Of Guinea Pigs and Mountain Men: A Wind Turbine Goes Up, and a Group Goes Home

Markahuamachuco, a ancient mountaintop city stretching for 7 or so miles we visited, and one of what I call the Big Four ancient peruvian cities: Chan Chan, Kuelap, Marcahuamachuco, and Machu Picchu.

It’s been almost ten days now since I’ve written, in part because I have been too busy living, but also due to an unusually high level of nerves brought on by many difficult (and not so difficult) decisions. As of now, the wind turbine group has all but dissolved. Ty is awaiting his wife’s arrival for their first anniversary, Todd has returned to plan his engagement party, Ruba and Christian have left to relax for a fortnight before heading back to school in late august. Only Meg and Charlie are still around. Charlie’s drafting his final college essay, I think Meg is just bored. They’re waiting for the cab to take them to the airport.

As for me, I’m on the couch at Barranco’s Backpackers in Lima. I’ve finally buckled and taken the antibiotics I should have started three days ago, and I finally feel like writing. None of the decisions are resolved, but sometimes an enough is enough attitude can force the fingers to figure it out. When Charlie and Meg fly out tonight, I’ll be the only thing left behind. Oh wait, sorry, I meant me and the WIND TURBINE we built!

We got it running as the sun set on Tuesday.

Yep, we constructed the parts, put it all together, and made a giant pinwheel. Luckily, our giant pinwheel also generates electricity for a town that has none. A community center and school will get power from the turbine, and the community will be able to charge it’s batteries underneath our electrical set up as well. It took a week of sleeping on the cold stone floor of a classroom 11,000 feet up in the air, but we did it, and we did it ourselves. It’s a pretty cool thing to create anything with your hands, especially something as useful and complicated as the turbine. With pictures and stories, I’ll bring you up to the tiny town of La Florida, Peru to see how a tiny village of 1400 people way up in the mountains with no education are living more responsibly than most of the world!

A Little bit about La Florida

When I lived in Glacier for a few days, I fell in love with the mountains, so traveling deep into the Andes and living surrounded by deep valleys and tall peaks is a lifestyle that made me quite happy. In Peru, it merits a little more than a sleeping bag though, so I bought a alpaca fur poncho (not for rain) to keep out the cold. At 6 feet 3 inches, I’m so large by Peruvian standards, that it doubles as a full size blanket. As for food, it was soup or starve I am afraid, so just a few weeks after pledging off “sopa” forever, I found myself breaking my promise. Luckily, plenty of potatoes helped out.

The men of La Florida, for the most part, work in the nearby San Simon gold mine. The women farm potatoes, basically the only thing growing at that altitude. During the day, the sun comes out and heats you up. At night, the temperature drops near freezing. The kids arrive around 8 am, and leave to return to the farm around 1. They wear a mix of school uniform, Peruvian countryside fashion, and designer clothes?… and range in age from 6 to 16 or so.

Ryan pairs up the volunteers and kids. Robert, my kid, was literally brilliant. He was able to watch me do something and mimic it nearly perfectly.

When we aren’t assembling the turbine, tying off the cords, testing the blades, or sleeping, we play with the kids or relax in the sun. The first day I burned my lips, making sleep hard and eating harder. I was the odd combination of Peruvian, cowboy, and cashmere. During the day, hat, boots, and belt from Nashville teamed up with Vietnamese cashmere and knockoff Ray-ban’s. At night and in the early mornings, llama fur covered up the cashmere and the very low humidity lengthened my usually wavy hair to strike a strange resemblance to the late door’s frontman Jim Morrison.

So even stranger I must have seemed to the locals just waking up to begin the day walking up the hill above La Florida at 6 am one morning to watch the sunrise clad in poncho, boots, a well traveled hat and my nearly shattered shades. Worth it though, as I discovered an ancient aqueduct long plugged up, but still trickling water down the mountain top. Each mountain is another mountains valley, I think to myself as mountainous La Florida is illuminated by the approaching sun from behind my head to be the edge of a massive valley. I waited as the sun crept up on the little soccer pitch, brightening the blue buildings below.

