So I'll be back home, in Calgary, closer to the end of August. It will have been a year - and what a year! Between working with the NGO and running a photo project, developing curriculum, teaching university classes, and working on my painting, its been great. But, I am very excited to come back home and of course be with family and friends, and even to begin starting again. That said, I will also miss Peru a lot. I know that, I always do, and this time more so as I'll be leaving good friends and my Peruvian family and most especially my super cute nephew - he just turned one.
Peru is such a diverse and beautiful country in regards to geographical features and terrains. In the north there are beaches and going inwards, jungle, in the middle are deserts and canyons and great extinct or sleeping volcanoes, and in the south there are the Andes mountain range, the sacred valley, the sierra, and more jungle.
So when I was in Arequipa (central city in the desert with the Volcano Misti in the back) this year with my brother and his girlfriend, I was curious to re-visit this beach town. They didn't have so much time, so after they left, I decided to go... I caught a bus to Mollendo. I got there in the afternoon and started looking for hostels because Mollendo is still not on the Hostel World site. This proved difficult as the time was summer vacation for most Peruvian people, and also the Festival of Mollendo was that night. I finally found a hotel that could take me, and the girl at the front desk and I became fast friends. That night I headed out to the festival on the beach with her and her friends and we spent the night listening to music and partying. The following day when I could actually see the beach - daylight - I headed back and camped out to tan and take in the sun - this time with sunscreen. The beach was still gorgeous, but this time overcrowded. The waves still amazing, and the ceviche too.
Yesterday was one of those days where I really wished I could've been at home with the family. So not only was my brother celebrating his 30th birthday yesterday, but he also announced his engagement to his long time girlfriend. I am so excited for the two of them and wish them all the joy in the world. Congrats you two!! I'll celebrate with you in September!!
Ollantaytambo is among my favourite archeological sites in the Sacred Valley, Peru. What I love about it, apart from the architecture, is the view, and more importantly the story. Ollantaytambo is situated at the part of the Valley that begins the 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, the Urubamba river runs by it, and it can feel mysterious. The old part of the town is walled with old Incan stonework and protects the entrance to the archeological site. The site, in the past, was both for agricultural production and for protection against invaders as it sits at the mouth to trek onwards and inwards to Machu Picchu. As for the story, well it is part historical, and part folklore and legend. It is said that before becoming also a site of military and protection, that is was just more terraces for the cultivation of potatoes and other such produce. But protection was needed and so the main general of the army (Ollantay) under the ruling Incan of the time Pachacutec was set to expand the site to also be military. It is also said that the general - Ollantay - was in love with Pachacutec, and as with all tragic love stories - their love too, was forbidden. Legend has it that Pachatutec upon learning of the forbidden love had his daughter locked away - either in a Monestary, or in a small prison not too very far away from Ollantaytambo, but hidden. Legend say that the angry Ollantay built up a much larger military base than originally intended, but that he also intended to go to war with Pachautec over his loss, and that he may have in the process given away secrets or unintentionally partially helped the invading Spanish conquistadors in their mission, and their eventual destruction of the Incan Empire. And like all good legends, we, today may see a sculpture of the general in the main plaza of Ollantaytambo.
Over the last month - June, there has been a myriad of different festivities in Cusco namely called the Cusco Festivals and winter solstice called Inti Raymi. Beginning the festivals was the highly religious Incan pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit’i followed directly by the festival of Corpus Christi. Qoyllur Rit’i is an religious Incan pilgrimage and festival in which many locals trek to the glacier and mountain god - Ausungate and camp overnight there before making offerings to the glacier and making prayers for things they are thankful for and things they still want - like good grades, or a good lover. There, there are dances, and music, but it is very cold, and soon after everyone will trek back to Cusco for Corpus Christi.
During Corpus Christi, the 15 saints from the 15 different districts of Cusco are brought down to the main plaza and paraded around. For many this is a highly important religious tradition and so the mostly Catholic population fills into the main plaza to watch as it is also a day of from work, school, and university. And not only are the saints paraded around, but behind or in front of each follows or leads musicians and dancers of that district dressed in their dresses and playing their music from their various districts - It is rather a mesh of Catholicism with Incan and Cusquenan cultures and traditions.
So of course the main plaza becomes packed with both locals and tourists - and I mean packed - for someone who is a bit anxious in massive crowds, I think I did pretty well. Just as a comparison, compared with the Calgary Stampede parade or grounds for example, this is like 10 times that - just being pushed and pulled along - and understanding for the first time - a "true crowd" mentality, and how it is that people can get fully trampled in a crowd.
So if I get anxious in crowds, why then did I head down into the thicket of the festival? - Well, they serve a dish that day - a special festive dish called Chiriuchu, it is a cold dish filled with Cusco traditions - of which my various colleagues and students had been talking about for weeks at the university, and quite frankly with my love of new foods and cuisines, I just had to try this dish.
As we made our way through the overwhelming crowd, we slowly passed many street vendors selling sweets, ice creams, churros and the likes and made our way 2 blocks up to the Plaza San Francisco - where lunch - this dish was being served by literally hundreds of Andean women - hacking away at cooked guinea-pigs and tearing away at pieces of salted meat and toreja to put these complex dishes together.
