How Do You Spell it? A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

When we planned the sabbatical, we had anticipated visiting the rain forest and Amazonia in Bolivia.  For reasons not entirely clear to me, those plans washed out and we ended up having the chance to visit the Madre de Dios region of Peru.  As you have seen, that was a clear “win” for us.

An overview of Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain" in the Quecha tongue)

A secondary benefit from the change in plans meant that we could “add on” to our itinerary a visit to Machu Picchu.  I have to tell you, I’ve been writing this name for three months now – in journals, in letters, in blog posts…and I still can’t remember which word gets two “c’s” and whether or not both of the words get an “h”.  It’s a mental block, I guess.  I hadn’t heard much about this “lost city of the Incas” prior to planning the trip, but we soon discovered that it is Peru’s most popular tourist attraction.  We can see why after having been there.

Machu Picchu was inhabited by the Incas in the 15th century.  There are no records of the Spaniards ever having discovered the place – which is not surprising, because it is essentially invisible from below.  There are two main routes into the town of Agua Caliente at the foot of the monument.  One is by foot on The Inca Trail.  This is a favorite for adventure enthusiasts and serious hikers – it’s a five day trek across the old highways used by the Incas hundreds of years ago.  While we bet that it’s amazing, it was not the route for us.  The other way to access the town and the monument is by rail – there is a single line in and out of Agua Caliente that brings tourists, supplies, and commerce to that village each day.

Riding the rails towards Agua Caliente

We boarded our train and headed for the city…and when you see these photos, remember that this city is actually LOWER than our starting point of Cusco (about 3,000 feet lower!).  We descended from the highlands into the jungle and then, at the base of Machu Picchu, took a shuttle bus up a series of switchbacks that led us to the plateau that the Incas had carved out for themselves. This village was entirely self-sufficient: there were agricultural gardens built into the slopes and a spring was diverted into the heart of the community.

We were impressed at the astronomical knowledge of the Inca people.  The Temple of the Sun, for instance, looks out onto a small notch in the mountain across the valley through which the sun rises on June 21 – the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  Other rock monuments inside the village indicate the shape of the “Southern Cross” and point to the four cardinal directions.

Inside a "classic" Incan arch. Note the way that the stone is fitted together without the use of mortar of any sort.

Another aspect of the visit that impressed us was the Peruvians’ desire to keep the monument as natural as possible.  To that end, there are no bathrooms inside the monument.  There are no vending machines or concessions, either – just a lot of ruins, some trails, and a great many questions.  Just outside the gates are all the conveniences one needs – but within the structure itself, it is remarkably similar to the way that it was laid out when Yale’s Hiram Bingham re-discovered the site in 1911.

We didn’t know what to expect when we signed on for this part of the adventure, but we are delighted to have had the chance to visit this amazing edifice.  We were humbled by the exacting geometry and other scientific knowledge that these people used to develop this city, and left there with an appreciation for the power of human ingenuity and creativity.

More "typical" Inca Architecture; these niches were probably designed to hold idols used in worship services.

You have to admit, this is a llama with good taste in haberdashery!

Flirting With the Devils…

Faithful readers of these pages may remember that not long ago, I managed to catch a fine-looking fish in the Tambopata River in Peru.

This one didn't get away!

In case you’re new, or perhaps it simply slipped your mind, here’s a little reminder…

It was a real hoot passing the digital camera around to the various guides and boat drivers connected with the lodge and park in Peru.  Clearly, they thought the fish was something wonderful.  And because most of them grew up in that area, and many of them live there year round, there was one question that came back more than any other: “What did you do with the fish?”  To a man (yes, they were all men), the boatmen were shocked that I would return such a delicacy to the water. The guides, on the other hand, wanted to be certain that I didn’t try to eat the fish.

Scarlet Macaws, Green Mealy Parrots, Yellow-Crowned Parrots, Blue-Headed Parrots, and Chestnut-Fronted Macaws gather around the world's largest clay lick

A Dusky Titi Monkey enjoys the larvae living inside bamboo

It’s not because the Tiger Catfish/Barred Sorubim is so rare or endangered.  No, there are plenty to be found in Amazonia, and they are said to be delicious.  The problem is that at that point, the Tambopata River is full of mercury, a deadly toxin.

