Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Development Gone Bananas

Via Paul Krugman, a note in the New York Times on the end of the "banana wars". A long-running trade dispute between European states and US/Latin American banana producers over whether Europe could impose quotas favouring their former colonies has finally ended, after the EU agreed to to reduce tariffs on Latin American bananas by 35 percent over seven years..

Op-ed writer Eduardo Porter comments that as often seems to be the case, this resolution has come about less through the capacity for intelligent compromise than because the whole issue has turned out to be less important than the antagonists thought.

He concludes:

China’s growth stands as a beacon for the power of trade. But others that have hitched their economic strategy to trade, like Mexico, have found prosperity elusive. Despite growing banana exports, both the Latin American banana exporters and Europe’s impoverished former colonies remain poor.

One thing we have learned over the past 15 years is that trade is necessary but not sufficient for development. Countries also need investment in infrastructure, technology and human capital. They need credit. They need legitimate institutions — like clean courts to battle monopolies — and help building them. Putting up a few barriers against banana imports, or tearing a few of them down, can’t do it all.

Credit for the conclusion. But isn't it a little disturbing that people think there wasn't any evidence about this until 15 years ago?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Storm Front Wellington

Today in Wellington was a rare day, in recent times, of warm sunshine and light winds, with the moist air helping send the cumulus clouds puffing up over the Eastbourne hills. But there was also a cold front due late afternoon. Seeking some extra exercise after a weather-aborted tramping trip in the Tararuas, and with half an idea that some interesting weather might develop, I strolled up the Polhill Reserve track to the Brooklyn wind turbine.

My timing was good: just as I got to the windmill, the southerly buster arrived, sweeping in over Cook Strait. I was hoping some thunderstorm-like activity would brew, but nothing developed. However, I did get some reasonable photos over the harbour and the strait as the front arrived. In the last one you can see a plane that has just taken off from Wellington airport.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Prospects for South Africa: New Zealand

From a New Zealand perspective, the World Cup draw turned out about as well as could be expected: our group rivals will be Italy, Paraguay and South Africa. The ideal would have been a group headed by South Africa, which, as the host nation, is automatically one of the seeded teams. But of the big teams, Italy is perhaps the best one to play.

The Italians tend to be inspired by adversity and their style is based on impassable defense combined with ruthless finishing on the counter. They sometimes seem to get a little muddled when playing smaller teams and struggle to a narrow win or even a draw. We are lucky not to be in a group with Brazil or Germany, who have no qualms about thrashing minnows. Likewise, as they showed at the Confederations Cup, Spain are flat track bullies par excellence.

While it's good to have a desire to compete, and not merely enjoy the "romance" of playing Brazil or England, the New Zealand public remains wildly optimistic or blindly ignorant. In a recent Stuff poll (unscientific, to be sure), more than half of the respondents thought New Zealand would come other than last in their group. The rationale seems to be that Paraguay and Slovakia sound like rather insignificant countries, therefore we should be able to do well against them at football.

However, anyone thinking Paraguay is a minor or obscure team should note their July 2008 2-0 defeat of Brazil where they spent half a game with ten men, or perhaps their recent rather comfortable 1-0 home win over Argentina.

I don't know much about Slovakia, but any team that tops a group including two times World Cup semi-finalists Poland, Euro 1996 finalists Czech Republic, fellow qualifiers Slovenia, and Northern Ireland, is clearly not to be trifled with.

Let's be realistic. Success for New Zealand, in terms of meeting expectations, would be to score a couple of goals. Getting a point would be a historic achievement. Winning a game sits squarely in the realm of fantasy. Progressing to the next stage would be like the All Blacks winning the World Cup and the cricket team beating Australia in a test series on the same weekend, with the economy making it into the top half of the OECD in time for dinner.

So much for New Zealand. In a future post I'll make my predictions for which teams I think will be the likely winners, giant killers or surprise failures in South Africa.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Road to Aconcagua

Generally I've found that writing down things I plan to do is helpful, making them more concrete and spurring me on to carry then out. Telling someone what I plan is the next step: the more people I tell, the harder it is to back out without losing face.

I've already said the following to a number of people and now the time has come to write it on the blog. I am making plans to climb Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the world's highest peak outside Asia, in the summer of 2011. The idea has gradually become more concrete ever since my older sister Terri made it to the summit in January 2008.

That was a fantastic effort, but Terri has won competitive road cycling races in the United States, run a marathon under 3 hrs 30, and likes nothing better than to cycle 60 km before breakfast. By contrast, I am a slob who sleeps in until 10am where possible. I admired my sister's achievement but didn't think it realistic for me. Yet over the last twelve months or so the possibility has kept nagging away at me until I eventually said: "why not?".

Now I've put a stake in the ground, this is likely to become a new narrative arc on this blog. In the past I've written about my struggles with fitness and inadequate gear. I've begun to address both of those issues recently and will discuss them more in future posts. I also hope that readers will contribute to those posts, as there's a number of things I'm unsure about and would be happy to get some feedback on.

But to be honest, I'm not even wholly confident of even making it on the expedition (health, finances and a master's thesis are all capable of throwing a spanner in the works), let alone to the summit. So to to start with, I'm going to take a look at my chances by summarizing the advantages and disadvantages I have. Again, writing them down makes them more tangible and easier to tackle.


I have reasonably good physical endurance. I have reached a summit over 6,000 metres before (Nevado Chachani). I've climbed 1,900 vertical metres in a single day (Andagua trek) and trekked for around 10 hours for three consecutive days while carrying a pack (also the Andagua trek).

Importantly, I also understand that none of this adds up to much compared with the task ahead. When I climbed El Misti, it was a two-day trek of around 2,600 vertical metres to the summit at 5,825. Yet the last 150 of those metres, from volcano's crater to the true summit, felt about as hard as the preceding 2,450. I was in a group of six climbers and two guides. I, one other American climber and a guide, reached the crater a little ahead of the rest. I recall the final stretch, winding up a narrow ridge with the summit always in view, as being pretty agonising. The other four climbers reached the crater and decided that they couldn't go any further, despite being little more than a stone's throw from the summit. That was about the same altitude as the high camp on Aconcagua -- where the long trek to the summit starts.

Add to this the fact that my 6,000-ish summits have been in Peru, less than 15 degress south of the equator, with daytime temperatures creeping near 0 degrees Celsius in a gentle zephyr. Aconcagua is more than 30 degrees south, and I understand that temperatures on the summit can be around -30 Celsius in summer with vicious winds.

It might look like I'm just citing difficulties here, but the fact that I understand these things very clearly is actually an advantage.


Physically, I deteriorate rapidly when I don't have enough to eat or drink. I also struggle to maintain a steady pace. I tend to go too rapidly when I have energy and tire myself out.

However, my biggest drawback is probably mental weakness. Deep down, I'm a bit of a wimp and a coward and I instinctively look for a quick payoff. The longest treks I've ever gone on have been around four days, and by day two or three, my mind is already shifting to the prospect of a nice hot shower, good coffee, and sitting back in a comfortable chair reviewing photos of the trip. Unlike true outdoors people, I don't really thrive in the back country. When I'm there, I usually start to fixate on little discomforts and dream about being back in civilization.

I also don't have very good interpersonal skills: I like my personal space and usually find it hard to fit in with groups. When I lack the skills to contribute much to practical things like preparing food, putting up tents and packing gear, I feel like I don't have any control and can get disengaged and grumpy. The likelihood of becoming bored, anxious and disprited on the long tramp in, and in particular during days spent waiting around in bad weather, is one of my biggest risks. From previous experience and from what I'm read, I expect this challenge to be as much mental as physical. Being in as positive a frame of mind as possible during the tough bits will be important.

So, that's probably something to train for over the next 12 months just as much as carrying a 25-kilo pack in low oxygen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tramping in the Tararuas

The other weekend I was fortunate enough to spend three days tramping in the Tararuas, to the north of Wellington, with my friend Noam and his fiancee Rachel. We did the "Jumbo circuit", which starts near Masterton, following a loop from the valley floor up to the summit of Mt Holdsworth and back down again through the bush. It's actually possible to do the whole circuit in one exhausting day, but we did it in a relaxed fashion over three days, spending most of the time wandering up along the ridges.

Here are some photos. Most are courtesy of Noam, and are superior in both technique and technology to the couple from my camera. Click to enlarge to full size.

Patches of snow still lingered on some of the ridges amidst the wind battered tussock.

The green folds of the Wairarapa plain look idyllic in the later afternoon haze when viewed from above. Great photography from Noam.

This is a kind of lookout point at around 1,350 metres above sea level, about halfway between Powell Hut and the summit of Mt Holdsworth.
Noam arrives at the lookout point, with the south Wairarapa plains in the background.
The action and effects of the wind can be seen in this photo of Noam's.

