Hostel Dreams (A bit of Travel Philosophy)

When I woke up, the dorm smelled like high school. Salty alcohol sweat mixed with the fading stench of weed, cigarettes, and dirty sheets smelled like angst. A tattooed german had finally found his bed at 7 am after drunkenly stumbling through the two street desert oasis for most of the night. The English schoolteacher rustled her thin hostel sheets. I tried to piece together a hostile dream.

Traveling solo is the embodiment of opportunities seized and opportunities missed. Each day carries with it only the promise of place. Everything else is up to the traveler, whom, as each night ends with him in a bed as foreign as the language, has only his memories for company.

The memories of a day well lived, of new friends well met, of things well learned, of dunes well sandboarded, of opportunities well taken, leaves the traveler with the slightest sense of security in a landscape of uncertainty. The memories of a day spent poorly leave the traveler to fall asleep to the pestering whisper of opportunities missed, the lonely reader left unspoken to, the hike left untaken, the sunset left in ignorance. Yet no matter what, his dreams are filled with the past. People not thought on for years make appearances, former lovers, friends, teachers, strangers met just once, return to remind the traveler of his insecurities. Ghosts sensing vulnerability return to taunt and terrify. He sweats them out in his sleep.

I have never had nightmares with any regularity, because I have never really been afraid of anything . Sharks, spiders, and serpents, cliffsides, calamity, car crashes are never things I worry about during the day, so my dreams are free of them as well. At home, when honest caring is never far, the poltergeists are denied access. Out here, I have no protection. The fear is fought off during the day by friendly conversation, exhilarating experience, and that feeling every so often that I am precisely where I should be, precisely when I should be there. At night, I am at the mercy of the ghosts.

The landscape of the desert provides a battlefield unlike any other. The conquering of 400 foot dunes make men feel the invulnerability of gods. Wide open spaces with a million places to hide, the desert has the ghosts of failed adventurers, native tribespeople, and millions of years of sea animals. The terrain is tough, each step taken pushes you back. There is nobody, just you and your failures, successes, insecurities and arrogance. Out in the desert, you have only your own protection. The nights are frigid, the days are hot, the dunes are huge, the sand is endless. The ghosts have a clear shot from a hundred different angles.

A Desert Adventurer who never made it out. He stopped by some bushes, likely figuring water was nearby, but "Pepe" as Roberto called him, made the easiest and most fatal mistake in the desert: stopping.


Meeting the Chink: The Sage of the Ocucaje Desert

The desert is literature’s longtime metaphor for solitude. People die out there, Roberto Penny Cabrera cautions me. He is the desert man, or at least that is what he is called in Ica for his knowledge of the Ocucaje desert of southern Peru is unparalleled. His collection of fossilized shark teeth, brains, and meteorites is easily worth hundreds of thousands. Respect for him in Ica is so complete that he can leave them unguarded above his bed in a simple room above the Plaza de Armas.

I called Cabrera from a bench in the plaza at 9 am one morning after wandering the city for a while. Not entirely sure what to expect after reading story after story of his exploits, in really slow English, I asked for a tour of the desert. I knew he spoke perfect English, so my nervousness was betrayed in my bizarre speech. Little did I know that he was watching me already.

“My home is near the church. Come there.” Cabrera says and hangs up. I look around at the two churches and pick the nearest. Wandering toward it while shaking off money exchangers and baked goods salesmen, Cabrera beckons me from his porch. I look for a staircase.



“You are as lost in a city as I am, it seems.” Cabrera shouts from a doorway 20 feet away. I walk over, take off my hat, and shake his hand. Without saying anything, he leads me into the mansion, past his desert-tested black truck, and up two flights of stairs.

“What is your name?… John? John Wayne!” He says, showing a bit of excitement. Mostly bewildered, I follow him to a small room in a tiny corner of the mansions third floor. Three cases of fossils line the walls, a chair, a mattress, a pile of clothes, and a desk full of rocks are the floor’s only companions. The collection is overflowing.

I listen as Cabrera starts to tell me stories. He tells me of the journalists who came to visit, the graverobbers and illegal fossil hunters who are his sworn enemy, and his philosophy of earth and family. I listen, agreeing and disagreeing when I had the chance to speak.