The Tambopata is an amazingly beautiful and rich ecosystem.  It supports a wide variety of life, much of which we got to see, and a bit of which is pictured throughout this posting.  There are mammals and birds and insects – an incredible array of flora and fauna.  In fact, Peru is the nation with the second-greatest diversity of birds on the planet.  Unfortunately for many of those animals, the river system is also rich in gold.  Specifically, there are vast quantities of alluvial gold – “gold dust” – to be found in the sand and silt of the riverbeds.

The Tayra, a member of the weasel family, slinks furtively through the forest

Ariel and Dave climbing INSIDE a giant fig tree

In a previous posting I mentioned the color of the river – a chocolatey brown.  Part of that is due to natural sedimentation that occurs as rainwater erodes the banks.  Much of it, especially in the Malinoswki River, (which feeds into the Tambopata) comes from the one- or two-man mining operations that occur with alarming frequency.  The miners anchor a small barge/raft over the river bottom and dredge up the silt from the bottom – clouding the water.  Then, they pour the silt over a carpet-like filter, and the minerals in the silt adhere to the fibers of the carpet. At the end of the day, the carpet is washed in a 50 gallon drum containing mercury.  The gold dust bonds with the mercury, and then is purified into 24 karat gold…while tons of mercury ends up in the river (more than 80,000 pounds of mercury are used in mining operations in the Peruvian state of Madre de Dios each year, with an untold amount ending up in the rivers).  To learn more about the ways that alluvial gold is extracted from the rivers,click here.

One of many mining operations we saw on the Tambopata River

The people who live along these Peruvian rivers use the water for everything: they eat the fish from the rivers, they wash in the water, bathe in it, cook with it, and drink it…mercury and all.  While not all of the locals are aware of the adverse effects of mercury in the water, awareness is growing (see this article from PBS that has more information about the dangers of mercury to the local populations).  In fact, while staying at the Tambopata Research Center, we met a Stanford student who was working to develop educational materials for the local population.

In spite of the efforts of environmentalists and health professionals, the mining continues.  Why?  Because gold costs more than $1100 per ounce.  A miner working the rivers (with mercury and carpet and a barge) can make hundreds of dollars in a day.  The average household income in Peru is hard to determine, but most of what I could find indicated that it was about $5000/year.  The rush for gold is killing the environment and endangering the humans…but we just can’t stop looking for it.

I’m not bashing Peruvians here – I have increasingly understood in recent years how tempting it is to choose the evil that wants to destroy us.  Heck, at least in Peru, it makes some sort of (short-term) economic sense: if I mine the alluvial gold today, my family can eat.  I don’t, then we starve…  But so often we see people choosing the evil that destroys them and it doesn’t seem to make sense at all…we nurture our hatreds, even when they rob us of joy.  We cultivate our lusts, even when we know that they damage our sense of reality.  We continue to give in to our addictions, even though they will kill us.

As I wandered through South America, I had an ancient copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  It’s one of those classics that I’ve been meaning to read.  This seemed like a good time.  As I neared the end of the trip and the end of the novel, I was struck by a conversation between young Lise and Alyosha.  Lise describes a dream:

“I must tell you a funny dream that I had.  I sometimes dream of devils.  It’s night, I am in my room with a candle and suddenly there are devils all over the place, in all the corners, under the table.  And they open the doors, there’s a crowd of them behind the doors and they want to come and grab me. And they are just coming, just grabbing me.  But I suddenly cross myself and they all draw back, though they don’t go away altogether.  They stand at the doors and in the corners, waiting.  And suddenly I have a frightful longing to revile God aloud, and so I begin. And then they come crowding back to me, delighted, and grab me again and I cross myself again and they all draw back.  It’s awful fun, it takes one’s breath away.”

(Book XI, chapter 3)

Dostoyevsky has captured the human condition: we are in love with the powers that will destroy us.  It may be hunger for power, or for money, or for ease or satisfaction…but each day, each of us must choose how we will relate to those devils that would crush us.  Later in the book, Alyosha will demonstrate time and time again that it is within our power to choose to embrace the Holy and reject the profane…but those choices are often neither instinctual nor easy.

