Saturday, April 7, 2012

New perspectives from the Lima Airport

As you now, we are laying over in the Lima Airport and Newark or Miami, depending on some factors I haven't been able to discern. Most flights returning to the US leave Lima late at night, so our flight from Lima departs at 10:35 pm, with my group arriving in Newark to greet the sun. We will have a 5:45 layover in lovely Newark, so lots of time with little to do. So, time for some reflection.

A side note to start from last night. The seder was wonderful. About 10-15 students (it changed as the meal went on) gathered around a table filled with the appropriate items for a seder. Our guide, Luis, had spent a part of the day gathering the materials in accordance to strict rules laid down by the students. the lobby was rearranged as needed. I know little about seders, so much was new to me. One interesting observation was the need to place a filled wine glass in the main door, which had to be propped open. The students would do this, then return to the table. The hotel staff, seeing that the front door was open and letting the cold air in. would run across the lobby to move the wine glass carefully and then close the door. After a bit, the students would notice the door was closed, and would run to re-prop it open. This drama went on for the duration. The little hotel in Cuzco rang with English and Hebrew readings, group singings, eating of the meal in the traditional order, and a general sense of accomplishment. One of the students from the Georgia group joined in very naturally, along with several of us adults. It was a great moment, one I will never forget. Many students watched parts of the seder from the upper balconies, which your kids handled well - they were committed to their faith and were cheerful about the odd setting and observers.

Our last day in Cuzco (today) involved a walking tour of markets and squares. We cleaned up our rooms, packed our bags, and then headed out. The hotel, which caters to EF tour groups, had only tiny garbage cans in the bathrooms. When I asked for those big black plastic bags to clean up, they looked at me as though I were asking for golden earrings for the whole group. I thought back to the many locker cleanouts at Deal, and decided that it was on the hotel if they spent the next five hours cleaning up after 52 eighth graders. Special note to parents: your kids are neither cleaner nor messier on average than any other eighth graders. I presume we could have built a small mountain of soda bottles, water bottles, chip wrappers, discarded batteries, and miscellaneous materiel.

I stayed back in the hotel with a couple of ill students - newly ill, as it turns out, not the ones who had been feeling bad before. Altitude is a funny, sickness-inducing thing. When the kids returned, with all sorts of new items they were buzzed and energetic. They had visited a big market that every Latin American town has - animal meats, clothing, small household items, toiletries, souvenirs. This is the equivalent of Costco - everything and anything you can think of, in large quantities. Having lived in Latin America, I can attest to the invaluable presence these markets play - you really can get a piece for everything you might have misplaced. Neal Downing has some amazing, and yet horrific, photos.

Our farewell lunch in Cuzco was the same as our arrival lunch - around the corner at Valentina's. This really is good Peruvian food, served well and in good quantities. A look around showed a much savvier group of travelers. These students had gone from asking whether they should identify themselves as students on their travel documents to seasoned travelers - challenging exchange rates, shopping in various locations for particular items, ordering in Spanish in many different eateries, meeting Peruvians in markets, orphanages, and ruins.

We gathered back at the hotel and waited to load. While heading to the airport, I overheard the students reminisce about how different they felt going to the airport this time. The joked about the lack of air, what seemed old hat to them, and how they were looking forward to traveling home.  We left Cuzco and landed quickly in Lima. A lunch/dinner at Papa Johns or McDonalds was the first thing many of us did (why no rush for Peruvian chicken?). There was a little jostling at the end as many of our kids tried to get the phone numbers (sorry, very ancient of me) the FACEBOOK or TWITTER names of their new friends from the Georgia group that accompanied us. And now, 17 of us sit in front of Gate 25, back in our air travel cohort, ready to go to Newark and home by tomorrow.

When you see us tomorrow, we will be tired, cranky, hungry, and glad to see you. Till then, then.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The view from 309

Let me preface my blog post with the note that I have hardly left the happy confines of room 309. I held off on altitude sickness for many days, but finally succumbed yesterday morning. That, in combination with the iffyness of the internet here in Cusco, has led to yet another delay. But there is news to report. Just beware any underlying bad mood seeping through the words.

Yesterday, the weather was great, and the altitude still over 3,300 meters. We were to do a tour of Cusco (oddly enough, three days after initially getting to the city). We bused it up and headed up and out of town. Cusco is surrounded by Incan ruins, scattered every 100 yards around the hills that surround the valley. The first site was Tambomachay, at about 3,700 meters. While I sat at the gate talking to no one, the kids marched quickly up the hill. They were back in fifteen minutes. The site was a resort for Inca rulers, with fountains and baths. Very Roman. Or, as Ms. Wang said, so many parts of the Inca culture reminded her of Tibetan culture. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen?

