Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Feast Fit for a Student

Who would have thought that the major achievement of my first week in Peru would be to put on a bit of weight?

A long and disorienting flight, the aforementioned brutal headache, a fifteen-hour bus ride to Arequipa; then, after just one day settling in, a 2am start, and three days in the Colca Valley: these are the kind of things that mean travel tends to make me skinnier. But in the last week, their cumulative effects have been firmly counteracted.

When I got to Arequipa, my first action was to flick some emails to the best and most helpful contacts that I made last year, asking them when would be a good time to stop by for a chat. The response from Alejandro, the director of the tourism programme at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, was almost immediate. He wouldn't be in the office because he was heading off to the Colca for the next couple of days with a couple of assistants, to do a survey commissioned by a university from Lima. I was welcome to join them.

At first it seemed as if Alejandro was going to be able to get a 4WD, but then he sent another message to say they were leaving on the 3:30 am public bus to Chivay. This was a good opportunity to make a start on some research-like activity, so despite my trepidation about the schedule, I hastened down to the bus station to get myself a ticket,

This meant I had to be "up" by 2:30am. This is almost the worst time of all to have a commitment. Too late to stay up for, too early to really get any sleep. Lingering in a sleep-like state from about 11:30pm, I dragged myself out of bed and down to the bus station, where I met Alejandro and his assistants Juan Carlos and Sharon. Bleary-eyed, we climbed aboard and braved the 3 hours to Chivay, including the nasty stretch between Vizcachani and Patapampa. This is a suspension-shuddering piece of highway that I'm told is due to a failed attempt at paving in around 2005, subject of dark rumours about poor materials and a kickback-deflated budget.

The good news was that our accommodation in Chivay was in a comfortable mid-range hotel with (sometimes) hot water, and, even better, we had access to the lunch buffet at a restaurant owned by the same woman as the hotel. My trips to the Peruvian sierra have usually meant lots of walking at altitude and meals of soup, potatoes and legumes. I come back lean and maybe a little stronger.

Not this time. Instead, fine cuts of meat, cheesy vegetable pie, and cake with mango soufflé were my repast. At lunch, I manfully lived up to Alejandro's expectation that we would all make five trips to the buffet table. This included a la carte service of soup and a main course: on Sunday all four of us chose what the menu charmingly, and sincerely, described as Alpaca Gordon Blue.

Task-wise, we spent Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday surveying the hotels and restaurants of the Colca Valley, grappling with survey questions established in Lima that were for the most part totally inappropriate for the largely informal and family-run businesses of the area.On Friday we jolted and bounced in an ancient taxi all the way to Cabanaconde, where I made a surprise visit to Lizbeth's family at the Valle del Fuego. On Saturday we "did" Chivay, went out for a couple of drinks, and at first enjoyed and then gritted our teeth at a concert across the road from our hotel featuring huayno singer Gisela Lavado (think Sonia Morales without the tuneful voice and melodic variety) which continued until 4:30 am. On Sunday, we took a more modern car to Yanque -- perhaps the most orderly and pretty of the villages in the Colca Valley -- and then to peaceful and sunny Coporaque, where the oldest chapel in the valley sits on Collagua foundations and a statue honours the Inca Mayta Capac, who formalized the area's subjection to the empire via marriage of one of his generals to the daughter of the local cacique.

Then it was back to Chivay for another stomach-bursting buffet lunch and the tiring ride back to Arequipa, with a delay due to a horrible-looking bus vs. 4WD accident that had recently occurred near Yura.

I got back to Arequipa last night and have been looking after the downstairs because Lizbeth has taken Gerardo to Lima for some dental attention and is meeting Hugo there.

This should involve me fending for myself, getting by on bread, cheese, yoghurt and coffee, and maybe frying an egg or two. However, no sooner had I arrived back last evening than the señora Gloria presented me with "my lunch" -- a large plate of chicken and rice. I had barely recovered from the four rounds of the buffet table in Chivay. This morning, when I had already eaten breakfast, Hugo's sister-in-law Erica appeared to announce that "my breakfast" was upstairs. I could hardly refuse. This afternoon, just as I was about to head out to get a sandwich in town, Hugo's niece Lia appeared with a plate of battered beef, tamales and rice sent down by her mother Vivian.

This was of course lovely of all of them, and I offered my sincere thanks. But the thing is, I don't think this was just good will. Rather, my presence in the house, combined with the absence of Lizbeth or any appropriate domestic employee, created an anomaly that cultural logic just could not allow. It seems a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in Peru must be in want of a meal.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lima: This Year´s Thoughts

It's become something of a tradition for me to try to sketch out my impressions of Lima each time I arrive here anew: see the 2005, 2006 ,2007, and 2009 editions.

