Making a real relationship with a Sponsored Child

I was anxious to meet Kenny. I have only been his sponsor since May, but since seeing his picture I felt a strong responsibility and affection for him. We’ve exchanged a few letters and I sent him some photos I took in the Galápagos, but for the most part my sponsorship had been a payment and a subtle assurance of my own charity. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. Would we be able to communicate? What would we talk about? Would he feel indebted to me? I only hoped we could be more like friends and that my support would not be a barrier of obligation.

The Children International truck picked us up right from our hotel and brought us to their education center for the kids in Kenny’s area. Along the way Anita, the CI representative, curtly filled me in on the rules of the visit (no hand-holding, sitting on laps, unsupervised visits) and reviewed my gifts. She approved of my soccer ball and colored pencils and proceeded to tell us all about the organization. For those who’ve ever doubted any of those organizations in which you think one penny ends up actually getting to the kids, pay attention to this part.

The Guayaquil branch of Children International works with 35,000 sponsored kids in seven areas of the city. They support several thousand more who are waiting for their own sponsors. The 85 employees of Guayaquil CI plan extra-curricular activities (a man showed us pictures of dances, plays, soccer matches, and even air-brush graphic art), year long classes, leadership groups and health studies. Touring the office later in the day we saw how hard everyone worked. The office looked like a movie set for a futuristic company motif in which the main character is overwhelmed at how efficient and work-oriented everyone is. Tacking typers stopped in unison to look up and greet us – momentarily – before recommencing their organizing, filing, and do-gooding. Each department head courteously gave us a succinct description of their task and patiently asked if we had any questions. A doctor told us general trends of malnutrition and their vitamin regiment. A teacher told us all of the curriculum, from children with mild dyslexia, having difficulty differentiation “l’s” and “r’s,” to the scholarship opportunities for the top students. All of these benefits are passed to the kids through the seven neighborhood centers; we were heading to Area 2, where Kenny was in computer class.

Kenny only has computer class on Fridays. The rest of the week he’s in his normal, public school, but his time at the CI center augments his education and provides them the opportunity for his checkups and responsibility corresponding with me. Not wanting to interrupt his class, we peeked around the CI center. Nurses welcomed us in a room full of files, a volunteer chef showed us the week’s menu, and we walked in on a doctor and dentist (both employed by the center full-time) administering to patients. The dentist stopped what she was doing to greet us and explain her work but we smiled and backed out as I’m sure her patient wanted to close his mouth soon! When I started my sponsorship, I knew that CI ensured the children go to school and get basic medical benefits, but actually seeing the facilities and the extent of care was inspiring. And all for 73 cents a day.

As we enter the kindergarten classroom I can hear the computer class next door. My excitement surges. I’m about to meet Kenny! I am giving him access to all of this and I am about see that he’s real too. As we enter the room I feel like I’m going on stage. I walk into a computer lab and thirty little faces turn to mine. I scan the room, smiling. Anita is introducing us, but she sounds far away, like I’m underwater; I take a deep breath of the view, scanning…And there he is! In the corner, the desk farthest away from me. He is smaller than the others. Our eyes meet and he is smiling too. They announce I’m his sponsor and all the faces rotate away from mine and point at him. Whispering and giggling, the other kids’ attention make Kenny look down and away, excitedly embarrassed. I feel like I’m in his shoes as well; when I was in elementary school, my mom would come into my class on the way home from her night shift and give me a big kiss. It’s a little embarrassing to receive a public show love and care.