Just a bit down the hill back to Cusco we stopped at Qenko, with a fascinating collection of rocks and cut stones. The highest rock, perhaps fifteen feet high, was presumed to have been carved into the shape of a puma (the lords of the earthly realm). It must have been impressive. It guarded the entrance to a natural cave in which a small niche for mummies was located. This was also where Pachacuteq was stored for a while. There were apparently thousands of niches and mummies, most of which were destroyed by searchers for gold. The Spanish also broke almost all of the visible temples to ensure that there was no recourse for conversion to Catholicism. A small passage through the cave was necessary to complete the journey. A quick pitstop at a bathroom/silversmith separated some money from the kids.

Our final historic site was the famous Sacsayhuaman. The kids loved it - or so they reported to me. I slept on the bus. I had been looking forward to this temple/fortress for quite some time, even practicing how to say it if a spare Inca asked for directions. The best part of this significant place in Inca/Peruvian history was the unbeatable allure of a slippery rock slide. You will see pictures. This was apparently the precursor to grat watersides around the world. Only a few kids were injured at the bottom, as there was no soft pile of mulch, just stones.

The last activity that was scheduled was a pizzeria stop, provided by EF for the whole group because of the complaining about the first hostel in Lima. A nice place, although at this point I was not convinced that anything they called a five-minute walk really could become in anything less than fifteen minutes. I was the last in the door, starving for air and food.

Special note: there are very few places in the world that serve food that can handle 80 people descending at once en masse in anything approaching time. The pizzeria was not one of these. The soup, pizza, and lemonade were good, but took a long time to get there. But I will say this about eighth-graders: they do not complain much. They just sit there, having fun, being energetic, talking, playing games, keeping themselves occupied, and then politely asking me if they could use the restroom. This is why I love traveling with your kids.

Finally, yesterday afternoon was a combination of side trips, meals, and general good feelings. One of our group had stayed the night overnight in the hospital with a stomach ailment, but was greeted like a hero when he returned during pizza time. Today, there is a lot of free time. Students have gone to markets with teachers, some to the salt mines, others to lunch. Plans are afoot for a soccer game nearby and tonight, our first Deal Passover Seder in Peru! Some of our kids put together a shopping list, and Luis (one of our guides) has been running around town to get the right ingredients. We think we are almost there! Very exciting.

We are almost done with our massive excursion to Peru. A long flight awaits us. I will try and get another post in before we head out. See you soon!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A day late, 2.56 soles short

Hello, Deal families. Internet challenges with my Mac have made it hard to communicate frequently, but I am using a shared iPad and able to reach out now. The great news is that we climbed Machu Picchu with 52 students from Deal yesterday. It slowly dawned on me that it legitimately takes 2 days just to get to the base of the mountain. An incredibly early wake up, a bus ride that is supposed to be the train but since the tracks washed out for part of the journey, buses we rode. I told the kids to think of a Metro station closure and catching a shuttle to skip a stop. The bus ride was spectacular - we rose out of Cusco in the early light up to the plateau high over the city. In the distance, and shadowing us for most of the day were the snow-capped Andes - rou, ragged peaks that set the tone for the trip. It as easy to be inspired by these guardians of the Sacred Valley.

From the plateau we plunged by bus into the valley of the Urubamba - the Sacred Valley itself. I hadn't realized how narrow it was. Less Shenandoah Valley and more Yosemite Valley. The peaks were close by and high, with Inca terraces overlooking it all. The further we went the wilder the river became, until the flow was a consistent Class V rapid - for miles and miles. We switched in Ollantaytambo to the actual train, a glass-roofed excursion train that the kids loved. This was for the last two hours of the trip. We had slowly been descending into the jungle, a far cry from the open plains early in the day. The ride was incredibly scenic, with nice service and loud games of cards from all around me. We ground to a halt in Aguas Calientes at the foot of a hidden Machu Picchu. It was still only 12:00 or so.

We threw our luggage in the rooms of a small hotel up the hill and headed for the bus that would take us up to the top. The town was a semi-charming blend of tiny streets, lots of little pizzerias, and a deep commitment to tourism. There must be a lot of weary travelers because the top business in town seemed to be massage. The bus took us up switchbacks to the entrance to Machu Picchu, where we joined a not unreasonable number of tourists. We walked through the gate and into the heart of the site. I am sure my words will not convey how beautiful a site, location, and experience. The stonework was astounding - almost as though the builders had maintained a sense of humor all the way through ("they'll never figure out how we did THIS!"). The warmth of the masons comes through, as well as the intent of the masters to create an aerie, so high above the river but apart. It felt like the wonder of the world it is purported to be.

