perpendicular route, they scooted up the mountain. When we got to the top, puffing and wheezing, the exact same women were there, sitting, cool as cucumbers ready to sell us anything that might catch our eyes. I was sorely tempted by the Snickers bar, but didnít end up buying it.

  The usual routine is to wait for the sunset, but the weather was cloudy and the wind up there was bitterly cold. So I hung around and took a few pictures for awhile, and then descended before it got too dark. I had borrowed a torch, but didnít end up using it. On the way down I chatted to some very pleasant medical students from Portugal and an Englishwoman who, like me, was travelling on her own. At the bottom, Leondro and Soniaís son was waiting to guide me back to the house. After dinner of rice and soup, we went to the hall, where there was a dance being staged for us. Sonia appeared with armfuls of traditional clothes and swathed us in skirts, blouses and incredibly tight waistbands, topped off with a dark mantle. There were two bands playing in the hall, one at each end, alternating songs. One consisted of young boys in matching red ponchos and they were quite good. The other was a mixture of boys and adults and they were woeful. The locals dragged us all onto the dance floor and led us in fairly simple steps. Most of the local girls seemed to enjoy this a great deal, but Sonia went at it with a grim determination that didnít actually make one feel much like dancing. She was friendly and welcoming enough at her house, but I got the impression she didnít really like the dances. After awhile, the men lit a fire outside and we were all taken outside to dance under the stars. After a few dances, we were allowed to sit down and they performed some traditional dances. One with flags, and another representing the coming of the Conquistadors.  Much to Soniaís evident relief, Marlene, Stefani and I opted to go to bed quite early, and she led us through the moonlit night back to her place. There was no electricity, we went to bed by candlelight. I slept well in the funny, saggy bed. It was a very cold night, but there were plenty of blankets. I woke in time to see the red dawn over Lake Titicaca, the sun rising over the mountains of neighbouring Bolivia.

  After a nice breakfast of pancakes (only one each Ė not enough, but the little boy had scoffed the rest), we wandered back down to the dock to board our boat. There was a trip of about an hour to the next island, Taquali. This island is famous for the fact that the men do the knitting. Taquali was lovely. Similar in dryness to Amantani, but bigger, and with a bigger population. We docked, and then walked for about an hour on one of the stone-paved foot-roads to the main town, where there was a square overlooking the ocean surrounded by a few shops, a town hall, a squat belfry, and a large building selling the work of local knitters and weavers. We rested here, and after awhile, Walter took us up on the roof of the building to tell us about the people of the island. The original population of the island were removed in their entirety by the Spaniards, who sent them to work to their deaths in the mines. Over the intervening centuries, it gradually repopulated. In the first half of the 20th Century, it served as a prison. Land reforms had established as system of private property in the 70s and 80s. It wasnít clear what was there before, but apparently it had something to do with the Shining Path, who are no longer present. The people on the island became subject to certain laws from the government regarding marriage, because there was a lot of people marrying close relatives and a lot of birth defects as a result. Couples do not get married until they have lived together for 6 years in the house of the boyís father and had a couple of children. If they live together for 6 years and do not have children, they are obliged to separate. Childless couples who wish to stay together have to leave and go to Puno. Education on the island is basic. No one on the island has a tertiary education. The few people who go to university never return.

  The island has a complex system of headwear for the men. A red hat Ė beanie-style with a long, hanging crown Ė means a man is married. A red and white hat means he is single. If the crown is worn hanging straight down at the back, it signifies virginity, and all boys wear them this way until the age of 13. If the crown is hanging over the left shoulder, with the pom-pom above the heart, the wearer has a girlfriend. Worn on the other side, he is available. A hat with earpieces is only ever worn by a village leader. The women in turn signify their marital or relationship status with the size and colour of the pom-poms hanging from their mantles. Small girls and married women have small pom-poms, single women of marriageable age have large, bright, pom-poms.