Kenny comes with us to his family outside the classroom. His small frame, wide mouth, and slightly bulging eyes don’t hide a childhood of empty plates, but he looks just like his picture, and that’s all I care about! I shake his hand to give him the respect any eleven-year-old deserves but I want to squeeze him too hard. His family bares the same signs of burden. His mother Yvette has only a few teeth and looks much to old for how small her children are. She grins, delicately, graciously shaking my hand. Kenny’s sister’s name I can’t really remember or say correctly. But that’s because they introduce her to me as “Kelly” and Kenny tells me we have sisters with the same name. I think hers is Milena, and she’s tiny, adorable, and never stopped smiling. Today Yvette is caring for Kenny’s cousin, Carlito, so he comes with us everywhere we go as well. Shay took a picture of the family, and then one with me with the group. I am a giant! Even crouching I look like a bear interrupting a family picnic.We all pile into the CI truck and head to Kenny’s house. Yvette gives me a picture of Kenny at his first birthday party and another of him holding the Ecuadorian flag at an awards ceremony – he is in the top ten students of his class. I don’t need to give Kenny his gift. After spotting it in the truck he cuddles his soccer ball protectively and adds the photos to an album he made out of others I had sent in a letter before.

Kenny’s house is a one-room cement block with a sewage moat. They have no floor. The four of them share two twin beds. The metal appliances are rusted. On the red brick wall is a shelf with all sorts of stuffed animals. On the gray brick wall a few drawings of the family hand on a thread. We sit on the bed and Yvette shows me some photo albums. It’s seems that she once lived a more comfortable life. Kenny used to have a little curly afro.

We plan to take the kids to the Aquarium we saw yesterday in the Malecón area and then to an IMAX. On the drive I ask Kenny abit about him that I learned from his letters. He likes chess and math and of course he plays soccer. He quizzes Carlito and Kelly on numbers he sees and then the three of them talk about scenes in movies they’ve seen in an unihibited children’s way.At the Aquarium the kids instantly start running around the boardwalk. Inside I tell them the types of fish I’ve seen diving and let them take pictures with my camera. In a world where you can create a connection with an unknown child 7,000 miles from home, I ran into a woman from Vida, OR, a three hour raft ride upriver from where I grew up, who has moved down to Guyaquil with her family to start a mission. Since there aren’t any IMAX movies we go to the mall to see that Guardians owl movie in 3D. Kenny continuously tests his boundaries, running ahead just to the limit of Yvette’s admonishments and skipping on the tiles, avoiding all the white ones. I join him and feel like a kid too. His excitement and curiosity are infectious. Right after I feel like a parent ordering the movie tickets for everybody; it was expensive and I know the kids have no clue what kind of work it took to make the money and they don’t even seem that appreciated – they’re more interested in the popcorn they reminded me usually goes with the movies. But none of that matters because I know how happy they are.

After the movie and their food court choice of Pizza Hut, I struggle to come up with a conversation with Kenny. Christmas is his favorite holiday, he liked the movie, and he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Living so poor, I’m sure he’s more of a one-day-at-a-time kind of kid, and I’ll have years of letters to learn these developments as they come. I leave Kenny after watching him and Kelly draw with the colored pencils I gave him, secretly hoping Kelly would draw a little stick figure of me too. She showed me each family member as she drew along, and even after such a short time together I feel I have made a lasting connection that will permanently energize my responsibility in watching Kenny grow up healthier and happier.

20 hours of drinking and Dancing – ¡Carnaval!

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Carnaval in Oruro is THE Place to be (if you´re not in Rio) and since we  couldn´t meet up with Bill and Cindy in Brazil, we went with 50 others from Sustainable Bolivia to the gem of Bolivia. Oruro is a beat up town of 400,000 people that hosts another 200,000 or so for 22 hours straight of dancing and drinking. After we passed through an immigration checkpoint where we had to leave our trip organizer, Erik, behind for some BS Bolivian bullying, we all piled into an office building we rented out to sleep in. 50 people, one bathroom, CARNAVAL!

We walked around to the main plaza and saw the pre-gaming. Food booths, tons of decorations, live music, and grandstands lining the streets. We could tell that this was an all out kind of event.

We woke up early on Saturday and found our seats. It´s so crowded and people started drinking before we got up. The parade starts around 8 am and the dancers dance a 4 mile track up to the church on the hill, which has an entrance to a mine shaft. A portrait of the virgin Mary miraculously appeared in the shaft one year and so they changed the ceremony from honoring Pachamama and el Tio (the demon of the mines) to honoring La Virgin del Sacavon (Mary of the Mine) and her battle with the devil. Or something like that. Basically, though, it is awesome.