After too short a visit, we returned to Aguas Calientes and a dinner. The kids still had energy to burn, so they ran off with the tour guides to play soccer on a nearby field, while others wandered up the tiny street. We all slept well deep in the jungle.

This morning, we hopped and made the return journey. Going back was just as interesting, and ended in Ollantaytambo. Here is another fabulous Inca site, with a historical massacre to boot. The challenge of Ollantaytambo was the need to climb 300 steps to see the Temple of the Sun. Twenty miles from Machu Picchu and 20 the other direction from Urubamba, the town was an important stop on the Inca Road. If I was ever afraid of not coming back from Peru in one piece, it was here that I felt it might come to fruition. The walk up just about did me in. The Incas REALLY had no fear of heights. One might ask why the heaviest stone had to be out way up there, but the response would have been sneering disrespect. No bother. Your kids made it fine.

Lunch was in a huge buffet on the way back - perhaps the most filled I have felt in Peru without eating chicken. Back on the bus and heading for Pisac, a cute Inca town with a lively street market. Much of the leftover money was sucked up here, but it was high quality dispensing. Pisac is close to the mountain villages, so the trinkets felt less trinkety. We were on the last leg on the return to Cusco by now. What trip doesn't need a visit to the Alpaca farm? And of course the Alpacas got out of their flimsy stockades, terrifying themselves and the kids all in the pursuit of hay. Lots of screaming and laughs. And the kids were excited, too! Finally, a late night return to our rooms back in Cusco. A couple of our Inca warriors have been sick, unfortunately, but they have managed to get a lot of the trip in anyway.

And tomorrow, a closer look at Cusco and the many splendors of the Inca capital. More, with luck, tomorrow night! And, as the Incas say when putting their kids to sleep, "good night!"

Monday, April 2, 2012

Closer to the Inca Trail

Quite a day. Mostly travel and eating, but those can be adventures all by themselves. Our Lima hotel saga ended well - everyone made the bus, everyone made the flight, everyone waited on the tarmac for the extra half-hour it took to muscle our way through the other flights. There were flights every 10 minutes for Cusco, perhaps because the thrill of landing in the tiny airport between the mountains is too good to miss.

Hotel Cusco Pardo

We finally reunited as a group in the Hotel Cusco Pardo, which perhaps means in Quechua, Hotel with Echoing Open Space Between All the Rooms So it Sounds Quite Loud. Maybe not, but that would be a good translation. Once we settled in we headed over for a traditional lunch across the street.

The lunch was kind of cool. The food was good, very good. A price fixe meal was available, but some students opted to order. And why not? One table split some alpaca, and a number of students sampled guinea pig. They call it "cuy" here, but I can tell a guinea pig when I see it. The guide told me, when asked, that cuy tasted like rabbit - but I don't know what rabbit tastes like. I think he said it tastes like chicken.

For the afternoon we were going to wait in the hotel till 5 pm and then hoof it to the Plaza de Armas for a dinner overlooking the main square. It is the season of processions, which is one of the exciting things to do here in Catholic Holy Week. Because of the lack of anything to do in the hotel, the students became overly excited. Noisy. Rambunctious. We decided it was a good time for some down time in their rooms. And then the rain started. Pouring down - it is the end of the monsoon season here. Our first choice was to NOT go to the square - too many people, too much rain. So we called it off, prepared to have the food delivered.

And then rain slowed. And we realized we had 52 kids for the next 2 hours that couldn't just stay in their rooms. So, executive choice - we headed out to the procession and dinner. It was all uphill, in the rain, through legions of people selling palm leaves (and children selling cigarettes). Did I mention it was uphill? That was tough. We neared the main procession and the guide realized we were NOT going to be able to cross it. People were packed in and, in general, wet. A quick about-face and return half a block, and then a loop around the downtown to approach another direction. A bit confusing, but since I was at the end of the line, I knew that everyone was ahead of me. Or so I thought.

Yesterday, in downtown Lima
After a confusing series of twists and turns we arrived at the cute little restaurant with a great view of the procession from a second-floor balcony. Just as we got settled, and thankful we made it through the assembled masses, the guide turns to me and says - "we don't have everyone." And with a lurch, I realized that, indeed, a part of our group had been separated from us.