“I like your hat. That is why you are here. Most people who come here, I am not home.” He says. The articles did say he was very particular about who he brings out. “I am giving you my time, that is the best thing I have.” I begin to realize that the trip I hope to embark on, a three day desert adventure to search for fossils in one of the world’s richest former oceans, was not really about the fossils.



I listen further as sage advice is mixed in with see-through salesmanship. I wonder if every sage is also a good salesman? Perhaps The Desert Sage is a better name than the Desert Man, because the longer we spoke, the more I realized that the trip was really about experiencing the spirituality of the desert, not finding shark teeth and whale brains. After an hour and a half of covering topics from government corruption to the difference between science and “finding” he takes me downstairs.

“I see you, I already know who you are, John Wayne. I know because I see a piece of my crazy life in you. We are similar.” As we talk about our shared belief that love and family are the most important things in the world, I begin to wonder if he is right.

“I’ll tell you what. I have a trip for the next three days. When I get back, I will take you out. I know you cannot afford the price, so here is what you must do. If you return on Sunday with a couple in love, the kind that is all over each other and happy doing anything, instead of each paying (the standard $400 per person for three nights) you will each pay a third. Now go. When I close those doors, you’ll go back into the real world, you’ll leave my world.”



We shake hands again, and I wander to the nearby coffee shop. Sipping a cappuccino, I realize how many of the problems I thought I had were solved in talking to my own chink for just an hour and a half. I had quite a bit more to learn from the man who manages to get people to pay him to do exactly what he loves. “It doesn’t matter what you do. There are good and bad people who do everything. Be a good one, that is what matters.” Just absurdly simple enough to be true, or absurdly simple enough to get a 19 year old to believe for a while.



A strange way to spend a day, a better way to spend the next ten

Today, I spent the entirety of the day trying to get my computer fixed. I broke it this morning while trying to fix the fan. When opening it with my pocketknife the, metal hit metal and the computer shut down. I tried to turn it on again and again, nothing worked. I figured I had fried it. After spending all day looking for a computer tech, I found a sony vaio specialist. They plugged it in and turned it on… My guess is that vaio has a failsafe built it so that just before some idiot fries his computer, it shuts off.

Anyhow, I leave now for a ten day solo backpacking trip that ideally will cover three of the world’s most diverse and exciting landscapes. One of the world’s hottest and driest deserts, some of the coldest and highest mountains, and the densest jungle known to man. In the Ocucaje Desert, the Andes mountains, and the Amazon Basin. Who knows if I’ll get through it all and back home in time for my Dad’s 69th, but that’s the plan.

I likely won’t be writing much in the next ten days, but thanks for reading! Over the past two months we’ve had over 1600 unique views, so thanks to everyone who has read, researched, or searched “how to get high on a road trip” and found RTOP!

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.

20 Hours to the Amazon!

That certainly wasnt the worst of one of the worlds most dangerous roads, but I was busy being scared so I didn't take too many pictures.

I have gotten to know one of the world’s most dangerous roads intimately this past weekend. By bus and car, horse and hitch, and of course, by foot. A fourteen hour overnight bus ride takes me, Todd, and Meg from Trujillo to Chachapoyas at 7,500 feet on the jungle side of the Andes Mountains. The driver checks his tires in front of the sign that marks passage into the Amazon jungle before a terrifying 2.5 hour, 5 am ride in a cab along sheer cliffsides with more blind spots than pavement leaves us at Choctamal Lodge. As the sun comes up, the clouds slowly rise above the mountaintops and the shadows reveal a deep valley.

Pretty amazing view, hard to see the valley below here though.

A nap and breakfast of eggs, rolls and tea await us. Then a 6 hour hike to an ancient fortress on the top of the highest mountain, the Chachapoyan skyscraper of a different sort, Kuelap. Well, it started out as a six hour hike. We decided to try hitchhiking, and grabbed the first van to take us to the top of the mountain. Arriving at the small parking lot at the base of Kuelap, I spy a group of horses. It isn’t hard to convince Meg and Todd to forsake the rocky path for finer friends, so we ride up to the fortress on horseback.

I know cashmere is generally not horseriding attire, but it was cold!

The entrance to Kuelap. We tried to go in but they said it was only the exit.