Mountain tarns on the ridgeline on the way out to Angle Knob, from where we could see both the Pacific and the Tasman.

These mountain flowers (native daisies?) have an amazing plastic-like appearance that makes them appear almost artificial.

In the centre of the photo, people walking along the ridgeline down from the summit of Mt Holdsworth give an idea of the scale of the landscape.

Reaching the summit of Mt Holdsworth at 1,470 metres with the lower hills and the Wairarapa plain spread out behind.

Serried ranges of hills unfold westward towards the sun in this view from Angle Knob, around an hour's walk along the ridgeline from Jumbo Crossing. The faintest hill in the distance is Kapiti Island, and the adjoining blue is the sea.

And In a Calmer Moment

OK, some analysis in a calmer moment now. The game was a thrilling rollercoaster of emotion. It wasn't until Bahrain were awarded a penalty early in the second half that I realised how much the crazy hope that we might do it after all had taken hold of me. At that moment it all drained away, and I was making a monumental effort to achieve Zen-like calm, telling myself that at least it had been a great occasion and we'd been competitive. Then Mark Paston saved, and I was leaping all over the place again.

Technically, it wasn't great football, but tightly-contested World Cup ties often aren't. There was about as much hoofing the ball up the field as you'd see in a Six Nations rugby match, but you couldn't fault the commitment or the tension.

There were several outstanding performances from New Zealand players. Goalkeeper Paston was of course everybody's hero for his penalty save and a generally assured performance. Just to catch the final flicked-on header of the game from a long Bahraini free kick without the collective quivering nerves of 35,000 people causing him to drop it was an achievement in itself.

Ryan Nelsen was, as they say, "immense" at the heart of the defense, making numerous intercepts and haranguing his fellow defenders when they wandered out of position. Leo Bertos somehow managed to make Ricki Herbert's structure look reasonable by haring up and down the field to both make attacking thrusts from midfield and also cover off the right side of defense. Chris Killen had a couple of dangerous shots, held up the ball well, and ran all over the place, pressuring the Bahrain defence into mistakes.

Rory Fallon of course scored with a bullet-like header, but looked a bit off the pace in general play. After a quiet first half, Shane Smeltz did some very nice things in the second, but he remains an enigma in front of goal -- by my count he failed to convert at least four reasonable opportunities to score.

Commentary in the Monday papers gave Ricki Herbert the benefit of the doubt: the win showed his tactics had been a gamble that paid off, they said. I'm still not sure we wouldn't have been better off playing a more traditional structure. The defense and the midfield got in each other's way at times, and it was unclear if there was an actual plan in attack. What helped was that the much colder conditions meant New Zealand could chase the ball round, playing an English-style pressing game (Greece 2004 occasionally sprang to mind). They also had a physical advantage, and the Bahrainis were intimidated enough to not even try to fire in first-time balls from corners and free kicks -- something I thought was a surprising concession.

You had to feel a little sorry for Bahrain. They were clearly the more skilful team, and played a lot of neat passess and touches. Whenever they went down the right side they looked extremely dangerous. But after the missed penalty they visibly dropped, and by the end of the game seemed to be panicking. Their defence lost its shape, and had New Zealand been a more ruthless team, they could easily have won 3-0. The Bahrain players' tendency to topple over at the merest hint that someone had touched them won the ire of the crowd. On the other hand, the had the New Zealanders' timing been slightly poorer with some of their challenges -- at least a couple of them two-footed -- we could have been in big trouble.

Apologies for all the posts on football -- there are still a couple more to come, as I make early predictions for next year's World Cup and look at who it would be good for New Zealand to play. Then it will be back to tales from South America and thoughts on development.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Zealand Qualifies for South Africa 2010

I still don't really disagree with any of what I wrote in the last couple of posts, but right now I'm about as ecstatic as only a football fan whose team has just made it to the World Cup can be. I don't think I've whooped that much since I was a teenager.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Zealand and the World Cup

As noted in a previous post, the All Whites' improbable lurch closer to qualification for South Africa has sparked a bit of interest locally, although not from either of the woeful main TV channels.

The specialised New Zealand sports media (rugby, cricket) is sometimes slightly more well-informed on its subject than the general press, with its celebrity obsession and gleeful know-nothingness about serious matters.

But for football there is little objective analysis. So the aftermath of the Bahrain game saw celebrations of a "heroic" defensive performance and some lamentations that the 0-0 result would require a "clear win" in order to go through. With the classic something-for-nothing expectation that sometimes typifies Kiwi attitudes, there seemed to have been hope that we would somehow sneak an away goal in Bahrain, get a 1-1 result, and then desperately hold out for 0-0 in the return leg.

So much for the assumption that the least you can expect of a nation seeking a place with the world's best is to win at least one game against a half-decent team. In reality, the All Whites are extremely lucky to still be in the contest, and would have been four or five behind if Bahrain's front men hadn't been competing for the most outrageous miss.

Lest anyone think that I am just knocking, I should stress that I think there is some promise in the New Zealand team, and that part of the problem lies with the odd tactics of coach Ricki Herbert, whose hit-and-hope approach in Bahrain was reminiscent of the New Zealand cricket team's top order batting.

In the Bahrain game, Herbet seemingly set out to simultaneously batten down the hatches and go for all out attack. He picked three strikers, with Australian League top goal scorer Shane Smeltz tucked in behind "target men" Chris Killen and Rory Fallon, and pretty much everybody else relegated to a defensive formation. Leo Bertos, the player with the most creativity and pace in the starting lineup, who usually plays on the left, was placed in the unfamiliar position of right back.

The result of this was that there was no real midfield, and Bahrain strolled through there at will. Only their profligacy in front of goal saved us. Meanwhile, New Zealand lumped long balls forward to their stranded front three. Smeltz, goal poacher extraordinaire and used to hovering around the goal mouth, looked lost in his position in the "pocket", and struggled to get into the game.

Ironically, there was one area where New Zealand were dominant: their larger physique meant they won almost every header. Much as I'm not a fan of a game based around long balls and set pieces, I have to acknowledge that under some circumstances these are legitimate tactics. Yet playing long balls to target men also requires structure, and relies on there being support coming through from midfield to latch on the balls knocked down or held up by the big men. The ball has to go to ground at some stage, and in this case, numerous hard-won headers simply fell into empty space and were collected by the Bahrainis, who then launched another attack.

New Zealand looked much better in the last twenty minutes when Central Coast Mariners midfielder Michael McGlinchey and West Bromwich Albion wunderkind Chris Brown came on. Hopefully, Herbert will see fit to give at least half a game to these two and move Bertos and Smeltz back to their normal positions. With a more orthodox lineup, a fit Ryan Nelsen, great crowd support, and a bit of luck, the All Whites could still be in with a chance.

In truth, however, even if they win, New Zealand should not be at the World Cup. As I've pointed out in all my posts on qualification for South Africa, the departure of Australia from Oceania has left possibly the easiest pathway to qualification that a team has ever had -- a far cry from the epic road taken by the 1982 New Zealand team that beat Australia and worked their way through a tough Asian qualifying group, getting a shot at qualifying thanks to a stunning 5-0 away win over Saudi Arabia.

In South Africa, we would provide novelty value at best, and would constantly be a striker's good day away from complete humiliation by one of the bigger teams. The best thing for New Zealand football would be for the national side to play in a conference of the Asian zone (as it did in 1982) and get regular games against teams that are tough, but not several classes above. This, along with continued progress by the Wellington Phoenix including perhaps a spot in an Asian champions competition, could provide a solid diet of meaningful competition that would allow players to grow and progress, and the public to be legitimately excited and engaged.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road to South Africa: Almost Done

In the end, Argentina qualified for the World Cup with a 1-0 away win over a hapless Uruguay. I didn't see this, but apparently Diego Maradona's triumphant, vulgar outburst at the post-match press conference was something to behold. It's worth reading Marcela Mora y Araujo's piece in the Guardian, and the following comments section, for an analysis of this, certainly for those who share an interest in both football and Latin American culture. The use of violent sexual imagery to express competitive success reminded me of my recent reading of Mary Weismantel's analysis of Latin American race and gender relations.

There would have been great rejoicing in Honduras, who qualified for the first time since 1982. That was a bit tough on Costa Rica, who were at one stage 2-0 ahead of the already-qualified United States, only for the Americans to equalise in the 95th minute and send Honduras through on goal difference. Costa Rica will now go into a playoff against Uruguay.

Ecuador's 0-1 away loss to Chile meant that no Andean country now has a chance to qualify. There were consolation wins for Colombia, 2-0 away to Paraguay, which pushed them past Venezuela into 7th, and Peru, whose 1-0 result at home over Bolivia was still not enough to divest themselves of the wooden spoon after Bolivia's 2-1 home result against Brazil in the previous round.

