Adiós, Cusco

My last week in Cusco was a scramble to squeeze everything in–one last visit to favorite restaurants, spending time with friends, and completing another hike. Here are some highlights:

My friends Avery, Sean, and I took an early morning bus to Laguna Humantay, a popular hiking destination for tourists in Peru. After some delays, we made it to the sunny base of the hike, and spent about 90 minutes panting up the steep incline. To says the views of the lake at the top were worth it is an understatement; I was blown away by the blueness of the water and the snowcapped mountains in the background. This definitely was my favorite hiking experience of the trip!

My last week in Cusco also coincided with the last week of June, and this month is considered sacred in Cusco. There are festivals, parades, and celebrations every day, and it was great to have this sort of send-off.

A parade outside of the Church of the Society of Jesus in the main plaza.

Avery and I also frequented our favorite coffee shop the mornings of my final week. It was such a blessing to meet a friend from the states to explore the city and practice my Spanish with! We also managed to make it to the cine to watch “Toy Story 4” in Spanish, whispering to each other to make sure we both understand the plot. Avery, I will miss you dearly!

I am incredibly grateful for my SLA grant–traveling abroad for the first time and immersing myself in Spanish was an experience that I will never forget, and I am elated at how much my language skills have improved. Having met the goals I set for myself six weeks ago, I am determined to continue to pursue Spanish and look forward to all future learning opportunities.


Conversación y Controversia

For my last two weeks of classes in Cusco, I was moved up to a higher level and have begun a new textbook titled “Conversación y Controversia”. These classes have allowed me to practice my conversation skills at a more in-depth level with my teachers and peers, while learning new vocabulary surrounding controversial topics. With my teacher Rocio, we have read articles and discussed topics like abortion, marriage, atheism, and immigration in the United States. At the root of all of these conversations are cultural differences–it is incredibly interesting to listen to her point of view, and I enjoy sharing what the differing opinions in the US are surrounding these topics.

During my six weeks in the city, it has become clear to me that nearly every Cusqueño identifies as Catholic, even if they are not practicing. When discussing abortion, Rocio was clear on her Catholic views and was shocked to learn that abortion is legal in the US, since it is illegal in Peru. She shared with me a few sad stories of illegal operations, and we discussed the pros and cons of the difference in laws between Peru and the US. When discussing atheism, I learned from Rocio that public schools in Cusco essentially act as a Catholic school would in the US–students attend mass and daily religion classes. We discussed how the histories of the colonization of both Peru and US has caused a difference in the separation between church and state. The US is a mixing pot of cultures and identities, while nearly all of Peru shares a religion. Catholic holidays are celebrated as national holidays here, and Rocio does not know any atheists.

Immigration has been an ongoing topic since I’ve arrived. All of my teachers have been quick to mention Trump and his policies, and it has been difficult for me to address questions about immigration laws and opinions in the US, because it seems they are constantly changing and there is never a simple solution. Rocio ran through a list of immigration scenarios with me, and it is my homework to determine what is considered “legal” and “illegal” by our current system. Though there are not many Peruvians attempting to migrate to the US in this moment, Cusqueños seem concerned for the well-being of Central Americans attempting to immigrate.

Despite this, attitudes towards Venezuelan immigrants in Cusco are completely different. Venezuela has been facing an economic and political crisis for years, and 10% of its citizens have left the country, many arriving in Peru. From talking with locals, I have noticed negative and generalized attitudes towards Venezuelans that, at times, mirror attitudes towards Latino immigrants in the US. One of my teachers is quick to point out Venezuelans in the street, citing a clear difference in looks and character than Cusqueños, and a host parent has claimed that Venezuelans “rob and kill people” (though so do Peruvians, I’m sure). One of my teachers is Venezuelan and immigrated to Peru a year ago. He has opened up to me about some of the blatant racism he’s experienced and how difficult the transition has been. For example, his brother was denied a waiter position after the restaurant learned of his nationality. At times, it’s been difficult for me to grapple with this contradiction–Cusqueños do not understand harsh immigration laws in the US, but they also can express disdain for immigrants in their own country. Of course, I acknowledge that I don’t understand the situation fully and it is impossible for me to judge the situation without more context and information.