OK, so the aqueduct is not ancient, but it is pretty old.

Those blue buildings just out of the shadows are the community building and school in La Florida, the residents of the town itself are stretched through the valley.

A quick hike down (more of a slide, it was a pretty steep mountain) brought me to breakfast. Wheat coffee and a drink called oatmeal, both sweetened with cane sugar, make the cold mornings more than bearable. The fried nan-like bread makes them delicious. At 9, the next hike begins. This one goes up and over more mountains than I can remember, an hour and half up, or in other words, 1,000 feet towards the clouds. Our goal: a glacial lake with the trout farm dead in its center. By trout farm, I mean four nets tied with rope holding baby trout. By glacial lake, I mean frigid water that, only just a few years ago, was a glacier. As if we needed any more incentive to keep working on the turbine.

See how there's kind of a hole up on that mountain? Usually there's a glacier there.

We took this little boat out to the trout farm. Why anyone would name a leaky boat with a broken paddle "Titanic" is beyond me.

These were our four fearless guides, but mostly I just love this picture.


Our guides, four unusually competent students from the village, led us to a series of aluminum houses, where the real trout are kept. I bought enough for dinner that night for everyone, even though most were too sick to eat it (the village cooked it better than any I can recall eating in my life.) We also discovered a rare albino rainbow trout swimming in the small basins, the pride of the well-fed fishermen who ran the farm. In case you are curious, albino trout have bright blue eyes.

Building the Turbine

Here’s a picture gallery of the turbine’s set up.

The Creating Ties/WindAid Volunteer team. August, 2011.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who hung out, helped out, and was invaluable to putting the turbine together and making it run, as well as making my experience here in Peru a wonderful one.

Our volunteer team, the Meg’s (Milby and Hayden), whose willingness to dance and have fun at any time or day or night brought us laughs whenever we needed them, Ty and Todd, whose experience in the workshop guided us and whose dry wit born of 10 years more extra living kept us constantly amused, Ruba and Christian, whose back and forth of “You did that wrong” and “Your Hurtful!” made any workshop silence immediately filled, and Charlie, whose smile (I swear, even when he slept) and charm (especially with the Peruvian ladies) kept us going.

Our team of leaders, Rachel and Ben, the two volunteers who liked Windaid so much the first time they had to come back and help us, Caroline (Caro) whose life on the road, seas, and skies brought a unique set of eyes to our task, and Yan, Senor Abel, and Fernando, whose expertise saved us from catastrophe and whose “Eh….Es Bien” brought sighs of relief when we did mess up.

Our host Mom(s) Carina and Anita, who cooked better than I can breathe, Michael, WindAid’s founder and never tiring champion who woke up at 5 am more than once to let us in after a Trujillan night, and his wonderful family, kind step-son Roberto, precocious daughter Anya, and namesake little Kevin, the always sweet Ariel (the dog) and of course any future additions.

Last but not least, our Peace Core Liaison Ryan and our other Peace Core volunteers and friends, the people of La Florida, and their unusually competent children, the British group for keeping the workshop fresh, Hector for coaching the world’s best wind-powered soccer team, those guys on the bus for scaring Todd to death, the various Peruvian women who had the pleasure (or displeasure) or admiring my less-than-stellar dancing skills but still danced with me anyway, and everyone else I forgot. I’m sorry if I forgot you!

I learned so much from everyone I met this past month and a half, whether it be that there is a life outside of the United States (and its higher education system), or that there is no wrong or right way to do anything, or even that when you weld it is better to make circles than lines. Even though the first weekend we met I threw up all over our bus, you still put up with me for the next five weeks. That says something.

Our larger team of friends and helpers.

As I sit here nervously awaiting the results of my application to be a full time writer at USAT College, two little Peruvian kids run around screaming and throwing paper airplanes, my hostel room sits completely empty of friends, and the ones I love are still so far away, the only thought that pops into my head is: I ate a guinea pig last week. Hmm.


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