I wear a small gold band on my finger.  I wonder where the gold came from.  I hope to God it wasn’t from a river in Peru.  Regardless of where it came from, I will choose today to use it as a reminder to pray for those who face temptation from any source – and to remind myself that, in the words of Martin Luther,

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.

The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure:

One little word shall fell him.

The Pablo Principle

Bundled up for the ride upriver

When we arrived in Puerto Maldonado, the Tambopata River was an angry brown slurry.  Heavy rains upstream in recent days had caused a remarkable rise in the water level (I guess that part of the world is still on the Army Corps of Engineers “to do” list in terms of dams).  In fact, a couple we met who was leaving the rain forest said that the river rose ten or twelve feet in just a few hours while they were there.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, we got on the motorized canoe for the journey upriver.  Our first stop was at the Refugio Amazonas, about a four hour journey.  After spending the night, we got back on board the canoe and continued deeper into the jungle.  After about two and a half hours, we arrived at a checkpoint at the confluence f the Malinoswki  and Tambopata Rivers.  We signed into the National Reserve, and a young man clambered on board and sat up in front next to Fino.  “Who’s he?” my wife asked.  “He is here to help the driver – to look for things in the river that could damage the boat.”

Pablo, the man of the hour for the trip back downriver

Good to know.  I’m all for that – bringing the latest in safety equipment onboard is something I support.  But as the afternoon wore on, it became apparent that the young man, Pablo, was, well, apparently useless.  He slumped in the front seat, or he chatted with Fino, or he looked around at the birds that we passed…the thing is, he did a lot of things – but communicating with the driver was apparently not one of them.  We steamed along at a pretty good clip (I’m going to say that the canoe itself seemed to be about thirty feet long and had an 80 horsepower outboard engine on it).   Four hours later, when we arrived at the Tambopata Research Center, Pablo did climb out and tie up the canoe.  Sharon said to me, “What did we bring him along for? He didn’t do anything.”  And she was correct.

By and large, the week we were there was cold but dry.  Each day, we noticed the level of the river dropped by about eight or ten inches.  That means that when we headed back down the river, what had been a swollen torrent was now a rather sluggish, if steady, flow.  And while the drive upstream had been a straight shot, the lower water levels revealed all sorts of sand bars and stumps sticking out of the water.  Pablo spent well over half the trip standing on the bow of the canoe – sometimes he worked with an oar to bring us against the current; other times he used a long stick to check the depth of the water; and once or twice he stuck his feet out to kick us away from a pile of debris.  In short, there was no way that we’d have made it back down the river without a second pair of eyes and hands in the front of the boat.

That got me to thinking about the wisdom of José, our boat driver.  While we really didn’t need Pablo at all on Saturday, by the time Wednesday rolled around, the river had dropped three feet and the entire landscape had changed.  José was prepared for challenges that did not yet exist, and that made our ride better and safer.  As I reflected on that, I wondered how much of that is true in my own life.  To be sure, one can take this to extremes and worry about all sorts of details and pressures that may or may not ever occur, but on a basic level, is seems to me that a part of my Christian discipleship is preparing for the obstacles that I may very well encounter at some point in my journey, even if they are not currently a threat to me.  I want to be the person who is able to, for instance, give money to someone who needs it.  So I need to live on less than I earn and have a little on hand in case the opportunity presents itself to me.  I want to be a person who is wise – and so I spend a little time each day in the company of authors and speakers who are models for me.

"I don't care if it rains or freezes..."

I hope I remember all sorts of things about this trip – the bird life, the fishing, the time we nearly froze to death in the rain forest…but I also hope to remember the lesson I learned from Pablo and José.  I hope that I can be a person who is inwardly prepared for the things that the day might bring me…that I might have a reservoir of faith and hope that will allow me to steer clear of any snares or temptations that might threaten my voyage, or present an obstacle to someone with whom I share the journey.  I am grateful for all those Pablos who have ridden with me so far, and hope that I can offer that to someone else in the days to come.

The Razor-Billed Curassow is a rare bird that we happened upon as we motored upstream

Capybara were a common sight on the river drives.

Cusco Calling!