My opinions aside, my classes with the “Conversación y Controversia” textbook have been nothing short of fascinating. I feel as though I have learned so much in past week alone about Peruvian culture, and to do so in Spanish makes the process all the better. Politics, Catholicism, and morals weave in and out of my conversations, and I can’t wait to discuss these topics further in the future.


Weekend Wanderings

I have had a wonderful second-to-last weekend in Cusco! My Spanish classes are challenging and in-depth, and I am feeling much more confident with the language than I was four weeks ago. After spending Friday sick at home, I was ready to hit the ground running on Saturday, replenished and excited to make the most of my two days free from classes. I began the day by touring Qorikancha, the most important temple in the Incan Empire, dedicated to the Sun God. When the Spanish arrived, they spent a century building the Church of Santo Domingo on the base of Qorikancha, destroying the temple itself but leaving much of the complex stonework built by the Incans. I deeply appreciated the religious art featured throughout the site, and I’m glad I was finally able to explore this piece of history that sits just across the street from my Spanish classes.

In the gardens on the grounds of Qorikancha

The following morning, I attended mass at Santo Domingo, and was extremely impressed by this beautiful cathedral. I also visited two other churches–Catedral del Cusco and the Basilica Menor de la Merced–as Sundays during masses are the only time when tourists can see these churches for free. Though I regularly attend Spanish mass on campus, it was an entirely different experience to witness mass in the city I’m calling home this summer. Afterwards, I walked around some areas new to me, and grabbed a coffee in the San Blas neighborhood.

Mass in Santo Domingo, attached to Qorikancha

Coffee with a view in San Blas

I was also able to eat at Chicha por Gaston Acurio, a famous restaurant in Cusco, this weekend. Here, my friends and I sampled chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian drink made from fermented purple maize. We asked our waiter how the chicha was prepared in this particular restaurants, and learned that, traditionally, the maize is chewed up and spit into water to ferment. Our chicha was fermented with a different method in this restaurant. Chicha is significant to Peru, because it was a drink consumed by the Incas and served to the Incan Sun God, Inti, during celebrations and sacrifices. We also tried a classic Peruvian dish, lomo saltado. This delicacy is a mix of Chinese and Peruvian cooking traditions, part of a category called chifa. Lomo saltado is a stir fry of vegetables with beef steak, marinated with soy sauce and other spices. Adding potatoes keeps with the Peruvian staple of eating this vegetable with every meal. All in all, the restaurant was a relaxing experience, and it was fun to engage our waiter to learn more about Cusquenian cuisine.

Two different types of chicha

Lomo saltado

Halfway Point: New Sites and a Strike

I’ve reached the halfway point of my time in Cusco, and I can’t believe how quickly my six weeks are passing by. I spend many mornings in a coffee shop with my friend Avery, and I’ve been able to explore more neighborhoods and areas surrounding the city center. This past week, I went to the zoo with my professor and classmates, where we put our conversations skills to test during the long walk, and fed the monkeys and parrots with crackers from our hands. This weekend, my friends and I hiked through the San Blas neighborhood to reach Cristo Blanco, a huge statue of Christ on a mountain overlooking Cusco. The steep walk was breathtaking, as was the view. I also ventured out to the San Pedro Market, where countless vendors line up to sell their food and souvenirs.

Studying in my favorite coffee shop, Cappuccino Cafe!

Pictures from our hike to Cristo Blanco. The view was incredible!

This past week, I also witnessed a major transportation strike throughout the city. No buses were running, and very few taxis and other cars were in the streets. My host sisters’ schools were cancelled, and many people did not attend work. As I walked to classes during the strike, people walked through the streets yelling and holding signs, and a more organized march down the main avenue occurred later in the afternoon.