  Walter demonstrated some of the weaving, including the belts the men wear, that serve as a kind of calendar, each month represented by a symbol that indicates the kind of work done in that month. I had asked Walter about the lack of irrigation on the islands. It seems ludicrous that crops should wither in sight of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. He explained that there simply isnít the money to build an irrigation system. Itís something that successive governments promise, but which just hasnít been delivered. In addition, several years ago, when there was a new local government on the island that received some money it was put to the vote whether to build an irrigation system or the town hall. The locals voted for the hall. Iím sure there was more politics to this than meets the eye. Maybe the proposed irrigation system wouldnít have benefited everyone equally and the hall was a more egalitarian option. But nonetheless, the fields remain unirrigated and Iím sure it would make a huge difference to the productivity of the islands if they could use the water thatís right there. In addition there is no plumbing at all on this island. Imantini had a very basic plumbing system Ė each house had a tap in the garden, but on Taquali, all water is carried by hand from the one well. Iím surprised they havenít worked out some sort of manual system for getting water to the fields from the lake, even one powered by donkeys Ė the hillsides rising from the shores of the lake are very steep. Everything has to be terraced before it can be cultivated. But not even the closest fields to the banks show any sign of being watered.

Umasbamba, on the other hand, does have irrigation. Itís very basic and consists of a network of trenches and small aqueducts running among the fields. Some of these are concrete, other are much older, painstakingly lined with stones, Still others are just trenches in the earth. These are managed by a system of blocking or unblocking the various channels with clods of grass. But Umasbamba has creeks running down from the mountains for the locals to harness, and no pumping is required. Itís all gravity-fed. As a result, 2 or 3 different crops a year are possible. Returning to Umasbamba, after these two trips away, I am aware of how rich it is relatively,in terms of water, if not mush else.

  After the lecture, we were given free time to wander around and go shopping if we wished, and Stefani and I went and checked out the local cemetery. Cemeteries are usually kept locked in Peru. You have to wait for the Day of the Dead Ė November 2nd, to tend the grave and leave flowers. When the group reformed we walked on to another village atop a hill, where there was a small restaurant. They had laid long tables out on the patio overlooking the sea, and we ate a lunch of fried fish and rice. We then walked on Ė essentially we walked from one side of the island to the other, and the boat met us on the other side. I walked with Stefani, Stefani was somewhat concerned for the first part of the walk about a group of local boys wandering along behind us. I thought they were ok, but she clearly felt threatened, probably because she was a bit older and felt vulnerable. I informed Walter of her worries and he walked with us too. On the second half of the walk, we stopped and browsed a bit at the various blanket-stalls laid out by the island women, and I bought a few knitted finger-puppets for little Sam. The end of the walk involved going down 500 stone steps, and through a series of stone arches. It was a beautiful day. Sunny, and not too hot. Except for the clouded-over sunset the previous night, we couldnít have had better luck with the weather.  

The bus back was even more luxurious than the bus there. It had deeply reclining seats and supports to rest your legs on. This kind of luxury in Peru really surprised me. I guess we were travelling with the rich people. The bus I take out here, or halfway here, to Chinchero, where one changes to a shared taxi is as different as it could be. Old and shabby and very crowded, belching smoke, with the springs collapsing in the seats and not much suspension to speak of. My friend Jessie calls it the Chicken Bus, but Iíve yet to see anyone carrying a chicken. Iím a little disappointed actually. I expected livestock. But no. Well, one canít have everything.

Anyway, I slept a few hours on this swanky bus, though it was interrupted by an unexplained police search at a checkpoint, and we got back into Cuzco at about 4am. I took a taxi back to Gloriaís, the house I stay in in Cuzco, and crashed out in a spare bed for a few hours.

 In the morning, Stephanie told me that it was a religious holiday and that Gloria was planning to attend Mass in the big cathedral in the main square. Apparently she donated money towards the flowers. Gloriaís very Catholic. After the mass, they were going to parade the Virgin around the square. We decided to go Ė as much to get a chance to see the church as anything else, as they usually charge tourists to get in. But as it happened we arrived halfway through the Mass before the one Gloria was planning to attend. The flowers certainly did look lovely. The place was festooned with pink gladioli and something that looked like Babiesí Breath. The Virgin, way up on a plinth, wearing gold brocade and swathed in blue silk, certainly looked impressive. We were keen to see the inside of this church for a couple of reasons. One was to see the famous Black Christ. I donít know why Christ had been depicted with black skin on that occasion, but the Christ is believed to have wrought a miracle back in the 17th Century. There was a terrible earthquake in 1650 with many aftershocks and it was taken outside and carried around the streets for people to pray to. The sudden cessation of the earthquake is attributed to the miraculous intercession of this Christ. The other curiosity in this church is the depiction of the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples eating Peruvian food Ė including a plate of Guinea Pig in pride of place. There is also the incredible original altar, now hidden behind the current one, which is made of wood and carved with breathtaking intricacy.