Greetings from a sunny Cusco, Peru!  We arrived via a very interesting route…

I woke at 5:30 and walked about a kilometer or two to the “port” – the dock used by the lodge in the jungle where we spent the night.  I was able to fish for an hour or so.  Then the rest of the group joined me and we canoed downriver several hours to the “port” of Puerto Maldonado.  There, we boarded a bus and drove for 45 minutes or so over roads that would make a Malawian proud.  Upon arrival in town, we headed to the airport, where we got onboard an Airbus jet – still caked with the mud of a showerless week in the jungle (for 2 of us…).  A 30 minute flight to the Cusco airport, a shuttle to the hotel, and here we are – having enjoyed an alpaca steak for dinner.

I will try to post some photos of the rain forest tomorrow, but we wanted to tell you about some highlights of our last full day in the jungle.  We woke at 4:30 and went to the clay lick, where we were treated to an awesome display of avian beauty.  After a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, we headed to the port for our ride from Tambotas Research Center to Refugio Amazonas.  En route, we encountered a troupe of howler monkeys – a species we´d heard all week, but not seen.  The ride downriver was much warmer than the one earlier in the week, and we saw the red and green macaw, which eluded us upstream.  While traveling, we enjoyed a lunch of baked chicken and rice wrapped in a banana leaf,  Upon arrival at Refugio, Sharon and Ariel relaxed while I tried to fish for an hour or so.

Then, we were treated to a nice hike – maybe two miles? – and had the chance to be paddled around an  oxbow lake.  This was truly a highlight of the trip for us as we were surrounded by beauty – the call of the toucan, seeing several new species of birds, witnessing a fight between two black caymans (caymen?), and visiting a tree that was the most interesting we’ve ever seen.  It will get its own post soon.  After a delicious dinner, we patrolled the grounds looking for armadillo, and fell into bed at 9, exhausted but happy.

One realization voiced by Ariel, but shared by us all, is a gnawing discomfort with being tourists instead of guests.  Arriving at an airport looking for a sign with our name on it, dodging the circus of cab drivers and vendors, being oriented to a place by people that we have hired to be nice to us…that´s not our idea of travel.  We have come to very much appreciate the places in the world where we are greeted by friends and treated as members of the family, and are grateful that there are so many of those places.  Perhaps after this trip, there will be a few more like that.

I hope to be able to post a few photos tomorrow.  In the meantime, thanks for your prayers and friendship.  ¡Hasta luego!

Second Impressions of the Rain Forest…

Hola from Peru!  I have once again gained access to the rickety laptop with the unpredictable signal…but wanted to let you know that the weather has improved.  In fact, today I went down to wearing one pair of pants and three shirts! 

A typical day — get up at 4:30 and hop in the canoe for a ten minute ride to the clay lick – the largest in the world, from what I am told.  There, you huddle with ten or twelve other folks and wait for the light to come, and then the shore across the stream comes alive as hundreds of parrots and macaws come to eat the clay.  Why?  Nobody really knows.  But for a couple of hours each morning, that’s what happens, and it’s amazing.  We saw 9 specides of parrots before breakfast today. 

After the time at the clay lick, we come back to the lodge for breakfast, and then a hike.  Today we hiked for about 3.5 hours, seeing various jungle flora and fauna, including monkeys, birds, and other things.  Back for lunch – a delicious affair, considering the fact that we are in a place that is about 5 hours upriver from the closest town.  The next town past us – 5 days by boat.  we are  isolated! 

After lunch, you can take another hike, or relax, and then at 7 it’s dinner, followed by an early bedtime.  The 3 of us have our own guide, Fino, from Brazil.  He is amazing.  I have seen probably sixty or seventy new species of birds, thanks to his tutelage. 

Some of you have asked about the hat, or the fish, or the plastic Jesus.  All I can say is wait for a time when I can put some photos on the blog.  That’s all I’m saying.

If you want to check out the place we’re staying, look at the link to the macaw project.  It is a fascinating place to stay – we are delighted to have arrived.  The plan is to stay here until Wednesday morning, and then we’ll head back down to the Refugio Amazonia (you can click here for information about our lodges) and stay there for a night, and return to Puerto Maldonado on Thursday – and then on to Macchu Pichu.  We’ll update when we can, and add photos when we can – but wanted you to know that we’re doing well.