In Europe, Switzerland got the point they needed against Israel to consign Greece to the playoffs, while Slovakia's 1-0 away win in Poland was enough to send them through to a first-ever World Cup as an independent nation. I imagine that would have been greeted with great celebrations, since qualification also came at the expense of more-fancied neighbours the Czech Republic. Portugal also managed to confirm their playoff spot with a 4-0 win over Malta.

The playoffs of the second-placed European teams will be on November 14 and 18, and these will line up France, Portugal, Russia and Greece on one half of the draw against Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Ireland and Ukraine on the other. Now, much as I would prefer to see the likes of Portugal and Russia go through, I wonder whether it's really fair to have seedings for these playoff matches. After all, every team involved has already been second-best in its group over the course of 12 matches, so surely at that point seeding is irrelevant and every one starts square? Things are tough enough for small countries as it is, and FIFA's system makes it harder still.

The same dates inNovember will be when all the remaining places are decided. The final matches in Africa see Cameroon, Algeria, and Tunisia aim to confirm their advantage over Gabon, Egypt and Nigeria respectively. It would be a pity not to see the dangerous Nigerians at the World Cup, and Egypt looked capable of causing an upset at the Confederations Cup this year, but I guess that shows how tough the African qualifying groups are.

November 14 is also the crucial date for the culmination of New Zealand's unlikely qualifying campaign, still alive after the 0-0 draw in Bahrain. The return leg will take place here in Wellington, in front of what is expected to be a crowd of around 35,000 people. More on that in another post.

List of qualified teams so far

South America: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina
North America: United States, Mexico, Honduras
Asia: Australia, South Korea, Japan, North Korea
Africa: Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, South Africa (hosts)
Europe: Netherlands, Spain, England, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia

A correction to my last post. Chile's 4-2 away win over Colombia that sealed their qualification was in fact played in Medellin, not in Bogotá.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Road to South Africa: the Last Stretches

It's been a while since I wrote about football, and in the meantime there've been several more qualifying rounds for the World Cup in South Africa 2010. In fact, the current round is the final one for many groups, so most qualifying places will be decided.

The biggest story in the last few rounds has probably been the downfall of Argentina. A while ago I commented that Diego Maradona was making himself an example of the truism that a great player does not necessarily make a competent coach. That's been borne out, as Maradona's naiive tactics and haphazard selection have been factors in the position that Argentina find themselves in now, at some risk of not qualifying.

In this part of the world, there's been sudden interest in the fact that New Zealand is, improbably, still in the hunt for a World Cup place, after a most fortunate 0-0 draw away in Bahrain, but that's a topic for another post.

Also of note, the last round of games look to have ended the possibility of no fewer than four countries from the former Yugoslavia qualifying for South Africa, but even with Croatia having slipped, three of them (Bosnia Herzegovinia, Serbia, and Slovenia) are still in the hunt.

The Americas

A few rounds ago, Argentina were near the top of the qualifying group, but things have gone from bad to worse since Diego took over. When I was in Peru, we listened on a static-ridden radio at the bottom of the Colca Canyon as Ecuador comfortably beat them 2-0 in Quito. In the next double header, Brazil exposed the defensive naiivety of Maradona's team, winning 3-1 away, which was followed by Paraguay cruising to a 1-0 result in Asunción and confirming their own qualification.

Meanwhile, abject Peru did all its Andean neighbours a favour by losing successively to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, while sandwiching in an improbable home win over Uruguay. In the most recent round, they gave the Argentinians a scare by equalising late in the game, before 36 year-old Martin Palermo snuck a 90th-minute winner (apparently offisde), to take the game 2-1 and leave his team on 25 points, clinging to 4th spot. Meanwhile, Chile confirmed its spot with a 4-2 away in Bogota that shuts Colombia out of qualifying.

Wednesday's round of games will be nail-biting: Argentina play Uruguay in Montevideo, and just need a draw to secure a spot. They can only be overtaken if Ecuador manage to win away against Chile by more than four goals. If Argentina loses, they will be out if Ecuador win. Venezuela can still sneak into the playoff if they beat Brazil and Ecuador lose.

In the North American zone, Mexico and the United States have predictably qualified, while Costa Rica and Honduras will contest the final spot, with the loser in a playoff against one of Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador or Venezuela.

Africa and Asia

In two of the final African qualifying groups, Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire, both of whom I fancy to do well in South Africa, have confirmed their places. In the other groups, it's going to go down to the wire between Egypt and Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia, and Cameroon and Gabon.

Qualifying in Asia ended a while back, with Australia, South Korea, and Japan predictably confirming their places. North Korea also makes a first finals appearance since their remarkable run in 1966. The remaining place is of course up for dispute between Bahrain and New Zealand, to be decided on 14 November.


The Netherlands, Spain and England confirmed their places in the last round, and this round Germany, Italy, Denmark and Serbia have joined them. Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Ireland, Russia and France will feature in the playoffs, and Ukraine will almost certainly join them, after Ukraine's 1-0 win at home against England meant that they only have to win in Andorra to shut out Croatia. Groups which still have something riding on Wednesday's final games include:

Group 1: Portugal, the team I follow, have manged to drag themselves back from the brink in the last few rounds with a last-gasp winner against Albania, followed by home and away wins over Hungary, while Denmark did them a huge favour by beating Sweden 1-0. Portugal now just has to beat Malta at home to secure a playoff spot.

Group 2: Switzerland is top, three points ahead of Greece, but Greece's last game is a probable win against Luxembourg, meaning that Switzerland needs at least a draw at home against Israel to qualify. Israel looks out, as they would have to beat Switzerland and have Luxembourg hold Greece to a draw.

Group 3: perhaps the most interesting. Slovakia are top, and guaranteed at least a playoff place, but second-placed Slovenia are only two points behind, with equivalent goal difference, and in their last game should comfortably beat San Marino, meaning that Slovakia really have to win away in Poland, otherwise Slovenia will leapfrog them to an automatic qualifying spot. Realistically, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic now have no chance of qualifying.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Salkantay Practicalities

As someone who was basically in pretty bad shape by the end of day 2 of a standard backpacking trip, you might not think I have much advice to give about trekking in the Andes. However, I've learnt that being properly equipped and prepared could have made my previous expeditions more comfortable, and will be essential if I'm to move on to more challenging ones in the future. So it's worth reflecting briefly on some of the things that either helped or hindered me in my recent Andean adventures.


The coldest point on the Salkantay trek was after dark when we set up camp at around 4,000 metres on the pampa called Huayracmachay (in Quechua this means -- I think -- "drunken wind"). I was clothed in what reads like a promotion for New Zealand outdoor brands (made in China):

(extremities) Icebreaker hat, Icebreaker wool gloves, mid-weight Icebreaker trekking socks
(bottom) Icebreaker 260 long johns, Kathmandu nylon pants
(top) Kathmandu polypropylene long-sleeved top, Icebreaker190 long-sleeved top, Icebreaker 260 zip neck sweater, and Outdoor Research Credo soft shell jacket (the only non-NZ item, still Chinese made).

That was just about warm enough when I was hovering outside the tent for an hour or so waiting for Gelmond to ingeniously put together our dinner. The long johns made a big difference. It's difficult to judge temperature, but I think we were around mid single figures (Celsius), while the next morning there was plenty of ice on the tent. The town of Juliaca, at a similar altitude, frequently gets down to around -10 at the time of year, so that gives you some idea. Any more time at this temperature or colder, and you'd definitely want at least a mid-weight fleece to throw into the mix, and maybe a down jacket, though the latter may be overkill unless you're actually mountaineering.

The rest of the trek I wore a polypro top, the 190 Icebreaker, and the jacket. Even above 3,500 metres, it gets up to 15--20 degrees Celsius in the daytime during the dry season, so that was plenty, apart from when we stopped for around ten minutes at 4,600 metres at the top of the pass. After walking about two hours downhill on day two, I stashed the jacket, a convoluted process with the the tent tied to the top of my pack (see 'pack', below), meaning I couldn't easily get it back out. In hindsight, I should probably have removed one of the lower layers, as I got pretty chilled in the wind when we sat around for nearly half an hour talking to the señora in Chaullay.

While on the topic, I have to put in a plug for the versatility and all-round goodness of my 190-weight Icebreaker tops (thanks Mum!). Down at Hugo's Lodge in the ceja de selva, daytime temperatures are in the mid to high-20s Celcius in winter, and the sun pumps out heat. But if you give into the temptation to hang out in a t-shirt, you will end up like Karina or Walter, who after 1--3 months at the lodge looked like they had been subjected to torture, their arms covered in a maze of scars and welts. The mosquitos are thirsty. (Spend enough time there, and you will eventually become like Hugo or Alan, who still get bitten, but who are now "acclimatised" and no longer come out in welts).