  We sat in there for 40 minutes or so, and some of the music was quite amazing. They had a choir, sequestered in what looked like a carved wooden corral, and the hymns they sang had the same haunting lilt that one associates with Andean music, reminiscent of churangoes and pan-pipes. When the mass finished, we went out. We met Gloria coming in, but declined to hear a second mass. Instead, we wandered around some of the other churches, which were open, and got to compare. One was extremely poor by comparison, and the mass was being sung by a couple of women too shy to approach the microphones while they were drowned out by a young man on an electric keyboard. Then we wandered off to the market. Everyone had assured me that I wouldnít have to teach school that day, and I had pretty much decided to take a day shopping with Stephanie in Cuzco, and then stay at Gloriaís another night revelling in the luxury of hot running water and Gloriaís marvellous cooking. But I decided Iíd better ring Julio and check, just in case. I was out of luck. Julio told me there was school that day in the village Ė the holiday was only for Cuzco. And of course, I had to go, because I have the key. So I ended up eating a hurried lunch with Stephanie Ė to whom I also had to say goodbye because she leaves the day before I next return from the village Ė and I rushed off to catch the chicken bus. Fortunately I made it in time to lay out the childrenís notebooks and do some minimal preparation. Preparation is important for the classes. When you canít communicate smoothly with the kids, you have to think of other ways to signal to them whatís expected of them. It wasnít a great lesson that day, I just let them work though the worksheets at their own pace, but it went ok.

  So now Iím in my last week. Iíve decided to prepare detailed report cards for all the children, and a briefing kit to help the next teacher Ė whoever they are and whenever they may come Ė find their feet. Iíll give a printed and an electronic copy to the coordinators. I can save the next teacher a lot of time and trouble by describing the different kids and where theyíre up to, and cataloguing what theyíve been taught and what they need to work on. I know this will make Maximo Nivel happy, because most of the English-teaching projects are done in a pretty ad hoc way, but I can at least prove that I care about the kids and the village, and that they learnt something. Iím not just doing it to impress Maximo of course. The kids will get a lot more out of the next person who comes along if they can get a head start. It took me weeks just to remember a quarter of their names, and I still donít know close to half. Iíll do the same thing for the womenís class. I started work on that today. I also started going through the kids work looking for things suitable to paste into a class book, so they can have a sense of having achieved something.

  I hope itís not too long before someone comes along. I just think they might have trouble finding someone whoíll stay. Itís not easy, living in the village. I think it needs an older person. Someone with a lot of experience, without pressing family ties, and who is content to lead a quiet, village life. Also someone who speaks better Spanish, and is good with kids. Theyíre good kids. Unruly, but good-natured on the whole. It also needs someone with a strong stomach, both literally and figuratively. Someone who can bear with the squalor, and who isnít likely to get sick. Thanks to my own years of bush living without a fridge and Margheritaís scrupulous food preparation, I havenít had any tummy troubles (touch wood) but just about everyone else Iíve met has had at least some problems.

  Wednesday 10th December

  Second-last kidsí class tonight. I told them about the class book, and was able to get a number of the brighter ones to write paragraphs about themselves Ė with a lot of prompting. One of the reasons why I think this job requires a better Spanish speaker is because itís difficult to test their comprehension. They do well on the worksheets, but thatís because theyíre good problem-solvers. Just because they know what order the words should go it doesnít necessarily follow that they know what the words mean. They can spot patterns in the language and give right answers without necessarily understanding the meaning of the words. I think a lot of this goes on, actually. Sometimes the older kids bring me their English homework from their main schools. Iím often surprised at how difficult the questions are and the kids clearly donít understand it. Marisol, the daughter here brought me some the other night, She had a test the next day. I became a bit exasperated with her, actually. She wasnítí really trying and I could tell she just wanted me to do her homework for her, which I wouldnít do. I did help her, for about an hour, and then I told her she had to do the rest herself.