Kuelap was the defining feature of Chachapoyan society, which was conquered by the Incans, who thirty years later fell to the Spanish conquistadors. It holds the central temple, and plenty of houses, but the two level fortress was designed to keep watch over the valleys filled with people below. I found a bamboo walking stick, so we walked around tailed by a group of Peruvians who kept asking for pictures with Meg. Kuelap has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. I literally walked around saying wow every time the tangling vines and trees cleared. After a few minutes meditation at a more secluded, but equally beautiful spot, I went down the mountain and had lunch—leftover Pollo Arroz Chaufa (chicken fried rice) that Meg cleverly placed in a bag for easy transport.

This Llama and I got to know each other. I walked toward him, we walked toward me. Then he emptied his Llama bladder for about a minute and a half without averting his gaze from my eyes.

Our real lunch was spent in the nearby town of Maria, known for its proficiency in textiles. A surprisingly tasty steak was preceded by Todd, who was not feeling well, going to the town clinic and getting a cocktail shot of god-knows-what in a most sensitive region. Let’s just say it was really hard to walk. Or sit. After lunch we began hitchhiking back over the mountains, but a sudden rainstorm hit, which would have drenched us had we not been passing an abandoned house.

That is the valley covered by the sudden storm.

After crouching under the roof of the home built with planks of wood (a rarity, as most here are built with clay bricks) I realized I had left my stick in the restaurant. I walked back to get it while Todd and Meg went about hitchhiking home. I didn’t think this was a problem until I realized I did not know the name of the lodge we were staying at. I began hiking back, attempting to flag down cars before realizing I wouldn’t know what to say to them. So I kept hiking. An hour or so later I reached another town. Having long ago finished my water supply, I attempted to use my one sol to buy water. Everyone I met up there was friendly, and I was offered water, but had to decline since it wasn’t bottled. Finally I found a little bodega, and was greeted by two young boys who called their grandmother. Her name was Juana, I later found out, and their nombres were Harvey and Carlos. I practiced my Spanish for a few minutes before moving on, as mountain darkness arrives early.

Finally arriving at the lodge after a two hour hike and successful completion of the entirety of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” I sat down to carve my walking stick. Somewhere I have seen a stick in which a man carved all the interesting places he had taken it right into the stick, so from a picture in my camera, I carved a vision of Kuelap. It was amateurish, but good enough for a first try. Not thinking I’d need a picture of it, I didn’t take one.

Those clouds look close enough to drinK!


The next morning, we slept in a little bit and woke up, ready to go to the third tallest waterfall in the world. I didn’t sleep very well, I’m still not sure why. After an hour’s walk and failed hitchhiking attempts, we arrived at the nearest town. Then we spent 2.5 hours waiting for someone to pass by who would take us. We tried coca leaves, listened to flute music, talked to the locals, then finally got the privilege of hopping into the cramped back of a taxi cab taking a lawyer and his girlfriend down from Kuelap. As I was trying to fit my stick into the back of the cab, the cabbie, whose face was more wrinkled than any I can remember seeing, said “No!” and unceremoniously tossed my hard work into a ditch and slammed the trunk.

So that wasn’t great. It got worse when the driver said that there was no way we could reach the waterfall, since it was a lot further away than we thought. Hungry, we stopped for the worst lunch so far on the trip, of which I ate every piece of soggy rice, hard yuca, and fatty, rigid pork. Not because it was tasty but because I was starving. The tour guide who had been touring the Peruvian couple recommended a different way to spend the afternoon: more ruins. Apathetic at first, I got into it when the route to the ruins was over a river with a hand pulley cart.

Zip-line-cart-hand-pulley system is pretty common along this river. Along the way back we got stuck in the middle and had to use all of our combined strength to get us across.

The ruins turned out to be pretty awesome, carved into the mountainside using the same rocks as the mountain itself. More interesting though were the tombs, still containing bones and pot sherds dating back 600 years. Pieces of pottery were found all over the place, and I was happy to find a place relatively untouched by archeologists and civilians alike, a place with caverns undiscovered, and secrets still kept. So long as there are places like that left in the world, I know I’ll have something to do. It was a bit of a climb to the tombs, and my boots kept slipping, so I went tomb-raiding in my socks, which in turn got full of mummy dust. When the tour guide took us down to field filled with fossils, I got even more excited, and ended up finding a small fossil of some organic something he said I could keep.

The higher up houses denoted more important people. Carved into the mountain above is a vast tunnel system full of long deceased Chachapoyans.