I have sensitive skin and am a bit of a wimp, so long sleeves were the only option. Yet my icebreakers kept me comfortable and relatively cool through the heat of the day. They were also great as a light layer over a t-shirt around Arequipa, where the mornings and evenings are cool. In fact, I probably wore one my two 190-weight tops every single day of my travels. Which was allowed by what may be the most important single feature of merino: it doesn't stink.


As noted in my posts on trekking Salkantay, I ended up with a large blister by the end of day two, which is basically crippling and would be dangerous if one were any further from civilisation. Why did this happen? At the time I tended to blame the pressure created by the poor weight distribution of my pack. Others have opined that the boots are probably to blame. And a little reading suggests that light liner socks can help by making the outer sock rub against them rather than your skin. Probably all of these things were factors, although I've gone on long treks previously in the same boots and didn't get blisters. Making sure this doesn't happen again is obviously a priority.


I probably said enough in my posts on the Salkantay trek to make clear that my pack was not appropriate for heavy backpacking. Apart from the weight distribution, it only has two compartments, meaning there's no easy way of separating out things you need to take in and out regularly. Once we had tied the tent on to the top of the pack, it was difficult to get anything out without untying all the rope. This was obviously problematic, as even a simple thing like putting away or taking out my jacket was an ordeal. Mine was the only camera, and Hugo became very frustrated when he thought there were great scenes that ought to be photographed for his promotional material and I was taking an age to extract the camera from the top of the pack. Eventually I had to hand the camera over to him to carry on his belt.

Sleeping bag

Before going on the Salkantay trek, I decided to hire a sleeping bag in Arequipa, being sure that my flimsy summer bag would not hold up to sleeping anywhere above 3,000 metres. I went to hire it off Ulises, the owner of the Casa La Reyna hostel and principal gear hirer in Arequipa. Ulises wasn't around when I went to pick it up, and the bag that he had told the attendant to direct me to was an enormous old synthetic bag. I managed to pair it with a stuff sack that had buckles and straps, but even once all these were tightened to the maximum, the whole thing made a very bulky package which I could only just squeeze into the bottom compartment of my pack. It kept me warm enough during our night at 4,000 metres, but would have added quite a bit of weight and also took up a ridiculous amount of space. Both Hugo and Gelmond had compact little bags that were about half the size of mine and which they claimed were warm enough for their purposes.

General accoutrements

The one item which I was most pleased to have and which sparked appreciative envy among my friends and acquaintances, was the Black Diamond headlamp lent to me by my older sister (thanks, Terri!). When I was staying at the Oasis in the Colca Canyon, as people stumbled around after sunset with weak flashlights, I flicked on the headlamp and the whole area was bathed in dazzling white light. It was so powerful it was almost embarassing; I had to leave it switched off unless I was going somewhere or someone specifically requested it (which they did on several occasions). The advantages are obvious compared to stumbling along with a dim hand held flashlight, as I'd mostly done on previous trips.

What I would do differently

This bit doubles as "advice for people thinking of going trekking and generally hanging around in the Peruvian sierra".

1. Obviously, a decent pack is a sine qua non if one wants to do any serious trekking. Ironically, I have done quite a bit of trekking in the Andes, but this was the first time the limitations of my backpack were truly exposed. On other occasions, I'd either got away with a day pack ( Colca Canyon 2 and 3 days), or had taken light loads in the large pack on the 'blitzkrieg'-style ascents of the volcanoes around Arequipa (2 days 1 night, you generally carry only water, crampons and your camera), or had been supported by mules and / or porters (the Inca Trail, Cabanaconde-Andagua). The same conditions will hold for 80% of the trekking you do in Peru, but if you ever want to be more independent, or go somewhere the mules won't, a proper pack is a must.

2. Apart from the pack, the single key thing I am getting for Peru next year is a pair of comfortable, highly breathable trekking shoes. They need to be really strong and robust enough to handle really rocky trails, along with a bit of mud, but do not need to be waterproof, in fact prerferably should not be. Shoes and boots are the most annoying thing to carry around, and this is something I've struggled with in the past, at times having up to three pairs for different purposes. I'm aiming to only take one principal footwear item next year, which should be appropriate for 95% of conditions and which I should happily want to wear every day.

My current boots are admittedly a cheap variety, but every time I've used them I've been absolutely hanging out to get them off at the end of the day. In hindsight, I haven't needed boots for almost anything I've done in Peru. The thing about all the ancient cultures is that they've created trails all through the mountains, smoothed over by llamas and, more recently, mules. Most places you go, the way will be fairly broad and comfortable, with rocks and dust the main obstacles. In addition, it doesn't really rain between May and September (or between March and December if you're in Arequipa). Ok, so you need boots for actual snow-and-ice mountaineering and if you're going to be carrying a very heavy pack, but in my view boots are not necessary for the traditional Inca Trail, Colca Canyon, Salkantay, or even El Misti.

3. It's worth upping the warmth quotient, as long as you're not adding too much bulk. A cheap and easy way to do this is to take advantage of an abundant local resource: alpaca wool. As soon as I get back to Peru, I'm going to get myself a nice quarter-zip alpaca top for around 50 S/. (approximately $25 NZD) from one of the shops in Arequipa. Yes, those shops are full of lots of silly fluffy sweaters with prancing llamas, but go to the next price range and there's some nice garments there. The Incalpaca or Michell outlets are another option if you're prepared to pay a bit more. There is no alpaca equivalent of Icebreaker in terms of design or quality control, but in theory at least, alpaca is as strong and is 30% warmer by weight than merino.

Also: do not despise the chullo. You might think you will look like a peasant or a tourist wannabe , but with its full ear coverings and thick alpaca wool, a decent one will give you warmth that your fancy brand-name beanie can't dream of.

4. The sleeping bag I'm not sure about. If you're doing a lot of serious trekking and mountaineering in Peru, a down bag with a low temperature rating is a good fit, given down's superior warmth for weight in dry cold. However, such sleeping bags are very expensive, in fact pretty much the most expensive item you'll have (up to twice the cost of a backpack, quality boots or a nice jacket). That isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (you get what you pay for), but it is off putting for me because I find that having too much valuable stuff is a distraction, preventing me from being more relaxed and integrated in an environment where loss or theft is a constant risk, added to
my existing tendency to lose or damage things. This is less of an issue where I'm using something all the time, so if something goes wrong "at least I got my money's worth", but in the case of sleeping bags, I'm a confirmed camping wimp and will generally find lodging in a village if at all possible rather than camp.

In summary, worth getting if you're definitely going to be doing significant high-altitude trekking and mountaineering, and maybe not if you're like me and in the mode of: "I'll climb Ampato if I someone will go with me but otherwise settle for something else".

5. While I'm in a brief phase (relative to my lifespan) of being economically comfortable, I'm phasing out most of my polyproplyene in stuff in favour of merino. I've already got myself an ultralight, 140-weight, light-coloured long sleeve top (which, interestingly, Icebreaker has dubbed the 'Inka'), which will probably be the only thing I'll wear next time I'm in the ceja de selva or the jungle proper. I also plan to get a down jacket (with a hood) at some stage, and would be more motivated to do this if Wellington didn't spend so much of the time in the boring temperature range of 8--15 degrees Celsius.

I've also got myself some liner socks and plan to get more. Another thing on the list is a cap made from synthetic material: a cotton cap soaks up sweat like no tomorrow as you plough uphill in the sun and can leave you chilled if the wind gets up, or just clammy.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

To the Devil's Cave

The first time I heard the story in the previous post was from Lizbeth's brother Yamil, sitting eating breakfast in the Valle del Fuego in Cabanaconde and plugging him for contacts who could tell me more "ghost stories of the sierra".

Yamil has something of a fascination with things supernatural and was an enthusiatic informant. Among his tales of phantom figures and strange energies, he outlined the odd case of Señor Mendoza. "Why don't you look for the schoolteacher Rogelio Falcon", he advised me. "It was his father-in-law that disappeared"

Later that day I went looking for Rogelio. Yamil had told me that his house was close to a comedor half a block from the plaza, but when I asked in that place, they directed me to a street across the other side of the plaza. While I was poking around there, nervous about intruding on someone's private property, a an elderly señora appeared and I asked her about Rogelio.

"That young man there can take you to him, that one going into the shop", she said, pointing way back across the plaza to a figure that with my much younger eyes I could only just make out.

I wandered across and hailed the guy whom the señora had indicated. Lucio was another teacher at the local secondary school, who was originally from the Tacna region. He nodded in recognition when I explained that I was interested in the disappearance of Señor Mendoza. His understanding of the story was similar to Yamil's, although he added a few more details.