If anything, the city seems more relaxed, ordered and optimistic than it was a year ago. At least in the centre: I of course can't really comment about conditions in the pueblos jovenes on the margins. My traditional temperature guage -- the taxi driver on the way in from the airport -- was relatively positive about both security (the police have reportedly recently dismantled a number of kidnapping gangs), and the economy (there's been "a lot of investment").

Cetainly, the number of poster boards outside the municipal buildings showing "before" and "after" pictures of public works in the city has nearly doubled since last year. Quite a number of them involve the replacement of disastrously crowded t-shaped intersections with overpass interchange systems. This clears away the immediate chaos, (at least in the "after" pictures) but it's unclear whether they're part of any coherent overall plan. On the other hand, a number also involve the conversion of wasteland or chaos into green space. For me, this is crucial: public space is the underpinning of citizenship (maybe I can elaborate on this in a future post)

One of my life's ambitions is to gain some command of Lima's geography and negotiate my way along at least the main north-south routes by kombi and bus. On my last afternoon before taking the bus to Arequipa, I took a long walk from my hotel, near the church of San Francisco, to the Parque de la Exposición, which is about twenty blocks south.

I am now able to see how the whole central part of the city, at least from the Rimac river to the National Stadium, is a coherent piece of urban geography, packed with magnificent architecture, and riddled with historical sites, churches, museums, and locations from Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique novels. It's worth remembering that, despite basically being destroyed a couple of times, Lima was the centre of the Spanish empire for several centuries. In the Americas, probably only Bogotá and Buenos Aires can compare as historical urban centres.

You'd hardly know it, though, as central Lima is fragmented by incessant traffic, crumbling paving, and general insecurity outside the central four to six blocks. The past couple of municipal regimes have indeed done a lot to improve the centre from a virtual no-go zone, but it's still a matter of islands amidst the chaos. The boardwalk along the Rimac river is a pleasant public space (if you ignore the color of the water), while 20 blocks away the metropolitan and fine arts museums are being refurbished, both sitting adjacent to the surprisingly green, beautiful and tranquil Parque de la Exposición. Yet, it's a bit of an adventure even getting from one end of the centre to the other: just getting across a couple of the intersections requires a diploma in jaywalking Peruvian style.

In my view, it's the lack of a mass transport system combined with disdain for the lot of a pedestrian, more than the general insecurity, which means that tourists in Lima tend to either hole up in enclaves like Miraflores, or hop from point to point by taxi. I've braved journeys by kombi a couple of times in the past, but you kind of need to know exactly where you're going -- otherwise you can end up in one of the undesirable spots concerned citizens warn you never to go to, with little idea how to get out. If you're a traveller who has come to Lima and made your way easily around different parts of the city as one can do in Santiago, Buenos Aires, and even to an extent in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro (all blessed with metro systems), then I'm impressed.

However, the achievement level in this task may be about to diminish, and it may even become routine for tourists and newcomers to negotiate the city much as they would elsewhere. For Lima will soon see the inauguration of El Metropolitano.

El Metropolitano is partly based in Bogotá's system of guided busways, the Trasmilenio. The pamphlet from the Municipalidad de Lima boasts that it will be the first bus system in the world to be powered entirely by natural gas (making at least some local use of the fruits of Camisea), and will incorporate such modern features as electronic ticketing, disability-friendly access ramps, security personnel and real-time schedule updates.

The publicity says that what is currently a two-hour trip will be cut to one hour. That's not hard to believe when you see the jams of smoke-belching kombis at rush hour. But let's put this in perspective: while the Transmilenio is a city-wide network, Lima's equivalent will have just one main line, running north to south (total 32km), with a few short feeder lines running in at each end (total 26km). In the inevitable comparison with Peru's southern neighbour, it doesn't quite match up: Santiago has a city-wide bus system and a metro.

At least it's a start, though. Little by little, Lima seems to be progressing from the sub-Blade Runner reality of its recent past, to the vibrant, liveable place its history and national prominence suggests it ought to be.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Greetings From Lima

I've hardly had time to write on this blog at all in the recent past. Almost every minute seems to have occupied with some important commitment or another. So there has been no chance for a warning or lead-in: I simply have to announce that I'm writing this from Lima.

All going well, I should be in Peru for around 4 months, although I'll need to leave the country for a while before three months are up to comply with immigration requirements; at this stage it's most likely that I'll cross the frontier for a brief trip to Bolivia.

Some regular readers will know what the main purposes of the trip are. I'm unsure how much detail I'll be able to post on these, but at least hope to be able to update the blog regularly.