Thanks to a safety app I was required by ND to download on my phone before traveling abroad, I knew that the strike was happening on this day, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I was able to ask two of my Spanish professors and one of my host sisters about their thoughts concerning the strike, and got some more information. One professor, Vanessa, explained that the strike was for a combination of demands. Bus drivers want higher salaries, gas prices in Cusco are too expensive, among other things. She talked about the frequency of strikes in Cusco–something I’ve noticed during my 3 weeks here, though this was the largest one I’ve seen–but how they always fall on weekdays in the afternoon, so her job prohibits her from participating. Vanessa also told us about a strike that occurred a few years ago, after the government poisoned a great number of dogs that live on the streets in Cusco. This particularly bothered her, and she wishes she had been able to march. Vanessa asked us about strikes or protests we’ve participated in in the US, and we talked about women’s rights and gun reform.

I asked my private lesson professor, Nely, about the strike as well. She immediately jumped from transportation to talking about healthcare and a hospital in Cusco. Nely explained that the strike was also to protest the delay in building a new hospital in Cusco. Apparently, people at the top of the project management have been pocketing the money, and the hospital has not been completed in over 7 years. Nely, along with many others, are extremely frustrated with the corruption and delay, as well as with the state of healthcare in Cusco as a whole. It costs exorbitant amounts of money to see a doctor or a specialist, and not everyone is Cusco is afforded healthcare. I also asked my host sister about the strike, but she was merely happy to skip school. Her dad, however, made sure that she watched the news the morning of the strike to learn more.

While it felt incredibly unusual to see empty streets and people away from work in Cusco, I was inspired by the capacity of Cusqueños to come together for a common cause, or causes. Time will tell if this strike or others will bring change to the protestor’s demands, but I am anxious to follow along.

A Wonder of the World: Machu Picchu

This past weekend, I experienced the highlight of my time in Peru thus far–a trip to Machu Picchu. This wonder of the world was built in the 15th century to house the ruler of the Incan empire. Nestled above the Sacred Valley of Peru, Machu Picchu is 50 miles from Cusco and wasn’t discovered by the Spanish when they invaded, which allowed the structures to be preserved. Only locals were aware of the ruins until 1911, when a Yale historian discovered the site through the guidance of a young boy from the region.

My friend David, also a ND student studying Spanish in Cusco, and I traveled by bus and then train to the small town of Aguas Calientes. While more touristy than Cusco, we both agreed that the community was beautiful and a great place to stay for the night. We ate at one of the many restaurants attempting to lure us in, tempted by the offer of free drinks and guacamole. We also visited the hot springs in Aguas Calientes before turning into our hostel in preparation for an early-morning bus ride up to Machu Picchu.

The train ride to Aguas Calientes was beautiful!

A river runs through the center of the town, with many restaurants and hostels on either side.

On Sunday, our group departed for the site at 5:30am, and we made it up the mountain and to a viewpoint of Machu Picchu as the sun was appearing. I had seen dozens of photos previously, but nothing could compare to actually experiencing Machu Picchu in person. The abandoned city was much larger than I expected, and it was incredible to walk through the ruins with our guide and learn about the significance of specific structures.

After countless pictures and walking through the site, my group bid farewell to Machu Picchu and hiked for about an hour back down to Aguas Calientes for lunch and to catch our train back to Cusco. This is definitely a trip I will never forget, and I have dreams of returning in the future and sharing the experience with others.

Speaking Quechua

Something I read extensively about but couldn’t fully grasp before arriving in Peru is the prominence of the Quechua language and Incan traditions. Everyone I’ve encountered speaks Spanish, but many older adults speak Quechua as their first language. Before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the area that is now Peru was ruled by the Incan Empire, with Cusco as the capital of this territory that stretched over half the length of the South American continent. Many Incans spoke Quechua, and the language is still extremely prevalent today, mostly in the mountainous regions of Peru. Nearly every adult in Cusco understands at least a few Quechuan words, if they don’t speak the language themselves. Streets are named for Quechua words, and Incan holidays are celebrated to the fullest in Cusco.