We wandered through the streets of Cabanaconde looking for Rogelio; he wasn't at either of the residences that Lucio knew of, but eventually we tracked him down coming out of the school. Rogelio was tall and lean, maybe in his late forties. He was happy to retell the story of his father-in-law and answer my questions. I have to say, I was taken by how amenable people were to a stranger, a gringo even, appearing at random to enquire into the intimacies of local families .

I shouted Rogelio and Lucio a coke, and we went to sit down in the school yard to talk. Rogelio was sceptical about local tales of ghosts and demons, saying they were "things our grandparents talked about, from when there was no electricity and they took fright in the dark". He didn't really think the devil had lured his father-in-law into the wilderness, either, although he swore that the figure of the devil was clearly marked on the hillside above where they had found the señor. "When we went up there in the morning and found him, the devil was there, plain as day", he assured me.

I was intrigued by the whole story. "Why don't we go up there", suggested Rogelio, as if reading my thoughts. We agreed that we would take a trip up to the devil's cave on Friday, after I had come back from my trek down to the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. I enlisted Yamil to go along as well. Yamil was eager, but nervous. He insisted that if we went, we should aim to arrive at 3 o'clock sharp in the afternoon. This was the holiest time of the day -- the hour Christ died -- and would counteract any malignant powers that might be present.

Friday came around, and to my mortification I had drifted so far into "Peruvian time" that I missed my rendezvous with Rogelio at the school, but I eventually tracked him down. We went to pick up Yamil, who was a little jumpy. He showed me a handful of coca leaves that he was carrying in his pocket as a source of good energy. Then he reached into his other pocket and pulled something out. "Here, Simon, take this", he said. He handed me an entire bunch of garlic.

We walked for maybe forty minutes uphill and west from the village, through the chacras where animals were grazing, on a route which headed up towards the slopes of Hualca Hualca. Near a big rock off to the left of the pathway, Rogelio stopped. "That's where we found my "father-in-law", he explained.

He also pointed out the shape on the hillside that was supposed to be the devil. But to his bemusement, it was no longer very obvious at all. We stood for about five minutes, changing our position and craning our necks, but try as we might, we couldn't see any configuration on the hillside that really looked like the devil.

Our next step was to climb up to the cave itself, but Rogelio said he was going to go back. He pointed out a trail that ran along the hillside across the other side of a stream, explaining that it was an interesting walk that went near an Incan archeological site; he was going to head that way, and if we took that route now we would just make it back to the village before nightfall.

We said goodbye to Rogelio and he started back. "I think he was afraid", said Yamil. Or maybe he had just got sick of playing the tourist guide and wanted to get home.

As we started off towards the cave, Yamil produced a battered packet of tobacco from his pocket. "You know how to roll these?", he asked. "Sure", I said looking a little bemused. "Well, can you roll one?", he said, handing me the packet. Tobacco smoke would ward off the malignant spirits as we got closer to the devil's lair, he assured me. I went along with it for the first few puffs, but then handed the cigarette over to Yamil. Scrambling up a hill at 3,500 metres above sea level is taxing enough as it is.

When we got up to the top, we found that there was not one, but several, possible "caves". One was a wide, shallow cleft in the hillside at ground level. There, we found clear evidence of a pago a la tierra, an offering to the earth. There was an empty bottle of wine and other items strewn on the ground, ticker tape of the kind thrown round at carnival hanging from the rock, and in the centre of the opening, a large gob of a waxy substance -- llama fat. In front of the cave was a broad flat stone that looked like it might have been artifically smoothed. From what I've learnt later, this probably served as the mesa or table of the curandero who performed the pago. Around a bend in the rock to the left, was a little pile of animal bones, which from later information I'm guessing were rabbit bones.

Up the rock face to the right was another cave-like opening, narrower and deeper. We scrambled up there, but didn't find anything of particular interest.

Yamil wandered back and forth, scrutinising his surroundings like a professional mystic. "On this side, there's nothing evil", he opined. "I just feel...power". He wandered up and peered at the llama fat. "This place has strong energy", he nodded sagely. "I think this isn't llama's the fat of a vicuña". I grunted sceptically. Yamil walked round to the side with the rabbit bones. "Oh, I don't like it here", he reported. "This is malign".

We took photos of the hillside at various distances, on the way up and the way down. Eventually, at middle distance, I became convinced that I saw the figure of a face. Meanwhile, Yamil was discovering various creatures and demons appearing at various places in the hillside. We struggled to point them out to one another, but it seemed we were seeing different things.

We only had about half an hour of daylight left, so we decided to head back to the village. Back in Cabanaconde, we downloaded the photos, zoomed in, zoomed out. The photo at the top of this post seems to clearly show a face, if not a demonic one. As we zoomed in on the pictures we had taken inside the higher-up cave, Yamil began to discern a number of details in the rocks around where I was crouched posing for the photo: a grinning cat-like demon here, the face of a soul in torment there.

Yamil was excited by the images that appeared in the photos. "This is a genuine discovery", he assured me. "We can take tourists up there". I was amused, but skeptical. Look long enough at a rocky hillside, and you'll find anything you want, I reasoned.

Yet, when I've shown people the image at the start of this post, they've spotted the "face" almost immediately. A couple who I've shown the upper cave photos to have also spotted the "soul in torment" without too much trouble.

Strange forces at work on the mountain, or figments of overworked imaginations? What do you think?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Señor Mendoza and the Devil's Cave

Señor Mendoza disappeared without warning, in the middle of the night, from his home in the village of Cabanaconde.

His family, including son-in-law Rogelio, a teacher at the local secondary school, searched for him throughout the town and the surrounding fields. But their searches were fruitless: after two days and two nights, Señor Mendoza was still missing.

A call was made to inform Señor Mendoza's daughter, who lives in Spain. The daughter, fearing for her father's life, went to consult a local curandero. The curandero did the required rituals, and then told her:

Your father is not dead. He is in the same place where they have been looking for him. They should send the night praying, and scattering holy water, and in the morning they should look again in the same place.

This message from the Spanish curandero was communicated to the searchers back in Cabanaconde, who did as had been instructed.

The next morning, they went out early to search again, on a pathway through the chacras up towards a place called Puqio. There, about forty-five minutes from the village, they found Señor Mendoza huddled under a big rock, below an opening in the mountainside which locals know as the Devil's Cave.

"At first we thought the devil had taken him", says Rogelio. "Now we think maybe he just wandered off in a coma. The place we found him was below the devil's cave, well below. And he he'd walked quite a long way to reach the path, from where he had been on the mountainside. That's where we found his glasses and his blanket".

"But it's true that where we found him, the devil is marked in the rocks of the hillside above. In the morning when we went up there, you could see the form of the devil, plain as day".

Maybe Señor Mendoza had just been absent-mindedly sleep walking. But somehow he survived on the barren hillside, without food or water, for three days and three freezing nights

What is true is that when they brought him back to the village, his wife showed her relief by scolding him: "What were you thinking?", she asked. "Why did you wander off like that and lose yourself in the wilderness?"

The old man looked at her strangely. "But why do you ask?", he said, "when it was you who took me there".

Señor Mendoza insisted that his wife had led him into the wilderness. When he had tried to walk back, she had blocked his path and wouldn't let him leave.

After that, for about a month, the señor kept getting up in the middle of the night and trying to leave the house. His wife, his daughter and son-in-law had to watch out for him, and restrain him when he tried to wander off.

This continued until the family contacted a local curandero. After ascertaining the reasons for the old man's restlessness, the curandero took him back up to the place where he had been found. The curandero performed a ceremony called a pago a la tierra, involving an appropriate mix of plant and animal offerings to the earth. After that, the señor was cured, and he once again slept soundly at night time.

"The curandero said he had left part of his soul out on the moutainside", says Rogelio. "We had to go out there and bring it back".

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: Third Entry

Into the Valley

Once he woke up, Gelmond did well again, nimbly preparing another meal on his stove, while the light faded in pink washes over the mountains and we shivered as the air sank off the icy slopes above us.

Next morning, I was woken by Hugo and Gelmond chatting in the tent next door. It was still dark, so I buried my head in the pillow and tried to continue sleeping, until I heard the sounds of gear being packed, and voices loudly speculating that they might just carry on and leave Simon in the campsite.

I crawled outside to find ice on the tent, and Hugo and Gelmond nowhere near as advanced with packing up as I had thought. They swore they had heard a huge boom shortly before 5am, presumably a chunk of ice separating itself from one of the glaciers. Hugo said he had taken the somewhat contradictory steps of counting down the average nineteen seconds one has before being swept away by an avalanche, and unzipping his sleeping bag to be ready to make a run for it.

I'd put in earplugs during the night to drown out the annoying drone from Mountain Lodge's diesel generator, and hadn't heard anything.

After breakfast, we retraced our steps from the evening before. It was only fifteen minutes walk downhill before the cold started to dissipate and the trees reappeared.

