Sarah & Brian

Retired and travelling together from the North of England

Toucans before breakfast or Spiders in the bathroom

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 5:46 am  Ecuador  Comments Off on Toucans before breakfast or Spiders in the bathroom
Oct 232011

We trekked through the rain forest, assailed by the threat of poisonous snakes, lethal frogs and red termites, tarantulas and spiny trees, breathing the hot humid air and shadowed by the canopy, unable to see through the thick vegetation on either side if there were hostile tribes or jaguars prowling. In fact, we were being safely led by a local guide down a track – not a path, we did have to scramble over fallen trees and avoid the mud and the  vines –  and learning about the hazards and the marvels of Amazonia. Our eco lodge was by a tributary river, in a large protected reserve in Ecuador, where the company can only rent the site and has to use local skills and staff.  I thought I was very brave when after being shown the tarantula large enough to eat a small bird on the thatched roof of our communal hut, I found another spider, luckily not with hairy legs, in our little bathroom. I only gave out a small scream.

The whole experience was wonderful. The guides were brought up in the jungle and were full of knowledge and enthusisam for this threatened ‘ green sea’. At night we stood in the dark, torches off, and listened to the symphony of insect and amphibian life calling for their mates. Any one leaf might have 2 or 3 different insects on it. As we learnt, the significance  of bio diversity lies in this amazing variety of life. Scientific opinion is that the full range of species has not yet been seen, and moreover, never will be. We saw the tinest orchid ever discovered, hardly bigger than a blade of grass, the vine which produces poison for hunting but only if you know how to boil it down, the plants you can eat if you get lost. The Amazon is under constant threat as we know, not only from the oil industry but because once the roads have been cut for oil other industries follow, rubber, cattle, crops, cosmetic industry plantations. We saw the diffference as we came by bus to the edge of the reserve, travelling through ‘secondary forest’ which has partly  grown back but is ragged  and scarred by the industry and by new settlements.

The reserve is primary forest, full of life and not just the small type. We saw 3 of the 10 species of monkey, fished for piranhas – there is a photo to prove even I caught one – saw some of  the 500 species of birds early in the mornings,  including striped toucans, saw alligators lying in wait for their prey in the river at night and a rare sight, an anaconda with its belly extended enormously. You could see the bulge lying in shallow water and a few inches away its small head just above the water. It only eats every 6 months and perhaps had a whole wild pig in there.

The butterflies and moths delighted  us too. Everywhere in all sizes, many of them huge, and brilliantly striped and patterned, they wove all through the air around us. One special one has wings of iridescent blue and stitches the air without stopping, so you can never see it clearly or photograph it, just catch its flashes of colour as it wings past.

In this dry season, the lake was nearly empty so we could stand on its floor in places. But this part of the forest is half flooded when the rains come early in the year, and then the intense activity of its life, and the importance of the canoes which form its transport method,  is even greater. The real hazard then is the electric eels which can kill with one shot of their massive voltage and can not be easily seen in the water. Indigeneous tribes have natural remedies for many things, for instance a moss which heals wounds as it contains haemoglobin , but there is no remedy for an electric eel.

So back to Quito and then onto Colombia.

One bus, two bus, three bus, four.

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 10:12 am  Peru  Comments Off on One bus, two bus, three bus, four.
Oct 152011

From Lima north along the coast it has taken 3 days of bus rides to get into Ecuador. It is one long desert, with sandy mountains and barren vistas all the way, with a few settlements straggling in the dust and then two oasis towns to stop over in, Trullijo and Piura, They both had simple charms and the usual Peruvian passion for outdoor strolls, plazas to sit in and huge cathedrals in the central square. In the Andes the presence of the Catholic church is muted by the clear determination of the indigenous people to mingle it with their own faiths. Nevertheless, in one tiny village we saw a large church full of iconic figures of the saints, sheltered in their gold and silver niches, while the local people were living under corrugated iron in shacks. 

The last of the 3 bus rides took us up into the Andes again, but here in Ecuador the hills are green, covered in pastures and trees, and the villages have a pleasant almost Alpine feel, with cows grazing and charming houses perched on rocky ledges. So we liked Loja, a peacful highland town, where to live on the hill above town looks pleasant. Unlike in Peru, where in the places we saw, to be the folks on the hill means you have a tiny patch of land for your mud house and the permanent threat of a mud slide every time it rains. And the only access is up the long flights of concrete steps provided in random locations by the authorities.