Chiriuchu is a dish that is served cold and eaten with the hands. My roommate did not look so impressed with the eating with the hands part, but I was so excited - I love eating with my fingers; I feel that it somehow brings me closer to the food I am eating, and have both a greater appreciation of what I am eating, and have a greater bond with those who made it. Also food seems to tase better when eaten with hands.
The dish is meant to be eaten in small bites of the various components rather than finishing one component at a time - I honestly don't know why this is - but am assuming because it tastes better this way.
In this dish is found a hill of various foods that come together, like the saints, but instead of from various districts, that come together from various parts of the Andes and Peru - like cuy coming from the Sacred Valley and seaweed coming from Lake Titicaca. So what exactly comprises this dish? - Guinea Pig, Toreja (which is a very greasy and delicious corn bread), 2 types of sausage including blood sausage (this I didn't eat), salted very tough beef jerky (delicious), dried and salted Andean corn, fresh Andean cheese, seaweed and fish roe, roasted rooster, freeze dry potato, camote (sweet potato), and a very spicy rocoto pepper. It was amazing - I honestly wasn't sure if I would like it - but oh, yes I did - very much. My roommate - not so much. Did we finish - yes. And afterwards, my body just wanted to rest and digest this very heavy meal, so we trekked back through the immense crowd.
I remember coming to Cusco for the first time 13 years ago - and that was when I first fell in love with the city. I was picked up at the small inconspicuous airport by 2 men from the organization (Pro Peru) that I had come down with to teach with - Richard (head of the organization) and Nico Jara Rojas (who is now my Peruvian dad) - we rode into the city centre and stopped first to change money, and then they took me for a mate de coca (Coca tea) which helped adjustments to the new very high altitude of 3400 metres. I remember seeing the massive cathedrals surrounding the main plaza with a grand fountain in the middle. The architecture was incredible - a mix of Spanish on top of ancient Incan stone work. And though I was working and living in the sacred valley - almost every weekend I would bus into Cusco and take in the magnificent city.
It is an old historic city nestled into the Andes - mountains surrounding. Its history is Incan and colonial Spanish. It is an evolving city filled with many restaurants, hotels and hostels, museums, ruins, cathedrals, Incan stone work, markets, and a mix of wonderful people. There is hiking all around, as well as horseback riding, and rafting. Sounds amazing and it is.
The city has also come a long way in 13 years with all hostels and hotels boasting hot water, many with flush toilets, and much cleaner inner city streets.
The city is a walkable historic site, not unlike Rome or Paris or Istanbul. The people are friendly and helpful. And it is a destination for so many peoples - researchers, social volunteers, photographers, historians, adventurers, and of course your run of the mill tourists from every which country who come to see Machu Picchu. To be honest Machu Picchu is incredible, but for me, Cusco is more so - it is the living and breathing ruin that is seamlessly both historic and becoming more modern. It is full of unique foods, cultures, festivals, and traditions. The people here are proud of their heritage and it is very much a part of who they are.
The only draw back - especially for people who are always freezing, like myself, is that there is close to no heating in any of the buildings so its important to bring lots of warm clothes - and of course you can always pick up some super warm alpaca sweaters and socks if need be.
Tomorrow my little brother will turn 30!! He was such a cute kid and my best friend / partner in crime, and of course, now he is a very nice man. Zaak I am so proud of you, and wish I could be there to celebrate with you.
Birthdays are funny things - a milestone of how far we've come but also reminder of that sneaky passage of time.
I left a comfortable, fun and challenging teaching position in Calgary, Alberta last year and moved to Cusco, Peru. I had lived as a volunteer in Urubamba many years ago, which was more akin to a volunteer holiday position just out of high school.
This time, I was 30, and wanting to transition into art as a more full time career, and instead of doing I suppose what most would do, and start sending work to galleries, and in competitions and getting shows together, etc. I did not. And in a time where almost everyone I know is getting married and having babies and settling into lives in their cities, I ran away to the Andes to "rediscover myself" and also of course to work. I worked with an NGO doing a photography project with children, designed curriculum, and did a little marketing and research, and then after that stint was done, I started working at the Art School of Cusco as an animation and graphic design teacher and also taking courses in painting - which is where I think my true passion lies. I just love the colours and textures, and the mixing of paint and seeing my ideas and visions come to life on canvas. I love that I'm not in front of a screen, and that the work is hands on and messy and that I can be as detailed or sporadic as I want.
So I had a million ambitions coming down here and lost myself in the process, and then re-discoved many things apart from my true passion.
Some of the things I've learned and re-learned are that:
Hello! My name is Tahira Karim. I was born and raised on the Canadian prairies have been leaving and returning ever since. I absolutely love to travel. I am an observer of life and culture, and I have a passion for history and food. I am a visual artist who specializes in painting and drawing. And this blog is a jumble of my writing and thoughts on travel, culture, and food, with a bunch of personal stories thrown into the mix. Enjoy!