We gradually wound our way down the valley, the vegetation turning lusher, orchids and bromeliads throwing splashes of colour through the trees. Whenever we found a property with space that looked suitable for camping, we sought out the resident señora to discuss the possiblity of working with us in the future.

Hugo's conversation with each local smallholder went something like this: "Listen, I've got a hotel near Santa Teresa, and I'm going to operate the Salkantay trek. I'll bring groups. You should put some sort of table there; use stones for seats so the tourists can sit down. Whatever you do, don't sell your place. Improve, invest. Is that a kitchen you've got there? We'll bring supplies and cook here; how much do you charge? Do you have mules? Definitely don't sell. Hey, you don't want to sell that bit to me, do you? How much do you want?"

The nicest place we saw was Los Andenes, where the local residents had cleaned up and improved ancient pre-Incan terraces that descended in orderly layers to the river, beautifully flat with soft grass, a camper's dream. But by the time we got down to the most popular camping spot at Challuay, Hugo had promised his close collaboration with at least four different families.

At Chaullay we had an extended conversation with the resident señora, who explained that, as elsewhere, tourists could camp for free in exchange for buying something at her shop, or leaving a small donation.

She explained that the residents of the entire route, from Mollepata to Playa Sahuayaco, have formed the Cooperative of Alto Salkantay. The Cooperative advocates for the community and tries to ensure a common front, for example requiring that mules be charged out at no less than S/. 30 per day.

Ten minutes away across the river was the third in the chain of Mountain Lodge hotels. The señora said that the locals felt cheated because they had sold the land to a Peruvian, who had on-sold it to international investors. She said gravely that the relations with the Mountain Lodge people weren't very good, and that there "could be problems". It seemed that there had been all kinds of promises made, such as bringing electricity and building a school, which hadn't yet been delivered on I was having visions of another interesting development studies case study, but we had to move on.

Hugo's contribution was to sing the praises of the Pelton wheel, which his brother Alan had installed at Hugo's Lodge, and which powers the whole property using only the power of falling stream water. He told the señora about a second-hand Pelto that he knew of, going cheap. "You can generate your own electricity", he assured her. He promised to bring her tourists as well.

Another hour, and we prepared lunch in another pleasant grassy area beside a farm house with a shop, pigs and dogs, before heading off on our final stretch. The route on the way to the village of Playa Sahuayaco ran past some basic hot springs at Collapampa, where we dithered for a while. We had heard rumours about a road that descended from this point, and Hugo in particular sniffed the chance of a smoother, more rapid journey to Playa -- though everybody we asked insisted that the road was no quicker than the traditional mule trail.

Across the river above the hot springs there was indeed the end of a road, but the only way across was a 'bridge' of flimsy tree trunks stacked loosely, a couple of metres above some vicious rapids. While we were lingering, some locals came down from the road and stepped gingerly across. But I couldn't see us finding any way to cross with our heavy backpacks. It just wasn't worth risking death for a dubious time saving. We learnt later that there had been a locals had knocked down a more substantial bridge, to stop motor vehicles usurping the arrieros' traditional business carrying cargo up the valley.

It was only day two of the trek, but by mid-afternoon some of us had begun to fray around the edges. Hugo had declared, not without some pride, that he was "completely unprepared" for the trek. He had chortled at my and Gelmond's modern gear: his only nod to convention was a nice soft shell jacket, which he combined with cotton t-shirts, jeans, and a backpack best suited for daytripping. When it got cold at night on the pampa, he begged to borrow my chullo to warm his head. To take his share of the load, Hugo had agreed to carry the 4-man tent. Without enough space in his pack, he carried it along under his arm, and unsurprisingly lost his balance and slipped several times on the way down from the pass. On day two he somehow manged to stuff the tent inside his backpack, which meant that he at least stayed upright.

He also sang the praises of his boots, which he claimed had lasted eight years after he picked them up second hand for a pittance. But as fine a job as they might have done, the Salkantay trek was a bridge too far. On the second morning Hugo noticed that a hole had appeared in the bottom of one boot, and by lunchtime the whole sole had collapsed in. He began to hobble a little, and his feet got wetter with each stream we crossed.

For my part, I was embarassed to find that a large blister had developed on my right foot. Surely my feet weren't that tender -- and weren't my thick, soft, $35 Icebreaker trekking socks supposed to protect them? The best I could do was blame it on the pressure resulting from my backpack's poor weight distribution. To my chagrin, I had to admit Hugo had been right to make us skip the first day of the trek.

The afternoon wore on, and the trail seemed never-ending, rising and falling alongside the river as the countryside slowly became flatter and more civilised. We asked the arrieros coming the other way about transport to Santa Teresa, and they shook their heads and said the least scheduled service left Playa at 5 o'clock. It was starting to look like we would have to spend the night in Playa, a huge disappointment after we had spent the day imagining hot springs and soft beds.

As the sky turned dark, Gelmond stirred himself for one last effort. He lengthened his pace, striding off around the bend and into the distance. I in turn slowed down a little to keep Hugo company, and winced each time the ball of my right foot bore weight and rubbed at its expanding blister.

Finally, with the path becoming flatter and smoother in the moonlight, we rounded a bend and saw twin points of light suggesting -- could it be -- a medium-sized vehicle. I ignored my blister and sprinted the last 200 metres to the village. There was indeed a waiting minvan -- Gelmond had made it just in time and had held up the kombi.

We climbed in gratefully. The twenty-five minutes ride to Santa Teresa was as rough and bumpy as you'd expect on any back country Peruvian road -- but for once, getting thrown around the inside of a minivan didn't give me any cause for complaint.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: Second Entry

Thanks to Our Four-Legged Friends

By the time we walked up from where the car left us to the start of the track, Hugo was red and puffing hard. I was outwardly in much less trouble, but during the gentle 100 metre walk I felt like I was carrying a pack filled with bricks. Without making further comment, Hugo turned left and carried on up a track to a small house with three mules standing around in front.

The negotiation for a mule was a complicated, three-way process. On the one hand, was the relatively simple matter of setting a price with the owner. More subtle was the game between Hugo, Gelmond and I to assign responsibility for getting the mule. "We need it to carry the tourist's backpack", shrugged Hugo to the arriero.

"My backpack?!", I spluttered. "Don't you mean you want the mule to take your backpack?". "What I have to carry, I carry", said Hugo, with a look for forbearance, as he recovered his breath. "I get there in the end".

"Well, I can carry what I need to as well", I insisted. "I'm not going to be the only one to need a mule".

And so it went round in circles, while the arriero waited patiently, until eventually all three of us admitted that we would be quite grateful to load our backpacks onto the back of the sturdy pack animal, and after sharing some tuna and bread with the arriero and his wife, we finally set off.

Without luggage, the three-hour trek to the top of the pass at 4,600 metres was comfortable, at least for Gelmond and I, although Hugo continued to huff and lag behind. The scenery was jaw-dropping: with each curve, we drew closer to the bulk of Salkantay, its jagged castles of ice hanging off the brutal rock faces.

At 4,300 metres we passed the arriero's camp, where the arriero's wife parked her mule to rest and take care of their young child until her husband made it back from the summit. Conditions in the camp were basic, and the local practice of wearing sandals a stone's throw from the snowline made me wince -- but seeing the grins of the arrieros and their families as they relaxed en route beneath the towering cordillera made the term "poverty" seem not quite appropriate.

We left the mule at the top, and it was here that things got a lot more uncomfortable for me. By the end of the trip I had decided firmly that my next investment would be in a proper trekking backpack. My Great Outdoors pack has served me loyally and been incredibly durable over twelve years, and countless trips by plane, boat, bus, train, minivan, taxi, motorcycle and mule. But it's not really designed to carry 25kg along mountain trails. The weight was distributed poorly and left me feeling top heavy, while the two-man tent tied to my back pulled and twisted my neck muscles. I made slow progress down the rocky but hardly threatening path, and got in an ever more petulant mood as the lack of sleep also took its toll.

In a small sheltered spot by a stream, Gelmond performed heroics to get his gasoline stove working and cooked us a solid lunch of rice and beans.

We trekked on through the sparse and frigid terrain of the pampa, passing a number of likely camping spots as well as another of the Mountain Lodge hotels, a rustic stone facade promising comfortable beds for those who could pay. I wanted to pick a campsite and crash as soon as possible, but Hugo was convinced we could carry on down to the "place where all the tourists camp". We asked a series of arrieros heading back the other way how far this was, and were told "an hour and a half". About an hour later, it was still "an hour and a half, before those leading the next mule train told us "three and a half hours".