For now, I can reflect on a trip that from Wellington took approximately 24 hours, including time spent waiting at Auckland and Santiago airports. Maybe it's age, but this time it seemed less enjoyable and exciting and took rather more out of me than in the past. On the Auckland-Santiago leg I watched three and a half movies and hardly slept. The half, which I finished on the Santiago-Lima leg, was Pan's Labyrinth: I usually avoid 'serious' movies at 35,000 feet, but I'm really glad I eventually got to see it as it was a truly intense and moving film.

You have to be impressed with the Chileans. I wasn't aware of it, but apparently Santiago airport took a bit of damage in the recent earthquake, and half the international terminal was out of order. But they had everything running more or less smoothly with only eight available gates, and buses taking passenger to and from the planes. I'm also grateful for the fixed seats in the waiting areas that are more less amenable to exhausted passengers curling themselves up and sacking out for a few hours. I spent about two thirds of my nine hours in Santiago airport in this position.

After getting into Lima, I crashed, and despite hitting the sack at the 'normal' time of about 1:30 am, I slept and slept, through to nearly 4pm the next day. I got up in a bit of a daze, found something to eat, and then shortly afterwards the power on our block went out. By the time I finished my novel by the light of a battery-powered lamp on the hotel terrace, it was time for bed again.

This was when I discovered, as I had expected might happen even before the flight, that I had a steadily worsening headache. And I didn't have any panadol. I couldn't believe that I had neglected to buy some in the airport before leaving, despite idly anticipating this exact eventuality. I have a delicate head at the best of times, and the combination of low-oxygen cabins, sleeplessness, dehydration, and hours staring at a screen or a book in low light, was bound to play havoc with my pain receptors.

This was almost as bad as my worst hangover headaches: but while those could be relieved a little by lying very still with a wet cloth on my forehead, in this case the wet cloth did nothing and lying with my head back was the worst position; sitting up made it slightly better, but I couldn't stay that way all night.

Eventually I managed to achieve a little relief by lying on my stomach and bunching the pillow under my head. In this way I managed to fall asleep, and made it through till the sunlight and early morning traffic signalled it was time to make my way downstairs and round the corner to a pharmacy where I found panadol, a Coke, and blessed relief.

On the positive side, I may have beaten the jet lag a lot quicker than usual. I was up this morning by 8am, am still going reasonably strong now at 7pm, and hope to make it through to about 11, and then hopefully tomorrow will be up at a normal time. Of course, tomorrow night's bus trip to Arequipa could throw a spanner in the works.

However, never again will I travel anywhere without a supply of painkillers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gear for Tekking and Climbing: Footwear

This and subsequent posts could be subtitled "what I've learnt over the last little while". A while back, in one of my most rambling posts ever, I reflected on the shortfalls of various items of equipment in my last trekking trip to Salkantay. I realised that I would need to equip myself better for future adventures, if I wanted to enjoy and survive them. As my thoughts turned to Aconcagua, this became more urgent: if you don't have the right gear, they won't even let you start.

Over the last six months, I've gradually acquired many of the things that I need for outdoor adventures. Having undertaken a quite intensive process of research and learning about what to get and how to use it, I thought I would share some of what I've learned. As I've gone along, I've found the anecdotes, reflections and summaries on other people's web pages to be some of the most useful information: more honest than marketing descriptions; more accessible than technical reviews. Perhaps some of what I write here will be of use to someone else.

In this post, I'll cover one of the areas I realised I badly needed to fix after my last trip: footwear. But first, some of the general things I've learned.

General principles

The most important thing I've learned is that specialisation is your friend. Getting gear or clothing that is specifically designed for your planned conditions and activities will be repaid hundreds of times over when you're comfortable and competent in those conditions / activities. It may mean that you have to get more individual items, and, yes, perhaps spend a bit more. Trying to get something optimally versatile will likely mean that it will not be quite right for any specific circumstance. This doesn't mean you can't get things that are good for a range of conditions; it just means that it's usually not a good idea to compromise on quality or specifications because you want to cover all bases.

It's also true, to a certain extent, that you "get what you pay for". This does not always amount to a strict ratio of expense to quality. Sometimes, the extra expense of a very costly thing will be because it has additional features that you don't necessarily need for what you are doing. And in many cases, you can get things at the end of a line or in last season's colours, for considerably less than the previous price, and you can be sure that there's little if any quality difference. In other cases, you can pay a premium for details like fit in a garment, which might seem to be a stylistic indulgence, but can actually make a real difference to function, like shutting out cold.

Footwear experiences and recommendations

For hiking and tramping in New Zealand conditions and mountain climbing up to what I plan to do in Peru (daytime temperatures to around -10 Celsius, some non-technical crampon use across light snow and ice), I have a pair of Asolo full-grain leather wide model boots.