We found our seats going through a restaurant and crawling below the bleachers and pushing our way through the crowd. Then we joined the party. From 10am to 5:30am Shay and I danced and watched the incredible costumes. My favorite were the Morenadas, which are dancers dressed with golden and silver masks of old men with large, multi-colored beards and rings of skirts. There is also Tinku from the jungle regions, la diablada celebrating the angel and devil´s eternal battle, and everyone´s favorite dance Caporales, which is very high energy and has up to hundreds of men and women with bells on their legs jumping and kicking and spinning in unison. When the Caporales dancers make their run, everybody is cheering.

There are also children dressed up in the same costumes, cars decorated with blankets and silver and coca leaves, fireworks all day long set off right in front of you, and smoke bombs. From the stands you can give the dancers high fives or – more commonly – pass off your bottle of vodka for them to take a swig. One Caporales dancer fell several blocks behind indulgin in this tradition, and as he wandered down our street, alone and stumbling, he accepted a few more offerings and then snapped into a singular charge with bells raging until he ended the dance with a leap landing on his face, and the police carted him off to boos.

At Carnaval everyone shares their drinks and their cheers. In the stands another tradition is to throw water balloons mercilessly. A guy in our group would have soaked a pair of old ladies across the street had they not blocked with their umbrella. Within our section bottles and bottles of foam spray met my face, shay´s face, everybody once or twice in the face at some point. Our bottle of mixer fell below the bleachers but there are children below selling cans of beer, and they´ll hand you your stuff that falls below. A group next to us was chanting for us one by one to try their beer bong. Eventually we were locked in by the restaurant and had to climb fences to get in and out. The street food was always good and always cheap, and we watched most of the 50000 dancers and 10000 musicians for 20 hours.

Then we joined the parade around 4am and followed it all towards the church. We didn´t make it. Around 5 am we were sitting in another stand trying to decline glass after glass of singani with warm milk from some bolivian guys who were hitting on both of us, and we decided to call it a night.

On Sunday we wandered around the city to where the water wars were much fiercer. Near the church on the hill every ten yards up there was another bastion of water ballooners. It looked too fun to me to miss out on, so we bought a bunch and climbed as high as we could and then were attacked by a bunch of kinds with super soakers. We made peace and threw water balloons hundreds of yards down the hill into the crowds. How glorious.

Except for it started to rain right after we got soaked. At 4000m, Oruro gets cold when you´re wet and it´s raining. We lost our will to fight, and when every little kid has a squirt gun and a bottle of spray foam CARNAVAL is a dangerous place. So we lied low until our bus for Sucre. BUT my bag got stolen in the bus station. So after running around for a few blocks I had to run 20 blocks to the main plaza, fight through the parade (they stop from 6am to 8 am and then hit it hard again), and submit a police report with the BOOM BOOM BOOM of good times and flowing booze marched by through the wall. It was a very surreal end, but I got a final taste of CARNAVAL! And we are still fighting survivors!

An All-Expense Paid Trip to Nowhere, Bolivia


I’m riding through the mountains from Oruro back to Cochabamba. It’s my fifth day in a row traveling and the third of this trip. Sunday Shay and I left the jungles of Chapare, on Monday I rode up into the snowy mountains as far as the road was good, and then we left for the deserts and grasslands on Tuesday. Freddy’s driving, Renan is riding shotgun, and Marcela is smoking a cigarette out the window while we pass through a toll booth. I feel bad that I’m sitting here on a laptop while an old man just begged at our window for a piece of bread. The road we’re on has chosen one of the ridge lines to traverse and at either side of me are abysses followed by folds of a green, brown and red mix of bushy pajabraba and sharp, exposed rocks. Llamas and cholas (country women always adorned with skirts, a colorful blanket about the shoulders, and a bowler hat) roam among the hills barely seen from the distance. We are traveling through one of the many faces of Bolivia.

We’ve come to Oruro so that I can make a documentary for Energetica, a renewable energy NGO. Freddy and Ruben are engineers sent to all parts of Bolivia to install solar panels to bring electricity to the 70% of Bolivians who live without it. Tomorrow is Energetica’s 20th anniversary. In that time they’ve brought light to around 15,000 families. Their projects vary from domestic panels to computer centers and they work with the municipal, provincial, and national governments, along with foreign universities and the EU to help fund these projects.

Marcela has lost the remote control for the radio again. Along with being Energetica’s communication director and helping me with everything I need to do, she’s a DJ for a classical radio station. Therefore, in the back seat, she has unequivocally gained the power to change the song when one of Fredy’s numerous sappy Spanish love songs or Bolivian bands praising Santa Cruz comes on. I had my thumb-drive in but after listening to Calle 13 twice through and subjecting the group to half of the complete Floater collection we put Freddy’s back in. And Marcela skips every other song after ten seconds of intro. So we’ve been traveling for three days. But at least now we’re on a paved road.

Pavement is such a luxury. Yesterday we spent 25km on asphalt and 8 hours on mud. We left Cochabamba on the back roads too; the government has raised the price of the Taxi Trufis (public vans with set routes that you merely have to wave down and hop on) from 1.50 Bolivianos to 2 Bolivianos and so there’s been protests and massive road blockages. After meandering through some farmlands we found the main road to Oruro and stopped by a school where Energetica has installed a solar panel. It hasn’t been working, though, and without their newly-acquired TV the attendance rates have dropped. Freddy walked in and flipped a switch and somehow fixed the power. That’s one of the problems with these development projects: in any state of disrepair the whole system is doomed to deteriorate. After Energetica’s three year maintenance guarantee I doubt that these people will be able to afford any repairs, and the smallest problem is as good as throwing the solar panel into the ravine next to the school because they also have no idea how any of it works.

Freddy plugged in the TV and all the kids came and started watching “Spirit” with the director’s commentary on for their subtitles. In this community of a dozen mining families on a hillside next to the road the children grow up speaking Aymara and learn Spanish in school. More than anything, they are simply marveled by the cartoon horse running along the plains. I interview the teacher and she tells me the kids learn much better visually and they have math and health shows for the kids, and watching movies they can learn Spanish better. I also talked to a miner who goes to night school here now that they have light. He’s 67 and has worked in the mine all his life and now is learning math. I interviewed a Chola woman of 19 who also is going to school. She takes care of her three kids during the day and had just started night school when the switch went off-kilter.

We left after a home-cooked meal of rice an’ egg and headed for Oruro, the city of Carnaval. As usual I have no idea of what’s going on and we stopped at the municipality and I sat in on a meeting in which Freddy and Renan were negotiating who would pay for what and what Energetica could provide in another round of solar installs. We went to a lamb restaurant where I was spared from eating the head because I didn’t bring my camera to document it. Tomorrow would be the long day. Apparently we’re driving to Chile.

It rained that night and so our trip was endless. I was stuck in the middle as we had picked up Hermán, who lives near the area we were heading to. After a breakfast of empanadas and Apí – a sweet, warm corn drink – we drove by the flamingoes on Lake Oruro and left the pavement. Several times Freddy got out to test the mud. There is a road, but it’s not completed, and so there are signs directing traffic to swerve off the road here into a riverbed, and to go around a pile of gravel there onto the dirt road. And Freddy’s music is… pervasive. All I can do is watch the endless flatness.

It’s not until 4pm that we arrive at the village where I’m to film. Village is an overstatement: it’s a small grouping of stone shacks in the middle of endless shrubs. It’s the shruburbs. They have 100 llamas per family and a solar panel-powered well for potable water and for a trough for the llamas. We have to drive over bushes and risk it through puddles, and the houses appear out of nowhere, lost against the limitless background. The next hill is Chile. We get out and nobody’s around, so I take shots of the panels and the houses and Freddy and Renan explain how the system works until a corpse of a woman comes out and we talk to her. Every question I ask Marcela has to repeat louder in answer to her “HUH?” She’s 74 and has thought about leaving soon. “Where would you go Doña Justina?” Renan asks. “Al cielo.”

Some kids come out and we have them turn on the water and run their hands through it. The llamas are out to eat pajabraba so I don’t get a shot of them drinking the water, but as we leave we stop by a herd and I film them eating as a lightening storm starts of in the distance. It looks like the llamas are eating the hats of buried gnomes, so are the pajabraba. I try to interview another woman but it starts to hail. We go inside one house, but the tin roof is way too loud so we go into one with a thatched roof and it smells terrible; it’s where they dry the llama skins and store the Charque, or llama jerky, and the crying baby at her breast and her less-than-one-word answers make the whole mess a stinky futility.

Rain was our greatest fear since we didn’t want to get stuck out here overnight as the roads are Margaret Hamilton. But we luck out and drive over dry land with a view to all angles of lightening storms on the horizon. And my thumb-drive’s back in and “Bad Moon Rising” seems fitting.

Today we had a short trip to another small town with a solar panel pump. They used to have to walk 2 hours (3 if they sent their abuelita) to get water. Freddy and I climb the tower and can see for miles llamas, a soccer field, and clouds.

We look over Bolivia.

I had no idea where we were going, a slight idea of the projects, and as always just film an unmoving object from several angles and ask questions like pulling teeth from timid interviewees, but I can say it has been a successful trip.

Oh thanks be to God. Freddy has Abbey Road. We are stopped to eat some bread and several 2,3 and 4 year-old girls shove a mint-smelling herb in Renán’s face through the window and he negotiates with them for several minutes while we’re stopped. “Bueno, te pago 1.5Bs como un loco. ¿Te alegra?” (Fine, I’ll pay you $.21 like a crazy man. You happy?) The girl walks away smiling, and we head down the mountain towards Cochabamba, me translating Jorge Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I had no idea what we were in for! This four day hike to Machu Picchu was really my first backpacking trip. And for a first backpacking trip I’m pretty proud of going 43km and climbing up to 4000m through the Andes on steep Incan steps while carrying 25 kg! But what I’ll really remember is the terribly exciting, overwhelmingly anxious, beautifully motivating thought that consumed my mind step after step: “When we get to Machu Picchu, I’m going to propose to Shalynn!”

DAY ONE

It didn’t start out too well because Shay was very sick. She got food poisoning from a tourist restaurant. I felt terrible for her. We woke up at 3AM to get picked up by InfoCusco and she woke up vomiting. We were late and had to meet up with the van on foot a few blocks away with our bags because Shay was feverishly declining to digest last night’s burrito. But I thought the drive was beautiful. Driving above the Inca Sacred Valley we accompanied the red sunrise across the fresh snow. We were there the day before and saw rainbows and lighting in the same mountains that were now majestically pink. I can really see why it was Sacred; it is divinely beautiful.

We drove through Ollantaytambay, where Manco Inca led a rebillion against the Spanish and flooded the valley to drown their horses… and I got some Skittles. Epic place. Another short van ride and we were dropped off at Kilometer 82 to start the hike. Shay went to the bathroom, feeling a bit better, and while she was gone I told Anna, from Massachusetts, that I was planning to propose and asked her to film. We entered a checkpoint and got a Passport stamp for the Inca Trail, then crossed the Urubamba River and began hiking. It was a stroll along the river at first. We walked by several small villages with farmers carrying loads of hay on their backs as they have been since the Incas used these roads. The valley collected the heat like a high desert complete with flowering prickly pear cacti, and we chatted with our group: Andres from Germany, Pia from Austria, Jorge and Conchi from Spain, and Carl from Indiana. We walked by some ruins that was once a checkpoint to keep vagrants off the path – only those of the nobility were granted the honor. Talking to our guide Pablo it seemed to me that the Incas had more control over the trail than Peru has had up until the last ten years when they made it mandatory for tourists to go with a guide; before that he said Israelis made the Inca Trail a pilgrimage rite complete with tons of booze and eating the mescaline pumping San Pedro cacti along the trail. Shay’s boss this summer stayed overnight at Machu Picchu in the seveties, camping in the Sun Temple.

We continued along one valley, up hills, and left the Urubamba’s side. We waited for several donkey trains to pass; they carried tons of clay to prevent erosion in the Patallacta Ruins, which we reached from across a canyon. It sits between two valleys and offers a magnificent view. From there we continued up to our campsite, which had a view of tomorrow’s challenge: Dead Woman’s Pass. Our tents were already set up thanks to the porters who were also cooking us a gigantic meal. We had coca tea to help adjust to the altitude, gazed at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, and went to bed around 7pm.

DAY TWO

Today is the day of the climb. The infamous day. The tough day. We woke up with a five hour uphill climb to 4200m (13,550ft). We had a burrito made of an omelet tortilla, put on sunblock, and left for the summit around 7am. It was slow going. I listened to an audiobook called “The Last Days of the Incas” while walking on Incan stairs. Their empire consisted of taxing labor on all of their subjects and had a huge bureaucracy to ensure everybody was doing their part. The annual payment was three months of working for the Empire, which sounds pretty bad but to think that we pay about 40% of our time worked to the government they make out better than we do. They would take entire family units to work and so the women would feed and take care of the men, traveling with them whether they be soldiers conquering new tribes or carrying stones up the Andes.

I really got tired a few hours in. I started to resent that Shay was sick and that I had to carry most of the weight. I snapped at her a few times for not sharing water or other inane reasons then punched myself in my head, reminding myself that I was going to propose in two days and to be on my best, most chivalrous behavior. I joked to some guy who asked me what all I had in that big bag of mine that I was carrying her stuff as her personal porter, and he told her to marry me quick. I liked that.

Toward the end I was sitting down every 30 steps. But it wasn’t the end. Mountains are so deceiving in their eternal diagonal up and away. We still had an hour left when I was desperately trying to convince myself “any minute now.” But the landscape was gorgeous. We were side-hilling halfway above a light-green valley lined with yellow grass perfect for exhausted hikers to pull themselves along.

Around noon we made it to the top. I changed to some motivational music and tried to dig in and push myself, and sitting at the top I think it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. In 5.5 hours I climbed 1300m carrying 50lbs. I was exhausted, then pissed that we had to climb down 600 meters! But we took a group photo, then a nap, then a huge lunch and dinner.

DAY THREE

Today our porters woke us up and gave us warm coca tea like every day, and today we wake up and watch the sunrise on snowy peaks. Today we head uphill for three hours more, only its not as steep. Our first stop was at Runkurakay – another checkpoint shaped like a ceremonial surgical knife. The Incas used to reconstruct battered skulls by cutting out the broken dome and filling the hole with a plate of gold. Their anesthetic was merely coca.

We reached the second pass after stopping by a pond reflecting the mountains. Tiny stone towers littered the top of the hill where Peruvians hikers have made an offering of thanks for reaching this far on the trail. More descent. More climbing. We stop by Sayaqmarka, a castle made for providing pilgrims with provisions, and went down some more. We had lunch at the third pass, then watched our porters run past us another mile down the trail after they packed up the camp. The three year old  porter’s law prevents them from carrying more than 25kg of gear, but they still wake up at 5 to make us breakfast, pack up camp, run to set up and cook lunch, clean up and run to set up camp and today when we arrived during a rainfall they had dry tents set up and warm popcorn. We were climbing the thousands of steps of Wiñay Wiñay when the rain began, and hundreds of meters above the Urubamba valley we watched lightning and saw the peak of Machu Picchu. Our porters introduced themselves formally as they’d leave in the morning, and we thanked “David Copperfield,” our chef, for the best meals of our trip so far with great foresight in planning ingredients.

DAY FOUR

I woke up just before 3am because I had the happiest dream of my life and was too happy and excited to stay asleep. I dreamt about making the proposal – which I had been obsessing over for the whole hike – but this lady (in the dream) kept insisting I do it from this side of the building and not the other. We were arguing and she was ruining it all and finally Shay found out but told me she didn’t care that she knew and just wanted to get to Machu Picchu to do it right. We started running through the town and then biking up this muddy hill. We finally got to the coast and I had to prove myself with some riddles and kept making my way across the dock on a perfectly calm sea. I climbed past the last challenge and then Shay was there and I ran to meet her and we just looked at each other and held hands and knew what each other was thinking. And then an orca breached and I said look it’s Keiko! And a humpback whale breached and a pod of dolphins swam by and it was the best dream ever. I was ready. Today, in a few hours, I would ask the love of my life to be mine forever.

 

I saw a star over the red mountains and felt even more destined to make our love known over Machu Picchu. We said goodbye to our porters and then got in a giant line. The trail didn’t open until 5:30am but we had to get up so early because our porters had to hike down to catch a train before 6. When the gates opened several hundred people comprising the all the tour groups at our campsite raced toward Machu Picchu. We walked with the sunrise warming us up, along the curve of Machu Picchu mountain, and I kept saying nice things to Shay. I was so excited and had decided to propose at the sun gate, Inti Punku, where we’d have our first view of Machu Picchu. As we walked along I felt so sneakily elated to be in the know against her perfect naivety of what I’d do in the next hour. In the next quarter mile. In the next 30 steps.

We reached Inti Punku after a steep and decent climb. I was pretty sweaty and my heart was racing. I was out of breath from the hike and from my mind going over what I wanted to say; all the love in the world to profess. I barely noticed Machu Picchu bathed in its first morning sunlight far, far below us, far removed from my sole purpose. I took out a towel, wiped myself down, and asked if I looked memorable and posed for a picture and kissed and then dropped to one knee:

“HOLY SHIT!!”

“You’re the most incredible woman I know, and you’ve taught me so much and made me the man that I am. You’ve passed on your compassion and your love for everything. There’s so much joy we share together that I think we can make our journey last forever. So… Shalynn McKenzie Pack, will you marry me?”

“YES!!!”

We kissed and hugged and kissed and I fumbled to put the ring on her finger. Suddenly there was an applause and some people were crying. Dude who said Shay should marry me right away for carrying her stuff witnessed and congratulated. Everybody in our group congratulated us and asked to come to the wedding and Shay and I walked hand in hand down the last short bit to Machu Picchu, me telling her how anxious and excited and nervous I was, and her how she had thought it would be cool… but no… but maybe at Machu Picchu?

We were incredulous the whole day. We’re at Machu Picchu. We’re engaged. We’re engaged! Pablo told us some theories about Machu Picchu, how the Spanish never found it, how Hiram Bingham did find it, about the doors and toilets and normal things that are so special here. Inevitably we split from the group and were incredibly lucky to get tickets #394 and 395 out of 400 to climb up Wynu Picchu, the mountain in the background of the classic Machu Picchu picture. Another 1200 steps and we overlooked the whole complex and shouted the names of everyone we know. Shay put her ringed hand against the stones and we wandered around all day, finally sitting above at dusk and watching llamas trek by in front of the most famous scene in South America.

Bus, Dust and Ruins

Trujillo, Peru

I think the desert would have been just as bland if we weren’t in our 34th hour of traveling. We’re in the colonial contradiction of a town of Trujillo, named after Francisco Pizarro’s hometown of the similarly barren Extremadura of Spain, after having left the Galápagos yesterday. Here’s our flight plan:

11/5 – 07:00 Taxi to the bus station

07:30 Bus to the northern port of Santa Cruz

08:40 Ferry to Baltra Island

08:50 Bus to the airport

10:45 Plane to Guayaquil

19:50 Bus to Piura, Perú

11/6 – 09:30 Bus to Trujillo

16:20 Arrive in Trujillo.

 

We are good buddies and keep each others’ spirits up, so it’s not all that bad. The low point definitely was lying on the cement outside the Ecuadorian immigration office from 1am until the national registry  goes back on-line at 3am. We couldn’t just get back on the bus because we would’ve lost our spot in line. So we sat there for a few hours with our valuables.