The adults at the table jumped up and headed back out (leaving some behind for the kids who had made it). We split up and worked out way back the route we had taken. I felt sure that we would find our missing group, but I was sure they would be scared, cold, and wet. The closer I got to the hotel, the more convinced I was that I would find them there. And there they were! As I came in the door, they rushed up to fill me in on all the details. Turns out that this group had ended up going ahead of the main group, and when we turned to double back they had continued straight ahead into the procession. The local Cuscoans weren't the nicest apparently and were less than helpful. Then the Deal students did what Deal students do - they decided to return to the hotel. Just in time for us to find them.

We have decided to restructure some of our approach based on this series of events. Because we have been shuffled a bit from our original list in hotels, tours, and buses, it has been difficult to redefine our chaperone groups. Tomorrow we will reemphasize the need to be near the one who has you on their list, rather than being with the group in general. Tomorrow's activities are very controlled, but I think the Deal commitment to the chaperone groups has given the tour guides a sense of how serious we are - and they will respect this.

So now it is lights out, email on, and Kentucky beating Kansas in the national championship game. So much of what is seen in the US is seen overseas that it is easy to see how an international culture is being established and concretized. Tomorrow, we get up at the crack of dawn, get on some buses, then get to ride the train, and finally, a bus to the top of Machu Picchu. Everyone is very excited about this - although their excitement might be tempered at 4:45 in the morning. We'll see!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

On the lam in Peru - First Day

Having just eaten lunch in a clever "restaurant house," I can report that everyone on the Deal Peru trip arrived, spent one night, and started touring. Right at this moment, your children have departed with guides and chaperones to visit the Miraflores Centro Commercial (mall) to do some shopping, eat a bit, maybe go bowling. Because there are no similar malls in the United States (large areas that contain a number of stores, eating establishments, and teenagers) it promises to be a refreshing take on Peruvian culture.

Our group has been divided here in Lima into two smaller groups. My group is staying in Miraflores at the Hotel Larco (previously known as the Hotel Americano), the smaller group at the Hostel International. The Larco is as expected - a reasonable space downtown, entrance on an intriguing street life, and singles, doubles, and quad rooms galore. We are the only large, rowdy group, so most attempts at hijinks result in bemused glances from the hotel staff, rather than annoyed comments from other patrons. We had a breakfast this morning that was quite delicious - although it became readily apparent that a few of our less-adventurous travelers were not excited by tamales and such. I encouraged them to eat as much as they could to prevent serioius hunger pangs later.

We then gathered for the first of what promise to be several bus tours. A cheerful guide, not all put out by the students insistence on off-the-wall questions, shepherded us throughout the morning. A few students became ecstatic everytime soccer was mentioned (futbol of course). The idea that an American squad, composed of fit and fanatic Deal 8th graders, is prepared to take on the entire Peruvian nation has as of yet gone unnoticed by the Peruvian press. Because there was a similar goodwill game in Costa Rica, we have perhaps created an opportunity for a significant improvement in US-Latin American relations.

We visited Peru´s anthropology museum, the Plaza de Armas, and the San Francisco catacombs in the morning. Peruvian archaeology is complicated - overlapping nation-states dominating the area of Peru in different times and places makes for more chronological confusion than the straight simplicity of US History. There were beautiful ceramics, of course, including a brightly lit pot that featured an "enthusiastic" part of the male anatomy. I am sure most of our trip´s parents will see these images, so I will not describe them further. Two pieces of the museum caught my eye. One was that it was carved out of the home of Simon Bolivar - an important player in South American history. One room of displays had clearly been carved out of an immense barn (the kind where horses are run in circles for exercise). What was most intriguing was that this type of reuse was not even commented on, clever as it was. The second interesting element was a wonderful number of my favorite Latin American museum element - the scale model and diorama. There were more tiny little examples of temples and cities than is normal; there was also a wonderful model of Machu Picchu. The kids were clearly impressed that they would be walking across that landscape in just a couple of days. I was impressed by the care which was taken to capture the intricacy of the site.

Our visit to the Plaza de Armas (brief, but appropriately so) was followed by delving into the catacombs of the San Francisco monastery. Amazingly well preserved, the monastery maintained all the elements of its original purpose except for the monks - but you could feel their presence. Long corridors, exterior gardens with bougainvillea, dark spaces with darker wood - all there. Seeing the piles of human femurs and skulls (the guide insisted these were the hardest of all bones) surely carried some weight for our students. They were quieter than normal - and since normal is pretty loud, it was pretty darn quiet down there.