  Now that itís lighter later, I close up the school and go for walks around the valley. Itís really very beautiful, once you get out of the mud and pong of the village itself. The potato fields are in flower, expanses of purple and white, and the broad beans, which are also a staple, are starting to flourish. Tonight I went for a walk along the rim of the valley floor, where the flat is skirted by a little creek. Last night, I went a different way. Following a little path through the trees, I climbed the ridge behind the school, past the fields and where the land begins to be unused and a little wild. Then after a short while, little plots began to appear again, and coming over the ridge I discovered a whole other village. When I first came to Umasbamba, I thought it was the end of the line, as it very much appears to be a blind valley, ringed by steep, enormous mountains, a real dead end. In fact, ďUmasbambaĒ means ďhead plainĒ, implying that itís the beginning of things out here. But I had since heard there was another village. I had expected it to be nothing more than a tiny hamlet, but this was actually quite large. It seems to only be connected to the outside world by that one narrow path, but perhaps there is another road coming from the other side. Iíve seen maps of the area and I havenít seen any other roads out there, but the maps arenít very accurate. I only saw one person on this walk, a man leading a horse. He looked thoroughly surprised to see me, he could barely croak out the obligatory ďBuenas TardesĒ.

  Usually when I walk around the fields, there are people about. Just pottering about the evening errands, either cutting and carrying huge blankets full of grass for the cattle or driving their animals home from wherever theyíve been tethered that day. This is a job girls often seem to have, and youíll see quite small children driving herds of sheep, or maybe just a few cows or goats.

  When the class finishes, the kids grab one of the soccer balls from the cardboard box by the door and spill out into the grassy square. They play a brief but very intense game of something, boys and girls both, all ages, and often the men working on restoring the church will drop what they're doing and join in, too. They do this for 10 or 15 minutes while Julio and I finish up, putting things away, calling the roll, and handing out stationary or supplies to the kids that want them. Itís sort of like a library system. Kids can borrow a packet of textas, or a volume of a childrenís encyclopaedia, but Julio notes it down and theyíre expected to bring it back. They can also get a sheet of paper or even a piece of card, which of course they get to keep. Some of the trinkets I bought for gifts or rewards for good work arenít going to quite work here. For example, I bought novelty rubbers that stick on the ends of pencils, and sparkly cushion grips to put on pens. But this assumes a system of private property. These kids donít own their own pencils and pens. Everything is shared. They are trained to ask for everything Ė pencils, sharpeners, rubbers, and they bring them back when theyíre finished. They wonít take them off the shelves themselves, or replace them. They insist on bringing them to me or Julio personally. Even the very little ones conscientiously put the coloured pencils back in their box and solemnly present them to me. Once all this is done, I have to convince the kids outside to return the ball, which they usually do, reluctantly within a couple of minutes. The minute the ball goes back in the box, they melt away, the square empties out within seconds, though I often pass them playing in the street on my way home. Sometimes the little ones follow me, calling ďGood afternoon, Teacher!Ē No one calls me by my name, here. The children call me Teacher, Margerita and Domingo call me Senorita, and Julio calls me Senorita Nelly. Itíll be surprising to hear my own name again.

  Thursday 11th December

  It was the last womenís class tonight. 4 women Ė and four toddlers. I feel I have to tolerate the children in the womenís class, because if they canít bring them they canít come. 3 of them were old enough to be distracted by colouring-in, but one was too small, and clawed at his mother constantly, making the lesson almost impossible. It was a tough lesson all round, actually. I have all the sympathy and time in the world for the women that canít write, but I do get impatient when they wonít try. It wouldnít be so bad if they were better at the spoken stuff, but some of them just canít seem to frame the sounds no matter how hard they try and if they canít get it on the third or fourth go, they just start making random noises. I ended up feeling that one woman at least went away feeling discouraged.  Itís frustrating because one of the better students turned up and didnít get anything out of it because I was so tied up with the oneís that couldnít progress. She left early, I donít know why. She may have gone to bring in her animals, and come back to find the place locked up. One of the babies pissed on the floor and I had nothing but a bit of dry loo roll to clean it up with. It was also hard because that woman with the smallest baby Ė she really smells awful. Many of the women are kind of rich-smelling, but she stank so bad it gave me a tummyache. Urine, mostly. Whether itís hers or her kidís Iím not sure.

  So I ended up feeling discouraged, too, in the end. Hilda and Frida have potential. I think that with time and practise, they could learn the language. But the others Ė I donít think theyíre ever going to get anywhere. Itís just too foreign to them, and they lack the ambition, and more importantly, the confidence. I think they hope that if they come to the class, the language will miraculously happen. They donít know how to be students. Hilda and Frida, on the other hand, retain what they are taught and are better the next time. But thereíll be no more lessons for them for who knows how long.