A salad of bones, pottery, and mummy dressing!

After that, the trip was pretty uneventful. A routine cab ride back to Chachapoyas, a nice dinner (though everything was cold for whatever reason,) and another 14 hour bus ride back to Trujillo. Only this time I had a coach seat at the very front, meaning that every cliff we almost careened off of, I got to watch. That said, in between Spanish versions of Eight Below and ConAir, I had plenty of time to think about my upcoming plans. Stay tuned as we finish the wind turbine later this week.

  • Some of the fossils the owner of the field has found. There is a nice campground there as well.

Road Trip: Peru Edition

July 26-27

A beautiful mountainside near Cascas, Peru.

It’s really dark…That looks steep…”Slow down…Er…Despacio, por favor!” As the steering wheel turns, the tires start to skid. Oh. Oh. OH. Caroline screams and shield her face. I stare at the oncoming cliff, directly ahead now, just a few more feet…Phew. The car stops a few feet from the edge, I make a dumb reference to hide my nervousness, Senor Abel looks shocked, then smiles and laughs.  Welcome to a Peruvian Road Trip.

This week I was lucky enough to get out of the workshop twice to take a couple of road trips into the heart of the Peruvian Andes. Since this is, after all, a road trip blog, it seems only appropriate to record them.

July 26th: Strong Wine and Soccer

A man in a hat scopes us out in Cascas.

When was the last time I had a jersey? 8th grade I think. It’s only been five years. About as long as it’s been since I’ve kicked around a soccer ball. Do I want to play an exhibition game at a Peruvian Grape crushing festival? Of course I do!

So that’s how I ended up on a four hour bus ride to the mountain town of Cascas, Peru, famous for its wine, hopefully not for its soccer players. The drive was beautiful, to say the least. In the Peruvian Highlands, huge mountains are separated by deep valleys covered in farms and tiny villages. Our big bus wound its way through dirt and pista (paved road), eventually arriving at a town looking over one of the valleys. The town had a plaza, a soccer stadium, and a couple of streets. Oh yeh, and vineyards, lots of vineyards.

A government sponsored vineyard, just as the sun was setting.

We were received at what served as the town hall, where a panel made a presentation is rapid Spanish, followed by a toast of strong white wine that tasted like sweet apples. A lunch of chicken (bones) and rice followed. Our bus took us further up the hill to the towns tourist sites: a tree with 1000 roots, and a rock that supposedly looks like Jesus. You can be the judge.

The outcropping closest to the blue sky is his head. I see Zeus, though it could be anyone really.

All the same tree?

After that, it was time for soccer. In our WindAid jerseys and ready to play, we were quickly winded by the high altitude and intimidated by the speedy Peruvian players. A crowd gathered to watch, and the game began. Playing defense for the first time in five years, I was more than a little rough. Playing defense at 6,000 feet, I was exhausted. I made one good slide tackle that might have saved a goal, but otherwise basically ran around chasing Peruvians whose footwork made me feel like a forty year old.

I was too busy playing to actually get a picture of us playing soccer, but here we are at the opening ceremony.

That said, it was a blast. We lost 5-2, but at the end of the first half it was tied up at 2, and for the most part we held our own. After soccer, I took a walk around the town, stumbling upon a parade of school children performing the salute which struck fear into the hearts of many, many people during World War II, presumably in ignorance. A tour of the vineyards and a tasty barbecued chicken dinner brought us to 9 pm.

The aforementioned schoolchildren.

It gets dark at 7 here, and the gangs come out at night. Our bus driver refused to take us home without security. As it turned out, we had plenty of security. I was pretty tired, so I found a comfortable window seat in the rear of the bus and cozyed up (its freezing in the mountains here.) Next thing I know, a raucous group of middle aged Peruvians with jugs of wine board the bus. Instead of moving up to be with the rest of the group, I decided to stay for the cultural experience. Piccaron, they called me, after a soccer player with equally long curls. Or so I’m told. The men spent most of the trip yelling, singing, drinking, hitting on one of my groupmates, and finally falling into a wine induced slumber. As for me, I spent the night starting up at the most beautiful sky I’d ever seen, and wishing on a couple shooting stars.

July 27th: Laying the Foundations in La Florida

The snow capped mountains in the distance are the famed tips of the Peruvian Andes.