(The first link is to the backcountry.com page, which has a lot of reviews for something that seems to be pretty much the same boot as I have, but has a different serial number. The second link is to the exact model of my boots on the Bivouac site. I think the difference with the ones on backcountry.com is that my ones do not have a Gore-Tex lining and do have a specifically wider build.)

These are apparently very popular among New Zealanders -- we tend to have wider feet because we grow up running around without shoes on. Of the several that I tried on in shops, they stood out by immediately feeling "right" and not pinching my feet across their width. From what I've read elsewhere, this is a minimum standard that should be exercised by people purchasing trekking boots and other technical footwear. Although boots do get "broken in", you can't just expect them to mould to your foot after purchase, especially when they are specifically constructed to be rigid in certain areas.

On the other hand, you still need to take a careful approach to sizing. You shouldn't just go with what feels snug and comfortable in the shop like a nice pair of shoes. With boots, you are trying to balance two things:

1. You don't want your heel to be too loose and to lift up too much as you walk, since this is a recipe for blisters and can also affect maneuverability.
2. You don't want your toes to push too much into the front of the boots, because, well, this will destroy your toes.

Obviously, there is something of a trade off between these two desirable qualities. As a rule, when standing in an unlaced boot and pushing your toes all the way to the front, you should be able to fit an index finger snugly in between your heel and the boot. This should mean that when you are going downhill your toes will slide forward to touch the front of the boot, but not press into it. Many shops provide a little incline bench that you can walk up and down to test out footwear.

If in doubt, it's better to be a little on the large side than the small side. First, your feet swell up when you walk. Second, you may want to add more layers of socks in colder conditions. The bottom line is that you can compensate for boots being too big, but not for them being too small.

I've worn the Asolos on several multi-day tramping trips now and am pretty satisfied. As someone who has always avoided boots, I can't believe how comfortable they are. They are probably no hotter or more constricting than most pairs of shoes I've had, and I feel happy to sit around with them on before or after trekking.

I've worked out a system for lacing: when I'm going to be heading mainly uphill, I lace relatively loosely, which reduces the pressure of my heels against the rigid back of the boots. When I'm going to be heading mainly downhill, I lace as tightly as possible so my toes don't push forward too much. So far, I have not come close to getting a blister, although I have definitely felt heat and pressure at certain points. On steep terrain carrying up to 18kg, this may be unavoidable. On several occasions my trekking companions have had blisters despite taking reasonable care with their footwear.

I go with a liner sock / midweight trekking sock combination and find it works well. I tend to run hot and sweat a lot. Either my (expensive) merino or (cheap) synthetic liner socks do a good job of passing that moisture on to the outer layer.

I can't speak to the durability of the Asolos yet, since I've only had them six months or so, but they do get a good rap for this from the past users. They don't have a rubber "bumper bar" over the whole front of the toe like some boots, which is probably good in terms of reducing weight, but it means the leather takes a bit of a hammering. I was a bit disconcerted after my first trip to the Tararuas to find that there were quite a few little chips and nicks in the leather, but after a couple more trips these just seemed to have blended into the surface to form a generally "well-loved" look.

I have also been making an effort to take good care of my boots, and have cleaned and waxed them after every trip, while avoiding wearing them around town to save their soles. My father, who used to have to hound us to polish our school shoes once a week, would be astounded to see me cleaning off the mud with a toothbrush, then lovingly applying leather conditioner and wax. The task is made more pleasant by the fact that natural beeswax smells quite nice and can be applied and rubbed in with your fingers.

For everything else, I've got a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator trekking shoes. These work well for people like me who feel that they'd really just rather wear their running shoes everywhere, from formal occasions to the tops of mountains. The Ventilators have a mesh-dominated upper, and are close to being as cool and breathable as a pair of regular sneakers. The fact that they are a bit heavier and warmer is due to the extra padding, rubber reinforcement around the toe and heel, and tank-like Vibram soles which means that these shoes actually are appropriate for traipsing up and down mountainsides.

I now wear these around most places and expect them to be good for both the hot asphalt and rough, dusty trails I should soon be encountering in Peru, while also coping with long trips in buses and airplanes and plenty of sitting around writing at a computer.

Originally, I had bought a pair of the Ventilators' cousins, the Pulse II. This has the exact same footbed and sole, but a considerably sturdier upper. This was based on a recommendation by my sister Cecilia's boyfriend Mark, who said he wore them around everywhere, including outdoors in Florida. I guess I run hotter, because it took just one 25-degree afternoon in Wellington for me to decide they wouldn't quite do. Fortunately, the shop let me take them back and exchange them for the Ventilators.

For Aconcagua, I will need to get a pair of double plastic climbing boots that are sufficiently warm to cope with temperatures down to -30 Celsius. So far, I've been able to ascertain that pretty much nowhere in New Zealand carries a range of these boots. When I figure that one out, I'll write an update.