One of the higher-ups from the volunteer organisation appeared today, with some dude whose name I didnít catch and whoís job was unclear to me. I believe he was from a partner organisation. Anyway, he took photos and asked a lot of questions, writing down the answers in a book. He wanted to know both the positives and the negatives of the project and encouraged me to speak openly, which I did. Iím not sure what the woman who brought him made of it. I think Umasbamba as a project was in part her idea, and she said it was because they wanted to offer volunteers a more in-depth experience. Thereís something about her attitude that rubs me up the wrong way Ė as if weíre just glorified tourists looking for an authentic experience to enrich our privileged Western lives, slumming it in the third world because weíre too sophisticated to just go on an ordinary holiday. The gentleman was Nepali, originally from a poor village himself, and I cringed when she said she couldnít wait to ďdoĒ Nepal one day. Unfortunately, some people do approach it like that, and it irks me. To my mind, the Peruvians are more than just a backdrop for my Big Experience. Theyíre real people with real problems, and I came here because I wanted to contribute something and make some small difference. Certainly, I donít think that the Cultural Immersion Project (the official name for my gig here) should really be marketed that way it has been. This place needs an English teacher. A real one. Someone who can settle in for while and build relationships with the kids and make sure they actually learn something.

  It was clear to me that she and I were not on the same page about the main purpose of the project. I came here to teach English. She says itís so volunteers can stay with a real Peruvian family and see what itís like to live like an Andean Villager. Well, my interest in Anthropology was part of why the project caught my eye, but as far as I was concerned, this was never about me. It was always about trying to do something positive for other people. Apart from anything else, this gigís too hard. People who come here for some kind of personal growth experience will leave. Only people who really care will grit their teeth and lean over women who stink of urine to teach them the alphabet, and let filthy kids climb all over them while they explain the lessons.

  Tomorrow is my last kidsí class. Iíve spent the day preparing my report and going through the kidís work, pasting the best thing each child did into a big book for the class to keep. Iíve also got some award certificates, which Iíll fill out tomorrow. I hope I get enough time to tidy up and straighten out the school. Make sure all the coloured pencils are in sets, that sort of thing. I wanted to do a stock-take and leave everything shipshape for the next person. I might not get to all of that, but weíll see.

  Sunday 14th December

On my second-last day, I was in the school working on the kidsí reports, and I had a visitor. Diagonally across from the community centre (where my classroom is) thereís a kindergarten. Iím usually not there when itís open, in the mornings. The kindergarten teacher, seeing the door open, was curious and came to investigate. He seemed like a very nice young man. I didnít catch his name, but he very formally asked me to extend his best Xmas salutations to my family. Then it was time for me to return to Margaritaís for lunch and we walked together with all the littlies around us. I said ďHelloĒ and they said ďHelloĒ back, and then flowed in my wake, chanting ďHello, hello, helloĒ all through the village. I felt quite like the Pied Piper.

On my last day, Margarita prepared Cuy  (guinea pig) for me. She also insisted on doing it at lunchtime, which surprised me, I expected it to happen at night. The cuy was delicious Ė and happily I was out when she slaughtered it - but I didnít understand the import of it being a lunchtime treat until I got home that night and say Marisol and Hector sitting glumly by the hutch Ė which now only contained two cuy. The Guinea pigs arenít pets, and much of the time I felt heartily sorry for them, stuck in their dark bin and not fed that much either. But I guess they are cute. Or maybe they were just put out because they didnít get any. Margarita said she was going to buy more for Xmas. Meat is a rare treat in the village. That was only the second time in 5 weeks that I ate any.

My last kidsí class was followed by a fiesta, or rather, two fiestas. I had made award certificates for the kids that did well, which went down well, and distributed small gifts to the rest of the class, and got my guitar out and sang a song, and then Julio asked me to sit on a chair. To my surprise, several of them had prepared little performances for me Ė little speeches or songs, and one girl recited a very dramatic poem complete with actions. Julio made a speech about what a big heart I had (though for some reason heíd gotten it into his hear that I was French and I had to correct him). Then Julio played the flute while a group of children danced with me, and he also treated me to his repertoire of impressions and imitations, including a very impressive monkey and a football commentary. Then they all lined up and hugged and kissed me, leaving the class with their notebooks and work. While this was going on, the Amigas were gathering outside. 