My second road trip was a test drive, so to speak, of the final week of this Peru experience. Once we build the wind turbine, we’ll be taking it up to the tiny 100 family town of La Florida, a five hour drive into the mountains from Trujillo, to put it up. Realizing that if I return to school, I won’t be able to go, WindAid’s director Mike and I figured out a temporary solution. Go up with the program director Caro, and English engineer, and Senor Abel, Mike’s go to guy for basically anything, and see the village. If I have to leave early, at least I’ll have gotten a chance to check it out.

So, at 5:45 Wednesday morning, I woke up and began a very long day. After fumbling my early morning Spanish enough to almost send us a half hour out of the way, we picked up the rebar foundations from the workshop and headed west into the mountains. I quickly fell asleep, only to wake up an hour or so later in a deep fog.  Only it wasn’t fog. Looking out the back window, I realized we had passed above Trujillo’s constant cloud cover, which blanketed the road mere meters from our car. The next time I woke up, I looked out on one of the most beautiful valleys I’d ever seen.

The valley I awoke to the second time.

As we climbed to our eventual destination of 11,000 feet upwards, the road switched from paved to headache and nausea gravel then back to paved. We met construction, buses, trucks, and cars. Normally this is not a problem, but in Peru, every encounter with a vehicle is a dangerous one. With few exceptions, the locals drive like texting teenagers, only worse. The few street lights that exist act as stoptionals, stop signs are rarely seen. There is no such thing as a speeding ticket. Tired of driving and starting to feel the altitude take its toll, we finally arrived in Huamachuco to meet Ryan, our Peace Corps liaison with La Florida.

We drove another twenty minutes to La Florida, where we were meet with sheep, cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, and trout? For the most part, the families of La Florida are subsistence farmers. Today, we were able to pry a couple of men away from the fields to help mix cement for the turbines foundation. After a lunch of delicious boiled potatoes and canned sardines (the potatoes were the delicious part) we set to work.

Laying the foundations. That's Senor Abel on the right.

We lined up the holes, mixed the cement, and filled it in. It seems easy, but the process took most of the day. The altitude was leaving me a little zoned out, so I’m not sure how much of a help I was, but being able to witness even just a day of quiet mountain life in Peru was well worth the bumpy ride. Not a fan of large groups, I enjoyed even more getting the chance to talk with Ryan, Caro, and to a lesser extent Senor Abel, and learn from the older travelers. We talked about the Peace Corps, working in foreign countries, pursuing what you love, and other topics lost to the mountain mists of memory.

Having finished our foundations, we returned to Huamachuco, sat down for some coffee, and headed back down the mountain. When we left La Florida, it was 4:30. When we arrived in Trujillo, it was 11:15. Only Senor Abel could drive in Peru, but even his skills would not be enough. We would need a little luck.

A view from the plaza in Huamachaco, supposedly one of the largest plaza's in Peru.

As darkness fell and we still had yet to hit the paved road, the turns became more treacherous. Buses flew past us halfway in our lane, trucks rumbled slowly through the fog, hugging the crumbling walls. I drifted in and out of conversation, singing along to country, rock, and middle school memory songs, and the occasional five minute nap.

It’s really dark…That looks steep…”Slow down…Er…Despacio, por favor!” As the steering wheel turns, the tires start to skid. Oh. Oh. OH. Caroline screams and shields her face. I stare at the oncoming cliff, directly ahead now, just a few more feet…Phew. The car stops a few feet from the edge, I make a dumb reference to hide my nervousness, Senor Abel looks shocked, then smiles and laughs.

That was the worst of our dangerous trip, but as Charlie said the next morning as I told the story: “Well, ya made it home.” True enough.

A pair of exciting trips sandwiched by three days in the workshop is my idea of a pretty awesome week, but the hairpin turns and gorgeous scenery I’ve witnessed so far will pale in comparison to my weekend plans. A twenty hour trip (each way) to the edge of the Amazon rainforest to see an ancient fortress and one of the world’s largest waterfalls will take me across the Andes, and into the very heart of Peru.

A reminder of the dangers of driving in Peru. This passenger bus slammed into the complex's wall, though luckily nobody was hurt. Even a nest full of eggs that got knocked out of a tree was untouched.

A Week in the Workshop

July 15-22nd

The workshop sits in the shadow of a mountain. At the foot are two ancient temples.