At lunch we finally reconnected with the other third of our team. Because I am not in their hostel, I can´t speak to the conditions of the showers, the windows, the rooms. I´ll let them tell you. But as hostels go, it seems not to be the ideal backpackers delight. Having to take the occasional cold shower or overhear the neighbor is one of the thrills/drawbacks of international group travel. Tomorrow, we are promised to be cohabiting hotels in Cuzco and Machu Picchu - so whatever misery is to be found there is to shared.

And for tomorrow, we have to catch an early flight right over the Andes to Cuzco, get used to the altitude, and then head down to Machu Picchu the following day. The students are very excited about that part of the trip, of course, and I think their memories of Lima will fade a bit in the light of the Inca allure. But, hey, that´s adventure for you.

Once I get my camera, laptop, and Internet synced up, I will try and share some of my early images of Lima with you. My pictures tend to the arcane and obscure - Neal Downing has some amazing shots so these will have to become part of our larger record. Take care, and relax. Your students are being great ambassadors for Deal, and speaking Spanish on occasion to boot!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

1st Group in Lima Arrives Safely!

 A quick note from the airport. The first group of travelers (those with Mr. Roose, Ms Wang, and Mr. Albright) have arrived safely in Lima. Newark was wonderful - students excitedly sought to see the Jersey Shore and Snooki (I kid you not) from the plane window. The layover was quick and the resulting flight to Lima the usual cloud-covered journey. Lots of movies, games, airplane food, and significant confusion when faced with immigration forms. We now wait for the arrival of Deal Peru group number 2.

A special quote from Sam Meroney: "Sitting in the airport, waiting for the other group, and drinking a soda is fun."Another one from Ademir Delcid: "I am looking forward to having a conversation in Spanish." Nicky Swanson Hutchison put on the spot had little to say. We are all a bit tired. More as soon as we can.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting ready to head south

Yesterday afterschool I found myself in a typical pre-travel venue: a bookstore. Leaving in just three days for Peru inspired me to prepare my reading materials. When I encourage students to bring books, not just electronics, on the trip I speak from experience. The cure for long lines and periods of boredom (yes those do happen) has always been a book for me. I look eagerly forward to taking the bus to work because it allows me uninterrupted time to read; I volunteer to take family members to the Department of Motor Vehicles because bringing a book elevates the experience to something akin to reading in the British Library.

What to bring? The right books for me are those I can bring, that can keep me interested, and which I can give away when I am done. Yes, give away! Books in the ancient "paper" form are heavy things, and nothing feels more like wasted traveler space than large chunks of already-read materials. A delicate balance must be struck.

In my tortured logic, I need a good page-turner that will not require my sense of goodwill to give the writer a chance - it needs to get started right away with something like excitement. I have found that literary classics are good for the travelers soul, but I never read them on planes. At home, yes; in the airport, no. So, no Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy. It will have to be a thriller or a mystery. Next I must find one that has a high word-to-page ratio. I quickly dispense with any 300-page book in which the pages can be read in under two or three minutes. Dense conglomerations of words make for luxuriously long books. Yesterday, I decided against a book because there was enough space between the lines for annotations. I do not want to buy blank space in a book!

Now it gets tricky. Thrillers and mystery novels typically have lurid images on the front covers. These do not convey the seriousness with which I see reading. I have memories to aid me here: many years ago I read an excellent science fiction novel for days on the Metro. Unfortunately, the image of a militant elephant wielding a machine gun through the red desert that was displayed prominently on the cover, led to all sorts of odd expressions from fellow riders. I almost had to announce that there had been some incredible mix-up at the book factory, in which the covers from two books had been switched and the mistake never caught. I obviously still recoil from the humiliation.

Finally, I have to get a book that I can pitch (or give). I read fast so I need a lot of books. These add up. When I am done, I want to be able to get rid of the book with no misgivings. The right book is one that will take some time to read, will not make me feel ripped off by the back cover, and that I can gently put on the bedside in the hotel when I leave so that a Peruvian room cleaner might pick up the book and decide that she, too, is interested in galactic war between animals and that her English is sufficiently advanced that this kind visitor has given her the appropriate gift. Win-win for all involved.

Inevitably, I am sure to find myself in a small, Peruvian-government-run bookstore of the type we used to have a lot of here in Washington, where I will be enticed to purchase a never-to-be-read treatise on the local educational practices of various provinces. This book will be hauled home, taking up all the space I was saving for souvenirs by throwing away books. Once unpacked here in DC I will ruefully note that I probably should have saved some space for purchases for other people in my family besides myself. How many books on local governments can someone really have?

And those local government books have a lot of empty space in them for annotations.

See you at the airport!