When the last child had left the room and Julio had taken his leave, they filed in. This was a much more solemn occasion. They brought out two bottles of Coke and two glasses Ė Coke is a luxury, and an indication of how seriously they took the occasion Ė and filled my cup, and then the glasses went round the circle. The first little bit poured on the floor for the Earth Mother, then each woman toasted me individually, and I returned the toast. Each woman got a full glass of coke and took her time savouring this luxury, so it took some time to go right around the room. I sang a few songs while this was going on. At one point, a man came in, and the circle was interrupted so he could drink Ė I donít think men are expected to wait while women drink, but then they went back to the circle toast. After all the Coke was gone and all the women has toasted me, there was some passionate speechifying in Quechua, most of which I didnít understand. Margarita held forth and great length, and even got quite teary, which is unusual, emotions are not displayed freely in the village. I sang a little more, not knowing what else to do, and then they, too lined up and each hugged and kissed me, and wished me a happy Xmas and safe travels. Again and again they asked me when I was coming back, and I was sad to have to tell them I didnít know. I don't know if Iíll ever go back, but I hope someone else will go.  

I woke early, and shot off to the school again to tidy up and put some finishing touches on the stocktake I did for the next teacher. Then Margarita, Marisol, Hector and I went out to take photos. For some reason, Domingo didnít come. I expected him to, but he excused himself and went to work on the church. He said goodbye somewhat gruffly. The Umasbambans arenít good with emotional moments, and permanent goodbyes are always awkward in any culture. I took photos of them out in the flowering potato fields Ė it seemed important for them for me to do this, and then I went back to the house to get my bags. The only problem was Ė no taxis. Usually one turns up every half an hour or an hour and Saturday mornings have usually been the busiest time because itís when the locals are most likely to go to Cuzco, but all morning I hadnít seen one and was starting to get worried in case the road had been blocked somehow. I hugged and kissed Margarita and Marisol goodbye, and Hector helped me down to the road with my bags. A very old woman called out to me as wee walked ďCiao Mamacita!Ē (goodbye little mother) as we walked. The older women often referred to me as ďMamaĒ or ďMamacitaĒ while the younger ones called me ďSenoritaĒ, or sometimes more simply ďAmigaĒ (female friend). They referred to themselves collectively and to my English class with them as ďLas AmigasĒ (the women friends).

 Hector said we should walk the mile or so down to the lake, because there would be more cars there because of a fork in the road leading to other villages and that we did. The wheely suitcase took a pounding on the rough road, and Hector actually carried it on his shoulders for a long way Ė tough little thing he is. Then finally, a taxi came into view, much to my relief, and I was off to Chinchero. Like his father, Hector was gruff about the goodbye, and I was sad to say goodbye to him Ė heís a nice kid. Much mellower and gentler than most of the village boys.

An hour later and a particularly hair-raising taxi ride from Chinchero, I was back in Cuzco, and damn happy, about it too. Walking my usual route from the taxi depot to Maximo, I stumbled into a small informal market Iíd never come across before. Iíve been used to seeing women with wheelbarrows of tomatoes and onions and stuff like that, but here people were just standing around with sacks on the corner of Avenida El Grau and the Santaigo highway. Standing so close together I could barely get through with my luggage. Glancing into the sacks, I saw that they were full of live guinea pigs Ė being sold just in time to be fattened for the Xmas and New Year celebrations, I guess (as native Peruvians only eat cuy on the major holidays.) Some of the sacks had live chickens in them. Maybe Iím going to miss the Chicken Bus when it comes into itís own, I thought. Gloria welcomed me and plied me with a wonderful lunch, and I revelled in a hot shower and then went shopping with my friend Stephanie, who was still in Cuzco after all because her trip to Macchu Piccu had been delayed.

I was right about the report for Maximo Nivel. Eliza and Carlene were most impressed and I was able to talk to them about my concerns and about what sort of people should be sent to Umasbamba in the future. Iím concerned about the promotion of the Cultural Immersion Project attracting the wrong sort of person, making it all sound more glossy and romantic than it is. The truth is, that Umasbambaís a tough call for a Westerner, itís lonely and hard work, and  lot of the time, itís quite boring. Theyíd be better to be honest about that and send people who are passionate about making a difference. Personally, I think a husband and wife team would be ideal. They could support each other and the woman could teach the Amigas and the man the men. The men often said they wanted lessons, but hung back from coming. I think they felt uncomfortable with a woman teacher. Eliza and Carlene seemed very pleased with what Iíd done, and I told them that future volunteers were welcome to contact me for information and advice. So I was quite happy with that in the end.