Riding through Northern Perú we passed by scattered farming settlements and shantytowns, all gratified with political advertisements. An Ecuadorian at the immigration office admitted she was bias, but said Ecuador is much more beautiful than Perú. We agree so far. Of the three geographical regions (Coast, Mountains, Jungle), the desert coast really gets the short end of the stick.

We immediately got a taxi in Trujillo to take us to the hostal we’ve picked out of the Lonely Planet. He tells us that one is undesirable and drops us off a block away from the bus station for the same fare. It’s lovely the shower has warm water after the trek!

Trujillo was founded by the Spanish one their way to conquer the Incas, but happens to be located by the Moche River, named after one of the many pre-Colombian tribes of the area. The Moche inhabited the valley from ~0 BCE to ~800 BCE and then nobody knows what happened to them. They left all their junk, however, so Shay and I got to see Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol – the ruins of their capital city. A short bus ride from the city, we arrive at the monuments, which look like lumps of sand flanking a dustbowl under a conical peak. Huaca del Sol has 11 levels of a pyramid-like shape, is the largest pre-Colombian structure in Perú, and was once the Moche’s administrative building. Huaca de la Luna was their great temple; it is a five-leveled, inverted pyramid where they would build on to the temple and fill in the level below, moving beyond their past. We, on the other hand, really enjoyed seeing it all!

As old as the temple (or at least they look like it), Peruvian hairless dogs roam about the sand before the monument. We climb to the fourth level, below the peak, which is one of the Moche’s sacred deities. The temple is made of mud bricks, and some of them still have imprints of the family crests of those who donated them to the cause. Archeologists have dug up the older levels and our guide tells us how the art style changed across the generations. They painted faces with jaguar teeth and arms that end with snakes, bordered with a pattern of manta rays, and the paint is still bright red and yellow. On the outside layers, each level has a pattern: soldiers marching victorious with prisoners, dancing noblemen, the “Spider Decapitator” deity, ocean sea-goddess, two-headed cat, condor guy, and the mountain deity. Standing on the top overlooking the dust bowl that once housed 200,000 Moche, I am annoyed by the American who won’t turn off his iPod. But also amazed at the permanence of the monument.

The tour brought us to a touristy restaurant, but always trying to stick to our budget we told the waiter it was too expensive for us and we walked up the street to a shop where I had to argue to get the price it said on the menu, pressure the materdeis for the correct change, and walk off the greasy noodles. But we saved 8 soles… so that’s about $2.23 savings!

After the Moche disappeared, the Chimú occupied the valley up until the Incas bullied them into joining up. They left behind Chan Chan, the largest clay city in the world, according to a T-shirt in the gift shop. Also dry and dusty, Chan Chan looks like the Minotaur’s Labrynth. We stopped by their temple, Huaca Arco Iris (Rainbow or Dragon Monument, named for the Dragon-like creatures making love under a rainbow that stamp the outside, symbolizing fertility), then walk about the worn walls. In this palace the main square is decorated with a pattern of otters. Chan Chan in total is still 14 square kilometers, and the palace we explore has hundreds of rooms. At the end are a mass grave and a sacred oasis that still draws migratory birds. And migratory tourists.

The only English-speakers in our group (other than the plugged-in Yankee), so we enjoyed our privacy to crack jokes and laugh and feel as though we had our private observations of the ancient people. We went to the beach nearby and watched both surfers and tourists ride in the traditional rafts. I’m glad we came here before Macchu Picchu and got a sandy warm-up, but it’s warm and the food is good, and we are still cherishing our time together, even if it’s been 24/7 for almost a month now. Right now we’re  on the last legs of the run:

11/7 – 22:00 Bus Trujillo to Lima (Leather seats!)

11/8 – 15:00 Bus to Cuzco (About 22hrs.)

 

After all the busses and their in-trip movies (South America is where all the bad movies go to die), a sandy, primitive spot on the beach sounds sublime anyway.