Beyond the pampa, the valley narrowed and dropped, and thick swathes of forest reappeared along the gorge as the vegetation found shelter from the mountain winds. There was maybe forty-five minutes of daylight left when we found an enticingly flat looking stretch of grass next to a small shack. After calling out for a while to see if we could find who the property belonged to, a skirted señora appeared and told us it was abandoned. "But there's no water", she pointed out. "I let people camp at my place as well. I have water there. It's not far -- the first house on the left back up the hill".

I was keen to stay where where we were, but Hugo insisted that we had to "make contacts". So we headed slowly back up the hill. Hugo began to complain after five minutes, but it took another twenty, tortuously climbing, before we found the señora's property, back up on the frigid pampa, under the shadow of the glaciers.

We were all pretty beat, but Hugo and I set to pitching the tents, he efficiently, and I slowly and clumsily. As Hugo chortled at my wonky guy ropes, we were suddenly struck by something we hadn't experienced all day: complete silence. No matter how tough the going, Gelmond had made it his personal mission to maintain a continuous stream of conversation. He had flowed seamlessly between his many anecdotes of romance, reflections on the indiscipline of his younger brother, and history lessons about the tactics used by the Incas to subject other tribes to their rule.

At the end of the trip, as we sat exhausted at Hugo's Lodge sipping cups of tea, Gelmond launched into another dissertation on the correct way to prepare certain traditional dishes. Hugo said: "Gelmond. I bet you were never one of those guides that got reports that said something like: The guide didn't talk much. He didn't really explain anything to us."

On this occasion, we looked back up to the mound above us, from whence came only a gentle snoring. Gelmond was stretched out flat with his head on his backpack, sound asleep

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: First Entry

More than an intrepid adventure, the Salkantay trek was an opportunity for three guys who had seen better days to imagine themselves as having made a heroic journey, while being quietly thankful that it was all over quickly.

Now in probably the worst state of the three of us, in his youth Hugo had been easily the most daring, an ascent of precipitous, 6,000-metre Hualca Hualca his most impressive feat. Gelmond was the youngest and strongest, but was not close to being in the same shape as when he spent a year and a half as a trekking guide in Arequipa. For my part, some years ago I had managed to climb to the summits of Misti and Chachani and complete the epic Cabanaconde-Andagua trek in four days, but I'd lost a good deal of form since then.

For the record, Salkantay is a trek of staggering beauty and drama. The photos in this post give you some idea, but fall well short of capturing the experience of coming face-to-face with apu Salkantay, breathing distance from its monumental glaciers. The route follows a broad, easy path, drummed into shape by the hooves of several centuries of mule trains. The proximity of the ice also means that you're never far away from water, and can walk the whole way comfortably with a single water bottle.

No Sleep 'Till Salkantay

If the trek was always going to be somewhat testing with us carrying all our equipment, Hugo and Gelmond went out of their way to ensure that we were in the worst condition possible at the outset. While I was taking the bus from Arequipa to Cuzco, and snatching a little sleep on the bumpy descent from Juliaca, they spent Friday night prematurely celebrating "friendship day", which is quite a big deal here and was technically on the Sunday. When I arrived, they were groaning with hangovers, and insisted they had had even less sleep than me.

By midafternoon, the asprin and hamburgers had taken effect, we had bought most of our provisions for the trek. Hugo had taken possession of my bed, and had a decent nap while Gelmond and I went out to buy gasoline, matches and rope. Naturally, it was then obligatory for us to go out and have a few more drinks, to, um, I think there was a reason somewhere...

Around midnight, I dragged myself away from the bar, insisting that I had to get some sleep. I made it back to the hotel not long after midnight, but then spent almost the entire time until the alarm went off at 4:00 am tossing and turning fitfully, dreaming that I was being woken up to go on the trek.

When we finally dragged ourselves down to the street the next morning, it was 4:30 am and still pitch dark . We took a taxi to the corner where buses and colectivos leave for Mollepata. A few people and provisions were being loaded on to an ancient-looking bus, which we were informed would take around three hours to get to Mollepata.

"How about by air?", groaned Hugo. "Isn't there a flight?"

"This is the flight", said a voice in the darkness. A taxi driver appeared, pointing to his battered-looking Toyota Corrolla. We figured it was amuch better-value option and hopped in. Once in the car, travel plans underwent some rapid revisions. Mostly, trekkers doing Salkantay start from village of Mollepata, at around 2,800 metres. However, Hugo began negotiating a price to go all the way to Soraypampa, where the road ends at 3,600 metres, and which is normally reached at the end of the first day. Hugo thought that this stretch was an artificial extension of the route across the moutains, lacking distinctive scenery, and gratuitously added to make tourists spend more time walking.

I was skeptical: it seemed like cheating, and I had been set on doing some serious trekking. But my desire for hard core camping is almost entirely theoretical, and when Hugo started mentioning the possibility of hot pools and a soft bed within two days, my sleep-deprived body started to back up his arguments.

It wasn't hard to see why the taxi driver wanted to charges us more than double to Soraypampa. After Mollepata, the road was replaced by a bumpy track that should really only be travelled by 4WD vehicle. The Corrolla ground and bumped its way over ruts, and several times we had to get out and push. As we got higher, there were ever more spectacular view of Nevado Umantay, part of the same cordillera as Salkantay. By 9:00 am we finally arrived at Soraypampa, whose most notable feature is the Mountain Lodge hotel, a well-appointed dwelling funded by Chilean investors and aimed at those who pay several thousand dollars to end each day's trekking in the lap of rustic luxury.

We gazed in awe at the bulk of the cordillera towering above us, and dragged our bulky packs out the back of the Corolla.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Trekking Salkantay

Another brief "planned movements" post. Tonight I'm leaving Arequipa for Cuzco, where tomorrow morning I'll meet up with Hugo and Gelmond. The three of us plan to do the Salkantay trek, which is a moderately challenging walk through the back country of Cuzco, taking four days and ascending to 4,600 metres.

Salkantay is often presented as an alternative route to Machu Picchu for those who can't or don't want to do the traditional Inca Trail. The trail emerges from the bush not too far from Santa Teresa and Hugo's Lodge, but not close enough for Hugo's liking. The idea is therefore that we will try to find a "new route" that terminates close to Santa Teresa; Hugo will then convince agencies in Cuzco to programme this route and bring trekkers to his lodge for their third night.

We'll be by ourselves, without cooks or mules, and carrying all our own gear, although the first couple of days we will undoubtedly be following in the footsteps of other tour groups. I'm a bit nervous about the "exploring" bit, given that both Hugo and Gelmond tend to be a bit light on details (e.g food, travel time, etc) and make up for it by stoicly suffering the consequences. I'm a bit more of a wimp, so prefer to be better prepared.

This is going to be my trekking/climbing expedition of the trip. My ambition to climb a high mountain like Ampato is not going to be fulfilled. Time and logistics had pretty much ruled it out anyway, but the mild stomach upset I alluded to in the last post put the final nail in the coffin. I probably lost a couple of kilos over a couple of days, and if I wasn't quite in shape to make it to 6,400 metres previously, I was even less ready after getting sick. But with the element of exploration, this trek is in its own way just as adventurous.

Assuming that it all goes well, I should make it back to Cuzco by the 9th, and Arequipa by the 10th. A couple more errands to run in Arequipa -- among other things, I have to pick up my Universidad Nacional de San Agustin library card -- and then it will be to Lima to take my flight home after what seems like a ridiculously short time here.

It goes without saying that there are unlikely to be any posts for about five days, but I hope to at least have some interesting photos when I next post.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

And The Darker Side

Last Thursday in Ayacucho was a day of rather intense conversation, culminating in me contracting another annoying stomach upset, potentially from any number of sources, which flattened any plans I might have had for Friday.

In the early afternoon I visited the Museo de la Memoria, or ANFASEP as it is more commonly known, which is dedicated to the victims of the conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. None of the reported titles of the parent organisation quite match with the acronym: it is at least the Asociación Nacional de Familiares, but the most common spelling-out mentions Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos (kidnapped, arrested and disappeared) adding at least two missing 'd's, while the acronym appears to be stuck with a redundant 'p'.

Quibbling aside, ANFASEP can best be summed up as the Peruvian equivalent of the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared. It was first formed in the early 1980s by a group of brave mothers determined to get answers about the whereabouts of their family members who had been snatched from their homes or workplaces, as the state made a scorched-earth response to the Sendero Luminoso uprising. ANFASEP has grown and strengthened steadily through the years, playing a role in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the recent uncovering of the remains of torture victims at the military base of Los Cabitos, about 40km from Ayacucho.

As I was the only visitor apart from a young anthropology student from UF Gainesville who was doing a project on the museum, I was fortunate to be able to have an extended talk with the acting curator, the señora Maribel.