  Stephanie and I had a pretty serious shopping spree. First we went in search of the shops that sell sandals made out of recycled tyres that the village women wear. It took a long time to find them, and we ended up going through a whole market section of Cuzco where no westerners ever go, only Peruvians. Some of it was the meat market Ė no refrigeration. Iíve passed shops where they slaughter chickens on the sidewalk before, but this was macabre. Lots of heads and feet, often being sold as sets, out on benches in the street. And large and strange looking fish in various stages of dissection. Having finally found the shop and managed to find a pair big enough (Peruvian women are a lot smaller, and so are their feet) I paid the handsome sum of 7 soles ($3.50) for my sandals and we went on to the larger San Pedro market. Here I bought some frilly petticoats to go with my traditional skirt, some Peruvian silver earrings for about $1 each, and a knitted devil mask for Ben for Xmas. We wandered through a number of shops, and I came across a jeweller and fell in love with a ring heíd made, which I bought, and Stephanie bought a Madonna figurine as a farewell gift for Gloria, because sheís dropped her one and broken it. This involved going into a whole series of religious shops which was quite interesting. The Peruvuians favour a depiction of the Madonna which I have irreverently come to call the Squirting Virgin, because it shows her about to breastfeed the Christ child with milk dripping out of her breast. The iconography is elaborate and quite beautiful, and I thought of inquiring into the cost of one, but assumed they would be out of my budget. Stephanie took me to a gallery that featured the work of a Cuzcenean  artist who specialised in such iconography. His sculptures all had bizzarely elongated necks but were quite beautiful.

  We then ascended the hill to the lovely little market as San Blas. I particularly wanted to go there because I knew Rafaela would be there, and she had, oddly been absent from the farewell gathering the night before. She was delighted to see me, and I was struck with a tinge of regret that I hadnít spent more time with her, or been able to better communicate with her. Of all the Peruvians I met Ė especially the village women, she was the with whom I felt the most commonality, and I think that had we been able to talk to each other a little more effectively, we would have become firm friends. I wished at times that Iíd been billeted in her house instead, because from what I gathered, it was a livelier place than Margheritaís which rarely has visitors.  Rafaleaís so warm, where Margarita was always so formal and reserved with me. However, I canít deny that Margaritaís diligence in the matter of my food kept me healthy, and she looked after me very well. Iím the only volunteer I know who didnít get diarrhoea at some point.

  Rafaela hugged and kissed me several times, and sold me a belt for a song and then gave me a knotted bracelet as a gift. To my interest, she asked for my email address, and I hope I hear form her. Rafaela must be the only person in Umasbamba who knows how to use email. Stephanie took several photos of us together. I was really glad I got to see her again.

  Monday 15th December

Sunday I woke very early, eager for the afternoon to come and my plane. Stephanie left early, on her way to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu, and I got up to hug her goodbye. I decided to take one last look around the city, and finally take one one or two on the museums which I just hadnít made it to, and did a little more shopping. Iíd left my luggage at Maximo and went in and repacked everything, then went for a walk around the town. There was a parade going on in the Square, similar to one Iíd seen a few weeks ago, with all these different groups Ė schools, military personnel, brass bands, Government workers Ė marching across the square under the watchful gaze of dignitaries who seemed to be in Army uniform. The first museum I went to was sadly shut, but the second, The Museum of Precolumbian Art, was open and well worth the visits. Then I poked around in the shops, buying myself a couple of treats and using up my leftover Peruvian soles, before heading back to Maximo to get my bags and getting a taxi to the airport. The taxi the porter at Maximo hailed for me was the most ramshackle one yet, and the ride was particularly hair-raising. It was almost like Cuzco had to take a parting shot at me, just to remind me who was boss.

And now Iím in LA, where Iíve been killing time for 14 hours waiting for my connecting flight. I hasnít been too bad. Compared to the 3rd world, LA airport is pretty mellow, and I was able to find a quiet corner and have a snooze. Now all I have to do is weather the 17-hour flight to Melbourne, and Iím home.

Love, Penelope.