Now we are in  Cuenca; it is so attractive a place that I have thought of staying. I could teach in the English school and spend my time dancing salsa outside at night, sitting under the trees in any number of lovely plazas, breathing in the scent and colour of the flower market, eating cheap and delicious lunches down by the river – but apparently if I do choose this option Brian is moving onto Quito the capital tomorrow on another lengthy bus ride. 

There is one other drawback to staying here. The presence of the church is almost suffocating; there are 2 cathedrals, plus many more grand churches and lots of candles, tributes, rosaries etc etc. Perhaps I would not fit in after all.

Altitude and Antics

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 8:19 am  Peru  Comments Off on Altitude and Antics
Oct 092011

It was a 15 hour overnight bus ride to Lima, down from the Andes to a huge city which at this time of year is under a permanently grey sky. But there is one great advantage to being here. It is down. Down from the heights. In Cusco you are at 1100 feet; then on the islands in Lake Ttiticaca it is 12,800 and at Colca Canyon to see the condors do their morning swoop and glide, it is another thousand. I had 2 days being very sick with altitude in  Cusco when we were first there. But even once acclimatised, you cannot ignore altitude. The thin air dries out and stings your nose and eyes. You can feel your lungs working as never before and when you walk  along any incline, or steps, breathing becomes an effort, and then can be so difficult that you have to rest for a few minutes. Even my hair likes it better down at sea level.

But the Canyon was a wonderful day out. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The sides are steeply shelved and were terraced in ancient times for farming and still cultivated today. In a high gorge the condors fly at the same time every day in the warmth of  rising air. We took masses of photos.

Many humans in the Andes and here have their daily outdoor activities. Everyone has something to sell, food of all kinds from juices to hard boiled quail eggs, but perhaps  as little as a few match boxes or biros. The ones trying to lure the tourists have woollen goods and paintings. There are lots of enterprising ones who sell their antics too. At the traffic lights on busy crossings,  there might be a fire eater; a duo turning handstands, or someone juggling batons. Today we saw 5 acrobat lads doing double somersaults over each other with a finale of one boy going over the backs of all the others – they did deserve some money from the drivers watching and from us.

In Arequipa, in the one way street outside our hostale, one elderly man, a robust round figure with a huge grey beard, sold chocolates. He dressed in a green, or another day a yellow, Father Xmas outfit – he had the figure and face to match. He stood in the middle of the approaching cars, mostly taxis, from at least early evening, calling out at even intervals  of a few seconds -‘choco-late – nacio-nal’ – making it a musical call, exactly at the same tone and pitch repeatedly through the evening and into the night. All the drivers knew him; he cheerfully greeted them by name and lots stopped for a chat. The chocolates were tiny squares of white, 2 for one soles (about 25p). When we were at the door waiting to be picked up at 3am to go to the Canyon, he was still there. What is his story, I wonder. Does he not have a home to go to?  Can he make a living from such meagre resources or does he just enjoy standing in the middle of the road all night, having company of a kind and presenting himself to all who pass by?. Unfortunately, though we bought his chocolates, we will never know.

Lake Titicaca

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 1:44 am  Peru  Comments Off on Lake Titicaca
Oct 072011

Since a school project very many years ago, this name has evoked for me a high deserted place of great beauty and fascination. As soon as  we arrived in Puno, the town on the lake, after a long bus ride over the arid plateau from Cusco, we walked down to see it. Along the concrete promenade, the water sparkles blue in the distance. Here at its edge though, you see brackish ponds and scrubby vegetation, both silted with rubbish.  The water from the pier is thickly green and murky. I am sure there are places around the huge area of the lake where you can wander along a wild shoreside and cast pebbles into its clear waters, but not here.

Puno itself is scruffy and there is little sign that the money streaming in from tourists is benefiting the people here directly. There was obviously a town improvement effort some time ago as there are pedestrian walkways and pieces of brutal public art with some sad trees too, but it all looks neglected now. The buildings are brick and concrete, not adobe, but most are unplastered so everything looks unfinished and ugly. After Cusco’s graceful colonnades and balconies, its lively squares and side streets where every door opens onto a little shop or an interesting courtyard, its churches and palaces built on Inca walls,  this place is depressing. There are two central squares which are pleasant but they can’t compete with the Plaza de Armas in Cusco where you can watch the sunlight change on the surrounding hills every evening.

One thing I noticed straight away is how many old ladies there are on the streets, running food stalls, selling small parcels of goods, or just sitting on steps with a bundle and a hand stretched out. There are always old ladies, and maybe I am showing my age in noticing them particularly,  but the numbers here seem a significant indicator of general poverty. No pensions here.

We nearly just got the first bus out but the lure of the lake was too strong. The trip out into this enormous inland sea, at a higher altitude even than Cusco, takes the tourist to visit the floating islands in Puno bay and then one of the 36 inhabited islands on the Peru side of the lake (the border with Bolivia runs through the water). The inhabitants of more than 50 floating islands made of platforms of reed roots covered in more reeds, welcome their visitors with cheerful demonstrations of how they live and then bring you to the  inevitable craft stalls. Barefoot on straw which is still wet after  last night’s thunderstorm, they take us around their huts, where they all sleep in a family huddle and take us for a ride on a reed boat. It  is always an uneasy feeling when another way of life is put on as a show  like this. We try to avoid this kind of tourism usually. The real penalty is that you pay, a ridiculous price for the boat ride in this case, but one, of course, you can afford.  Still we are told the money is shared among the families  and is used for education and health, most of their other needs being met by barter along the lake shore. Let’s hope it is true. The best part of the day was on Taquile island where 2 thousand people carefully preserve their traditions and are the best knitters and weavers in Peru. Sadly we had no extra  money on us. Of course, they also milked the situation with a delicious but over priced meal and lots of moments for money givng. But it was beautiful, the lake looked wonderful and Brian was dragged into a folk dance called ‘kiss me kiss me’!

So the next day back on a bus and over  the plateau, through a chaotic industrial town where on the edge, the clean new buildings of the University of the Andes look incongruous alongside dusty tracks and barren highways. The fields open out with scattered homesteads, roofed only with corrugated iron, and then into an increasingly strange rocky landscape, bare of everything except cacti and vicunas, much smaller and more dainty than llamas. At last, after a ride in which we shared the bus with a beggar and then a travelling salesman, who got on and off as we went, plus several passengers who appeared at roadsides, we arrived in Arequipa. This is a modern prosperous city below an extinct volcano and with snowy peaks rising over the cathedral.

The Spanish destroyed the Inca civilisation, tore down its temples and towns and discriminated against the indigenous population. But they built beautiful places too. Arequipa is known as the white city because here they used a local white stone. In the middle of the urban sprawl with all the attendant features of any city , there is a lovely white central area of elegant buildings and gracious streets. The main square has palms and pigeons, and a lovely fountain. There are smart cafes and backstreet eateries where you can get a two course lunch plus tea for a pound and not feel that potentially everything is really dirty. The cathedral is an indecently huge piece of mock romano/greek assertion of the Catholic church’s dominance, taking one whole side of the square but it is undeniably impressive and the view from one of the first floor balcony restuarants on the other sides is worth the price of the beer.

And from here you can go to see condors flying over the Colca Canyon. A long trip starting very early in the morning but we have decided it has to be done before we take  the night bus to Lima and the coast.

And then we went to Machu Picchu

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 2:34 am  Peru  Comments Off on And then we went to Machu Picchu
Sep 282011

So many people have been to Macchu Picchu and there are so many images of it, that I was prepared to be impressed but perhaps not more.  But I think the word awe inspiring can be properly used about this place. The setting is so dramatic. High up, encircled by a river far below and surrounded by steep granite peaks covered in dense jungle, are the ruins of a city for 800 people, 300 of them Inka nobles and the rest commoners to serve their needs. The Spanish never came here, but the site was abandoned because of their advance and the blockage of supply lines.  We had a marvellous day in the sunshine there. We walked up to the Sun Gate which Brian first came through nearly 30 years ago when he was one of the very few people then doing the Inka trail.  Now lots of tourists walk the 4 days over original Inka roads to get to the site. We saw some walkers arrive, amazed and delighted to have achieved that slog and to look down on a wonderfully clear view of  their target. We have been to the Inka ruins around Cusco and there are several major ones in the Sacred Valley. But Macchu Picchu is a special site with obvious significiance for the indigenous people and their sense of Quechua pride in their past.

Cusco Dogs

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 2:30 am  Peru  Comments Off on Cusco Dogs
Sep 282011

It has taken a while to feel relaxed and at home in Cusco, partly because altitude sickness knocked out a couple of days and because we have been very busy since the teaching started. My placement is in a religious institution just behind the Church of San Pedro in the city centre. Here girls whose parents are too poor to care for them are given a home. We have ages from five to teenage over the evening. They are very affectionate and fun to be with, though like most children here, they are not very disciplined. Brian is in a centre that caters for street children, providing support and for many a bed. He is helping with an class that our organisation here, Maximo Nivel, runs every evening there for adults who want to improve their English

Now that we only have few days left in Cusco, it seems a shame to be going – there is a lot to see and do. Contrary to some tourist information it is a safe city to walk around and endlessly interesting, both in the picturesque old squares and the steeply stepped back streets.  It is a city of frequent processions and street protests, of stalls set up overnight to celebrate an anniversary and every Sunday in the main square at 10 o’clock,  goosestepping soldiers and marching groups of all kinds to witness the raising of the Peru flag with the national anthem sung by all and then the Cusco flag and the Cusco song. We had a fun night out in local bars (no gringos) and today one of Brian’s students gave us a personal tour of the Inka Museum where he works.

As it is a twenty five minute walk from the volunteer house to the centre and to the Maximo office, and we make the return journey at least twice a day, we have learnt to play the game of ‘how many people can you get in a mini bus intended for fourteen at the most’. The taxis are cheap, and any passing car is prepared to pick you up as if it were a taxi, but the ‘combis’ as the minibuses are called are even cheaper. They are fast and very frequent. The only thing is that you may have to stand, head bent as you are taller than everyone else, squashed up against who knows who, in a rickety and smelly vehicle that, it seems, might not make it at all. But hey ho, you will get there. Everyone uses them, old people  school children, breastfeeding mothers, Andean sellers with huge packs and city workers with suits and briefcases. There is often one moment of panic when you wonder how on earth you will manage to get out past the crush when it gets to your stop, and the conductor is always in  such a hurry to move the bus on. But, as with most things here , people are polite and calm and somehow it happens.

One feature we are not keen on, and which was reported to us by our Spanish teacher as a problem, is the number of large mongrel dogs roaming the city.You can see packs of them running through the city at night and the barking starts as the traffic slows down. Some of them look desperately mangy and we have seen a couple of them aggressively following an old man, so a natural response perhaps is to think of them as dangerous. But there are two perspectives on them. Walking with some Peruvians one evening, I mentioned this ‘ problem.’  One young man responded by saying that Peruvians respect the dogs.

‘ They suffer and survive just like the people,’  he said. ‘ That might be a problem far far away in the first world. Here we might worry why there are so many bookshops, perhaps that is a problem’. I was startled and not sure if the bookshop reference was a joke. But I certainly felt put in my place! It was an example too of the Quechua pride which we often encounter. There is a Quechua mass in the cathedral once a week and the Inka ceremony of the summer solstice is still celebrated. One young man told us that ‘ we worship the earth’. He wasn’t talking about the past.

And in the Inka Museum there is a mummified dog, demonstrating the traditional reverence for dogs in this culture. Still we shall continue to give them a wide berth.

Dung and Dust

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 8:40 am  Peru  Comments Off on Dung and Dust
Sep 212011

and smoke and mud – these are the things we will not be sorry to leave behind when we leave Umasbamba to teach in Cusco. There are few of the comforts here we take for granted in our lives. Rafaela and her husband have both lived in a city. In fact Rafaela was forced to go to Lima to work when she was only thirteen because her father had died and the family needed her to earn money.  Senovio used to walk for four and half hours every Monday morning over the mountains to Cusco from Umasbamba as a young man to study there; he walked back Friday evenings or Saturday mornings. Then later he worked in both Cusco and Lima. As a couple they chose to come back to this life, to culitivate family land, to bring up their children, to be self sufficient, to be independent and to live as their parents did.

They are a middle class family by Umasbamba standards and clearly ambitious. The hosting of volunteers from all around the world gives them an income over and above their farming. They built a bathroom hut before the authorities started installing them. Many children here have strangely chapped cheeks from wind, sun and dirt but both these girls have smooth skins. As a family they don’t drink quantities of the chicha that many certainly do. One day the farm was visited by a deputation from Cusco and Chincero, including some officials who seemed to be from an international health organsiation, and the family was spoken of as a model. They send both girls to school outside the village and fourteen year old Loos hopes to work in tourism in Cusco, living in an apartment her family will provide for her eventually. They even have as a pet a little white dog,  Snow White, that is the kind Parisian ladies might carry under one arm as a pampered pooch – here  it runs aroumd the fields muddy and growling as if it was a real farm dog.

But it is a hard life. No-one owns anything mechanical.; there are no wheels on anything and there are no push buttons The ploughing is usually done with a basic wooden shaft pulled by two bulls; there is one wheelbarrow in the village but it is used for construction work-  everything else must be carried on their backs. The women carry children, fodder, mud, everything that has to be moved around, in colourful blankets around their shoulders. Babies spend their days placidly wrapped up on their mother’s backs or perhaps someone else’s back as necessary. All the tools are just simple hand tools and all work is slow and laborious.  One day a tractor did appear on loan and for a fee from the town and Rafaela spent an anxious day hoping to get the use of it for their potato planting. But by the time the sun went down, she had been unsuccessful.

The days are usually sunny but you quickly realise why the people here wear layers of clothing that never come off. In the shade or under a cloud or when the sun goes down it is really cold. All the women wear a working version of their best traditional dress – a knee length full skirt that has a richly embroidered underskirt you only see in flashes, knitted leggings to the ankle, a pale jumper mimicking the best blouse and then several cardigans in place of the fancy jacket, bare feet in plastic sandals. And of course the carrying blanket, the essential accessory for the Andes. Plus a high domed hat.

One afternoon we walked up the mountain to visit Senovio’s aunt and uncle. The setting was beautiful and remote – no running water or electric light here. We met a bent old couple unloading straw for adobe from their herd of small horses. Both had faces like shrivelled apples and few teeth.  As we ambled back down after the pleasantries had been exchanged, we idly enquired how old these hardy people were. The answer was in their fifties.

Fiestas and Assemblies

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 9:25 am  Peru  Comments Off on Fiestas and Assemblies
Sep 192011

Life in Umasbamba is a communal affair. It is hard to unravel the actual ownership of the small fields which are a broken patchwork divided by occassional barbed wire for the animals. plus ditches and mud ridges. Animals appear to graze on land we thought belonged to our family and work is shared too – for the family or the village as a whole. One morning I helped Rafaela (well a little bit) do her mud collection for a village project – everyone had to hack five bags of mud out of the same hole in the mountain to be used for making adobe. At the school where Senovio works, for their mid morning break ,the teachers take it in turns to provide each other with food . While we have been here a group of ten or so men have been putting a roof on a new house, none of them contractors, just relatives or friends. The day the last tile was fitted there was an all night party in the still unfinished shell with music and lots of chicha, the homebrew corn liquor that softens the world here. There is a word in Quechua, everyone’s first language, which means roof completion party.

The community exacts a toll too. The village hall is the setting for regular assemblies where a register is called and late comers threatened with a fine. Then the leaders, from the village, the Agrorural Comune of the district or perhaps the Mayor of the local town Chincero, harangue their audience for two or three hours. It is mostly women who go. They sit with their babies and small children in high domed hats, without expression until the hours stretch out and they start rebellious chatting. The one Jessie and I attended was all about the new Mayor’s plans to bring improvements to the village; new chimneys for their clay cookers, new methods for chicken and guinea pig rearing. These sound like good ideas to us gringos but the speeches are met with lots of head wagging at the end and an obvious distrust of authority.

Rafaela also went to three assemblies in one week about the plans for the fiesta in Chincero  the nearest town and her responsibilities included wearing her traditional dress to show the Mayor. We had one afternoon out at the fiesta which was held in the town square, built by the Spanish conquerors on top of Inca ruins you can still see. There were lots of church processions, groups dancing, the market sellers out in force with their blankets and woven goods, everyone dressed up  and then lots of beer. I wish I could attach photos to this journal because the bar we were in was a litle room presided over by two old ladies straight from a story book, with dark faces, high hats and gnarled hands over the stove preparing mxitures to sell

A Day in the Life

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 4:53 am  Peru  Comments Off on A Day in the Life
Sep 112011

When it gets light at 6 am Rafaela is up and very shortly so are the rest of the family. There are chores to be done before school and work. Senovio is a teacher in the village primary school but before he goes off in clean clothes he is washing the dishes in the outside sinks, plaiting his youngest daughter’s hair which involves lots of cold water to make it manageable, something all the women have to do as their hair is so long and thick, grinding corn small enough to be added to soup using the hand mill attached to the outside of the kitchen wall, helping Rafaela with fuel for the stove. She is making breakfast, washing clothes, taking fodder to the bull and the cows, the donkeys and the poultry; the fourteen year old Loos who has to travel to Cusco every day for school and who is never home before 7.30pm, helps her mother in all this and after breakfast takes the animals out, cuts fodder from the fields if there is no time later and chivvies her eight year old sister Ruby to be ready in time for school at 8.

Then when Senovio gets home at 2pm he changes, has his lunch,  a short sit in the kitchen and then he is out in the fields, perhaps irrigating his alfaffa crops by damming the network of channels that crisscross the land, or flattening his planted potato fields ready for the same operation – this is a method of growing potaotes that confuses us allotment holders. He does his lesson preparation and marking in the smoky kitchen in poor light just before dinner. There are no tea breaks, sitting down with the paper or putting your feet up for anyone in this family.

We gringos are slowly waking up as the morning rush goes on, exchanging the details of our sleep experiences, sharing relief that we finally got warm under our piles of woven blankets and wondering what’s for breakfast. At last we descend and are welcomed, fed – oh vegetable soup again – and given chores for the day. Brian and I have been so lucky to have Jessie with us. She is unfailingly positive, funny and energetic and moreover speaks Spanish fluently. So she translates for all parties and is in constant amused communication with the family.

The day’s first task is to take the animals down the lane to graze for the day. This is something everyone else in thr village is doing too. Groups of donkeys, a few cows, a handful of sheep, a large black pig and her ten piglets, all ambling down the lane  the lake beautiful in the distance and the mountains all around. This is our favourite job but it transpires that if we do it without an accompanying child, the two sheep we are responsible for, instead of docilely leading the way themselves without any need for holding the rope, become rebels and have to be chased over the bumpy mud ridges  for at least half a mile. The ram actually stamped his feet at us when he was finally tied up.

Dung bashing is our other main job. A pile of dung, some simple hand tools and ‘please reduce this to fertiliser size’, while the family are out. I can’t do much of this at once – I am still feeling the effects of being at this high altitude so ‘breathless’ takes on a whole new meaning. Moreover it is literally backbreaking work. Jessie  takes on the challenge. She puts on her ipod and bashes dung for an hour or more at a time. She has earnt the title, much coveted, of Dung Queen. She has sore hands to prove it and very dirty feet. at the end of each day

The Road to Umasbamba

 Posted by Sarah & Brian at 3:50 am  Peru  Comments Off on The Road to Umasbamba
Sep 102011
The hills of the Andes that we can see encircling the city of Cusco look more like gigantic sand dunes than peaks with the straggle of houses climbing ever higher up their treeless sides. As you get into the Sacred Valley where Macchu Picu is (the guide books say there are lots of other Inca ruins too),the land opens out into villages and cultivated land with lines of eucalyptus trees. Here the mountains rear up jagged and impressive. As the road curves away from the town of Chincero and around the lake towards Umasbamba, high snowy ranges are seen in the distance like a backcloth. The road is bumpy and any other vehicle raises clouds of dust to obscure the view for several moments. At last we are nearly there and ahead are clusters of houses, pinky brown like the Andes soil from which they are constructed. There is an unfinished look to the village, houses are empty or in the process of being built; piles of handmade adobe bricks stand in groups drying ready for use. The first track on the right leads to our farm, the home of Rafaela and Senovio and their two daughters.

There is a stout wooden door which opens into a mud yard. On one side is a half finished building, two storeys high, ahead a grass patch and a tiny fenced garden with  afew snapdragons, pansies and geraniums; there is also a pen for the guinea pigs who live in half darkness waiting for dinner day. The family kitchen is a low ceilinged room where Rafaela, never removing her red hat with shiny ribbon trim except to eat, cooks over a smoky clay oven with bits of wood and eucalyptus leaves. To the side is the family room where everyone sleeps; above it up a shaky wooden staircase is the one large room, faintly smelling of dung ,where Brian and I and our companion Jessie from Texas are sleeping.

The morning we arrived the three of us shared a silent sense of shock. Urbanites from the 21st century entering a traditional way of rural life which we know nothing about. Lunch that day was boiled potatoes and white rice. It transpired that these are the ingredients of three meals a day, interpersed with but not replaced by vegetable soup and, one lovely day, lentils and some chopped chilli. That chilli was the only uncooked vegetable we have had and the only flavouring apart from salt. There is no fruit, no meat so far despite the two lambs, three cows, hens, turkeys and of course the guinea pigs. No dairy, no sugar except for a little in a daily ration of three cups of herbal tea from the black witches kettle and no snacks. There are no comfy chairs, of course, and to eat we sit on benches against the blackened wall of the kitchen, padded with filthy sheeepskins.  We were warned that there would be no electricity and no hot water. In fact Rafaela’s family have a light bulb in every room, and there are two shower cabins with flush toilets. But on the first day we all agreed that somehow washing was not as necessary here as we had thought it previously and that the hot water system for the showers looks a bit risky. So less washing and cold water when you absolutely must. After the dung bashing for instance. But that’s another story.

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