Later, I had a long chat with the señora Ana, who runs a cafeteria in Ayacucho's (to date) only Arequipan-style colonial patio dedicated to commerce and dining. After that, I finally got to meet Ana's mother Celina, who is an anthropologist and has spent years working in development projects with NGOs and government institutions in rural Ayacucho (many thanks to Yalivi in Brisbane for the contacts).

Past Reminders

Tuesday's tourist trip was so pleasant I was starting to create an excessively warm and fuzzy image of the region. Casual conversation with smiling, excessively polite guide Leo on the way back to the city corrected some of that impression. While the city and its surrounds at least have made a remarkable recovery in only a few years, the legacy of its dark past has not disappeared.

Leo said he came from a small village in the south of the department and was about 8 or 9 years old during the worst part of the conflict. At the time, there was basically no middle way between the Senderistas and the military. Any one who was suspected of cooperating with either group ended up dead. There was also the forced recruitment by Sendero Luminoso of children as young as ten or eleven years. The only alternative was to migrate. For Leo, that meant moving to the capital city of Humanga. Thousands of his compatriots travelled further: to this day, several bus services in Ayacucho run direct to the Lima barrios of San Juan de Miraflores and Ate Vitarte, linking with the large immigrant ayacuchana communities there. Leo's seven brothers and sisters are now spread out across various different departments of Peru.

According to Leo, people in the Ayacucho region continue to have considerable sympathy for currently imprisioned former president Fujimori. They see him as having played an important part in ending the terrorist uprising, as well as having personally visited the region and being "the one president to deliver what he promised". Certainly, the one of the most prominent of the many slogans painted on roadside and walls in the region is "Keiko 2011", referring to Fujimori's daughter's likely run for the presidency at the next elections.

Alan Garcia, on the other hand, is close to being in the unpardonable category. During his first term as president, as the Sendero Luminoso uprising was worsening, he is supposed to have said something like: "Ayacucho is full of terrorists; we should just bomb the whole place". I'll write more in another post, but this is the same demagogic, authoritarian streak which many see as ultimately responsible for the recent fiasco, and tragic loss of life, in the northern jungle.

The Musuem of Memory

The ANFASEP museum was on a street corner, in a basic, dimly lit adobe building marked only by the murals painted across its walls. On the first level was a small meeting room lined with school assembly-style benches, while above was a small gallery containing photos, descriptions, and contemporary retablos depicting incidents from the years of conflict. The slogan for the musuem was "so it never happens again". It was by turns sad, poignant, and horrifying.

Although the musuem commemorates victims of both the Senderistas and the military, it has an unashamed focus on those who were detained, kidnapped and disppeared, which were almost exclusively tactics used by the armed forces.

The señora Maribel introduced the displays to me by trying to put into context what happened when the army was called in to respond the the Senderista uprising. For her, the key was language. Unlike in the countryside of Arequipa or Huancavelica where the majority of the population are competent in Spanish, in rural Ayacucho, most people could only speak Quechua. They were thus unable to commuinicate with the army units that were sent to the region, who in turn suspected that the local populations were plotting against them or deliberately speaking in code.

She tried to put herself in the shoes of the young soldiers who were posted into the region during the conflict. "For them, it was like an adventure. But the kind of adventure that could go very wrong".

Maribel had been in the city of Humanga for the entire duration of the conflict. For those who, like me, only have a vague knowledge of the war, it's worth noting that the capital was never actually held by the Sendero Luminoso. However, the descriptions of life during the conflict make it sound rather Baghdad-like: curfews, rationed electricity, explosions in the night, constant fear.

Señora Maribel spoke of hearing an explosion as she was walking down the street one morning and seeing what looked like a "rag doll" fly through the air. It was an eleven-year old boy, recruited by Sendero Luminoso from one of the poor rural communities, who had presumably been on the way to depositing a bomb in some state agency. Trembling with nerves, he would have clutched the device too closely to his stomach, setting it off.

Our conversation diverged on to many other topics, including literature and politics. The señora Maribel was unimpressed with Mario Vargas Llosa, who she said had was "completely limeño" and had a hostile attitude towards Ayacucho, which he had apparently never visited when he was writing his novel Death in the Andes. The novel is set in Ayachucho during the civil war, but is best summed up as an elaborate evocation of costeño paranoia toward the sierra.

She also groaned at my comments of people retaining sympathy for Fujmori. Her account corresponded with my background reading: the defeat of the terrorists had little to do with the government's military response, and was largely owing to a small group of Lima-based police intelligence who had tracked down and arrested leader Abimael Guzman, around whom a cult-like following had developed.

She reiterated the paradox of the Shining Path: its radical Maoist ideology supposedly held that no one was indispensable, yet, after the arrest of Guzman, the whole organisation collapsed "like a pack of cards". She described how Fujimori and Montesinos had ignored and failed to provide support for the police intelligence efforts to track Guzman, but then rapidly tried to take the credit when they were successful.

The señora Maribel poured a little cold water on my comments that the city and its surrounds, at least, appeared to have made a remarkable recovery. "It's mostly on the surface", she said. One of things most lacking for ordinary people was decent health care. Señora Maribel explained that the much-vaunted Seguro Integral de Salud offered only the bare minimum and did not cover many medications or even such acute care as cancer surgery. She described a case of a campesina woman with thryoid cancer who had been unable to acess or afford appropriate medical care, and as a result this eminently curable disease (with generally at least a 95% 5-year relative survival rate) had turned metastatic and was now in its terminal phase. Needless to say, morphine and decent palliative care were not covered either.

Realities of Ayacucho

After the musuem, I stopped by Niñachay, the cafe run by the señora Ana. She met her Ukrainian husband (a quailifed teacher who speaks four languages) working on cruise ships in the Caribbean, and they had narrowly decided not to migrate to Adelaide in favour of staying in Ayacucho until their three year-old son got a little older.

Ana was a lot more at ease in Ayacucho than her husband, but assured me that there was "nothing here" for older kids and adolescents.

She also pre-empted my question about the economy by assuring me that there was "no industry" to compare with Arequipa and that the flashes of wealth around the city were in large part distilled from the compounds of the coca leaf. "Why do you think there are so many banks?", she asked, lowering her voice. She said that a few months previously there had been a group of American soldiers posted in Ayacucho, who had undertaken what she thought was a surveillance mission into the VRAE region. They had come and eaten at her cafe, because she spoke English.

After I ate lunch, Ana kindly gave me directions to her mother's house and called to say I was coming.

The señora Celina was now retired from full-time work had was working on a consultative basis for NGOs and other institutions. She had arrived back from a trip that morning, eight hours away to the south of the department. I sympathised with the journey across rough roads (six hours to or from Cabanaconde wipes me out) and asked if she had travelled by 4WD. A slow smile spread over her face and I corrected myself: "ah, no, by kombi". Working in development has a romantic ring to it, but it takes just one long, bone-jolting journey on Andean roads in public transport to appreciate the real commitment it must take to work for the sparsely-funded organisations to which the señora Celina had dedicated so many years.

Celina gave me a brief overview of the issues affecting the region. The reality for much of Ayacucho, especially the south, is of land without much water, where agriculture remains stuck at subsistence level, plots of land are tiny and scattered, and migration to the city is often the only way to get ahead. As with my previous interlocutors, Celina shook her head about the alluring flow of dollars from the illegal coca economy, with their ugly collateral of entrapment and violence.

I quizzed her on what policies could help the region move forward. The first thing that she mentioned was improved roads into the VRAE region, which would help develop the potential of alternative crops like coffee and cacao, and move the emphasis away from coca.

She also said that she had been working on a project plan for developing leadership among rural women, one of the areas that she saw as very important but that struggled to compete for a budget against more high-profile "ribbon-cutting" projects such as roads and bridges. Another area that could do with more support was reproductive information, which was in demand by campesina women. She said that there had been a big push for reproductive education and family planning in the past (under Fujimori, some of this had its own very dark side), but this had lost emphasis and resources.

She was skeptical of the government's Sierra Exportadora programme, which seems to have fizzled out, and was in any case, ironically directed mainly at crops that grow best on the coast. Instead, she gave props to the Sierra Emprendedora (entrepreneurial sierra) movement, a loose association of local groups aiming to promote the development and marketing of local products, rediscovering and enhancing traditional methods of production

For the development studies students, it's worth noting that you tend to get pretty similar answers when you ask these questions. Basic infrastructure, health and education services, development of skills and leadership -- especially for women -- and assistance for the kind of economic opportunities and market access defined by local people themselves in terms of what they feel they do best.

Even the leaders of the supposedly "radical" groups involved in the protests in the jungle were at pains to state that " we don't oppose investment as such". For all the tortuous philosophical debate about "post development" we engage in in universities, I'm not sure there's massive cultural differences in the things people want from the modern world. It's the human interactions required to achieve these objectives, and particularly the concession of power and resources, that seem to make the process so fraught.