In my first two weeks here, I have had the pleasure of interacting with several Quechua speakers, the first being my friend Guido and his parents. Guido was a graduate student at Notre Dame with whom I had a class with last semester, and he has lived in Cusco for much of his life. He was eager to show me around the city this week, and invited me to breakfast at his family’s home the following morning. Guido lives, literally, at the top of a mountain overlooking Cusco—the taxi we took had to stop at a certain point and we hiked further up to reach his house. The neighborhood was Quechuan, and he greeted his neighbors good morning in their language as we made our way up. Guido’s parents were able to speak with me in Spanish, but they were more comfortable with Quechua and had Guido translate much of our conversation. Expressing many blessings and wishes to me, they talked about how lucky Guido was to travel to the US and other countries for his education, and their worries for him during the distance. Guido was at ND through a Fulbright Grant and he taught several Quechua classes. He has talked to me about his dreams of implementing a Quechua language program in Cusco, and the difficulty in writing in this alphabet. Throughout my breakfast, I learned about the importance of preserving this language and the threats facing Quechua today.

Guido was eager to give me a nighttime tour of the city!

I have also been able to talk to my Spanish teachers about Quechua. Renzo, a young man from Lima who studied medicine before switching to teaching, speaks only a few Quechuan phrases. He told me that students studying medicine need to understand the language in order to serve the surrounding indigenous communities. Another one of my teachers, Nely, speaks Quechua fluently, because her parents spoke it when she was growing up. She expressed frustration that her own children were not able to speak the language to their grandparents, and said this is a huge problem in the younger generations of Cusqueños. Outside of Cusco, most communities communicate in Quechua, which I observed between young children and their parents when visiting Rainbow Mountain during my first weekend.

Ultimately, while I am here for the purpose of learning Spanish, I am intrigued by Quechua and hope to learn more about the spread and decline of this language during my remaining weeks. I also look forward to celebrating Inti Raymi, a religious ceremony venerating the Incan sun god, in late June.

My First Week in Cusco

Hello from Cusco!

After 24 hours of traveling, I finally made it to the welcoming and colorful city of Cusco. I was immediately taken to my host family’s house, where I met Monica and Lucho, and their three daughters. It’s been a joy getting to know the family over the past week and learning about life in Cusco–having a house to stay in and food cooked for me every evening has definitely helped my transition to living in Peru.

An intersection near my homestay. The traffic in Cusco is crazy!

My first week here was a whirlwind! I attended orientation at Máximo Nivel, the language school I am studying at, and met friends from all over the world. I attend class for six hours every day, and while my private lessons are challenging and draining, I am thrilled at how quickly my conversational skills are improving! With 5 weeks left, I am hopeful that I can continue to enhance my speaking abilities.

In between classes, I have explored local restaurants and attractions with my friends from Máximo. Lunch can be bought for a very reasonable price in Cusco–it is typical to get a soup, main dish, and juice for 6 soles, only $2! Plaza de Armas is the main center of the city, and the most popular tourist destination. Shops and restaurants here are more pricey, while the further you travel from the plaza, the cheaper items become. On Thursday, my friend Avery and I splurged at a cafe where we bought slices of torta (cake) and lattes. The views of Plaza de Armas from the second floor balcony were worth the cost, to say the least!

After what seemed like both an incredibly long and extremely short first week, my friend David and I left for a trek to Rainbow Mountain at 4am this Saturday! Also called Vinicunca and Montaña de Siete Colores, the mountain gets its name from the effect of its mineralogical composition. Although the hike was only about 3 miles roundtrip, this was probably one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. At 17,000 feet, this is the highest I’ve ever been and the steep route left me with a headache. Despite the altitude and chilly weather, the view at the top and experience overall was phenomenal!

There were many alpacas along the way.

Overall, my first week in Cusco has been exciting and challenging in the best of ways. I’m surprised at how quickly I am learning, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead!