Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

While in Puno I took the chance to do some sightseeing for a day. And the main attraction is on the lake itself, Lake Titicaca.

It is one of the most famous local attractions for tourists – a visit to the see the Uru people (los uros) who inhabit a multitude of floating islands just a few kilometres by boat from Puno. It is certainly another world. The indigenous people here pre-date the Incas, living on islands of reeds they made themselves. Even today they still make their homes and their boats from the reeds.

Tourism helps to keep these communities going, but much of it felt staged. From the welcoming sing-a-long to the information talk and the hard-sell of the local crafts I hoped the communities maintained their sense of identity, and not just a tourist facsimile. When the tourists aren’t around, the people here still have to maintain their way of life.

As well as a visit to Los Uros, Puno has a few other attractions, including a ship built in the 19th century (MN Yavari) that took six years to be hauled up over the Andes from the coast and then reassembled on the lake. As well as checking its seaworthiness I climbed up the local hill overlooking Puno (Condor hill) and later relaxed in a fine cafe with a cup of local fair trade coffee.

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Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Football, Ecuadorian style

Football. Best game on the planet. I’ve seen many games in England and the odd one or two in Vancouver. One thing on my list during this trip was to try to catch a live game somewhere. It proved difficult to be in the right place at the right time, but the stars eventually aligned and I got an opportunity to see a match in Quito, home of Deportivo Quito. The competition was the Copa Libertadores America (the South American equivalent of the European Champions League) and the opposition on the night was Velez Sarsfield from Argentina (I have no idea who they are either).

I hoped it would be a good game, certainly different from what I’d experienced before. And it was…from the crush of getting into the stadium, where half of it was closed and so fans had restricted points of entry and impatience reigned. We were packed into one side of the stadium, a decrepit-looking thing, though the views of the nearby mountains, with aircraft flying under the backdrop, made a stunning panorama. I was seated on bare concrete not far from the hardcore fans. The flags and banners were out, and the huge bass drums were being readied. Fencing surrounded the pitch, which was a shock. I can’t imagine fan safety was ever a priority for these occasions.

As the game was about to start, Velez got a typical away-team reception of a chorus of boos. There wasn’t a single away fan, unsurprisingly. The Quito chants were underway, the flares were lit and the drums rolled.

Into the game and I notice the differences. The pace is slow, like treacle. There’s little goalmouth action. The funniest part is when the referee, miles behind the play, books a Velez player when he made a foul. Just as I’ve seen on television many times, the ref races over and dramatically shoves the yellow card in the Velez player’s face. Hilarious. Right before the end of a desperately poor first half, a Quito player hoofs the ball downfield towards the Velez area, a real up-and-under. The Quito forward gives chase and falls inside the Velez penalty area. Diving, surely? No, the ref (again, miles behind play) agrees with the linesman’s flag to give a penalty to Quito. The fans go absolutely mad and the penalty is duly converted, 1-0. Then the flares really got going. A dozen of them. The fans chant, the drums bang louder. I’m surprised when some riot police jog onto the pitch to accompany the ref when he blows the half-time whistle.

It quietens down quickly, and the food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling their snacks. Nothing vegan, though, so I skip the offerings. I notice one young lad, shirtless, carrying a fire extinguisher, and wonder how he managed to smuggle it in. Quickly though, I spot several more lads with them. The players come out, and the extinguishers are let off in unison. Colour-coordinated in pink and blue, the air is filled with dust. The flares had already gone out, so the fire risk was minimal, and then the CO2 dust rains down on the crowd.

The chants continue but the noise erupts once again when Quito score early in the second half. It looks like they can play after all. Later I notice the ref has a paint gun to mark the ’10 yard’ distance at free kicks. He carefully marks where the ball is to be set and where the opposing players can stand. What an idea! Why don’t they use that in the Premiership?? When one of the players feigns injury (sorry, that’s my prejudice – all players in South America feign injury…) a golf cart comes on to cart the player off. Needless to say he is absolutely fine.

The game peters out, despite another goal for Quito. They win 3-0 and the crowd are happy. The chants continued throughout the rest of the game. An estimated 9,000 were there, though it was hard to tell given how empty the stadium looked on the other sides. But I didn’t care. It had been quite an experience for me and I enjoyed it, despite having to sit out in the cool mountain air. It wasn’t as good as English football, but you try telling that to the thousands of Quito fans who left the stadium, paying 10 cents to use the toilet on their way out.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera, so here’s another picture of Carlos Valderrama…

Carlos Valderrama is Colombian, but you just can't beat that hairstyle

On the way to the waterfalls

From Juayua. a picturesque little town snuggled amongst western El Salvador’s volcanoes and coffee farms, it’s a short distance to some spectacular waterfalls.

I’d been told it’s advisable to take a guide, but it being a short walk I thought I’d wander there anyway and see where I got to. Halfway down the dirt road I spotted a little ‘car park’ off to one side and general activity that was out of keeping with the rest of my walk. A quick look and I noticed a couple of tour buses and a group of people that were distinctly non-local. I decided to join them, as surely there was only one place they were going. Strangely no one seemed to notice my arrival, or cared enough to say anything. Even the security guard who was accompanying the group was indifferent, or ignorant, of my joining them.

I had to laugh at the assortment of people. American and eastern European accents filtered through to my ears. Loudness prevailed, from the talking to the clothing. It was surreal and I felt like I’d been teleported into a new world because it was so far removed from all my travelling experiences. Everyone was wearing a wrist band, which I later found out made them members of whatever ‘all-inclusive’ resort they were staying in on the coast. A day out for them, up into the mountains. I figured it was safer to stay with them but it didn’t take long to reach the waterfalls. Other tour groups and locals were enjoying the water, as it roared out from cracks in the rocks. A hydroelectric plant was located nearby that takes advantage of these waters, and also created pools that locals took great enjoyment in swimming in.

After I’d had my lookaround I decided against hanging around waiting for the group to reform and walk slowly back to their air-conditioned bus, and made my way back myself. In the back of my head I knew that someday in the future I’d be in some other strange place, probably doing exactly what they were doing. So I didn’t laugh too much…

Guatemala: generosity from first to last

I was getting itchy feet. It was time to make tracks into El Salvador. After Christmas in Panajachel, I had a few days in the lovely town of Antigua (somewhere I would have liked to have spent more time) before making it to Guatemala City. This was going to be a new experience for me – the big city, el capital – and so cycling into and out of here would be a challenge.

Donning my face/dust mask (I don’t think it helped much) I dodged and weaved in and out of traffic, cursing the city drivers who wouldn’t indicate, the buses and their exhausts and tried to find another pair of eyes to keep myself in the clear on the road. Luckily though, the route was fairly straightforward and I managed to get to my hotel without too much trouble.

A couple of days there and I was off (unfortunately missing out on a visit to UPAVIM [United For a Better Life], a local group of women’s artesans that also set up education for local children). On New Year’s Day. What better (and quieter) way to get 2012 off to a good start. In fact it was a perfect time to get out of the city as it was eerily quiet. I wasn’t too interested in finding the best party in town anyway for New Year’s, so an early start out was perfect. I rang in 2012 chatting on skype to a good friend, and that was good enough for me.

It took two days to reach El Salvador, and my last night in Guatemala gave me yet another example of the generosity and warmness of the people I’ve met here. My map gave me the impression that the town I headed to was ‘big’, but it wasn’t. Asking a genteman who’d stepped off the bus if there was anywhere to stay in town, he said there wasn’t any hotels, but indicated there was somewhere I could find. He ended up taking me to his sister’s house!

By that point I was tired and didn’t care what they had to offer, so a dilapidated room and mattress was good enough, though I had to wander through their house to use the bathroom. Sheila and Jesus seemed to have a procession of visitors throughout the day, perhaps because they had a huge widescreen tv, still with it’s wrapping on. The next morning when I tried to pay Sheila, she refused, though she did seem quite interested in the gold ring I was wearing…

From day one, when I was helped by a young lad to push my bike up a short hill when I was slipping on the wet road, to this day, I’ve found the people in Guatemala to be hospitable, generous and welcoming. Most people here have very little and their warm attitude was quite refreshing and at times humbling. How would El Salvador compare?

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Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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