It’s been a week now since my tour of Mancora’s bathrooms, and t was our first full week in the workshop. To get a sense of the shop, you’ll need a sense of the scenery.

Peru is divided into three major climates. The coast, the mountains, and the rainforest. The coast is always cloudy during the winter, when the temperature hangs around 60. The Pacific is cool, but warms up as you head north toward the equator. The coastal earth is pure desert. Sand dune mountains, cactus plants, span for miles and miles, with a few scattered towns and cities. Trujillo is one such desert city. Between the coastline and Trujillo is a long road that takes travelers from the smoggy city to the nearby surfing beach and home of the Totora reed boats (more on that later). It is along this road, just past the pay-by-the-hour brothels with a codeword of “Orange,” that a small industrial area borders one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

A huge steel gate lined by towering concrete walls marks the entrance to the workshop. WindAid’s section is at the far end, past local guarddogs and guardpeople, a warehouse where Peru gets its wind energy. Inside the shop, we are introduced to steel cutting powertools. The angle grinder, and the tablesaw. A few feet away are the welding tools. Then the blades and the paint.

Christian cuts some steel.

The week is spent cutting steel, as we have to make all the parts ourselves, welding, cutting fiberglass, mixing resins, and creating the turbine’s base, body, and blades. We did some electrical work too, setting up the system by which the turbine harnesses the energy. When I understand it better, I’ll write about it, but for now let’s just say it has something to do with really high powered magnets and copper coils.

We have a pair of gloves, some safety goggles, and a dark green jumpsuit to keep us safe, but the first time I went to cut steel, a spark hopped above my goggles, singed my eyelash, and narrowly missed burning my eye. Now I’m so used to it that hot sparks landing on my face during up-close steel cutting sessions don’t even make me flinch.

An example of one of the workshops impromptu creations, the mold for the turbine's blades hangs from the ceiling in a testament to ingenuity.

The days are tiring, but I find myself really enjoying them. I have been reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, a book about the philosophical benefits to society and the self of a little bit of manual labor.

Essentially Crawford’s point is that the mental aspects of life, and work in particular, have been separated from the physical. He argues that craftsmanship is not just a physical challenge, but a mental one as well. His description of the difference between craftsmanship and artisans (like sculpture or woodcarving) explains it pretty well I think. He says that the art form is a gradual slope toward an artists envisioned goal. Craft is a series of attempts that, with adjustment, move in the direction of what the mechanic has in mind. To me it is that almost scientific in the trial process, but I’ve found my mind’s energy is consumed mostly in the process of tweaking.

In essence, you have something you need to create, and you have to figure out how to create it. When it is done, you have a product that benefits yourself or others, and provides some use. This is totally different from following an Ikea put it together yourself manual, and my week in the workshop has illustrated the process with an experience possible only in Peru.

This was taken when everyone was still frustrated, clearly, by the process described below.

Our contraption: Wieght pressed down on the paddle flattened the coil, weight on the crank tightened it.

Our first day, we had to take copper wire and make extremely tightly packed rings using a makeshift wooden crank. Nobody had used the crank before, so our pleas for help after messing up the first two received shrugs. The first was not tight enough, and it had to be exactly 37 wraps in each coil. We lost count. The second one was OK, but still not tight enough. The third one had the right tightness, but we put it on slightly wrong. Did I mention we had to make eighteen? The first three alone, all failures, took an immense amount of physical effort and almost two hours. The latter 18 took the same amount of time.

The difference was that after each failure, we reanalyzed how we needed to proceed and got better and better. We had no help and no directions beyond “You need to get it done by 5.” To me, that is what makes the WindAid workshop so great, and why it keeps the spirit of Crawford’s theories. We really have the opportunity to figure stuff out for ourselves, and the freedom to try different ways of doing things. It can be frustrating at first, but after a week of accomplishing task after task by bouncing ideas off each other, I realized that I would never want to just sit there and receive directions. That sort of environment, one in which I can spend I day cutting metal after reading the plans and not being told too, and doing it right, is one that makes engineering a lot of fun.

Finally, finished, the coils wait to be covered in resin.

And so I’m inclined to pick up some sort of craft as a hobby. Maybe I’ll fix up the Camino, or try building my furniture from scratch. I’ve always wanted to try woodcarving? Anyhow, the point is this: I loved shop class, and love working with my hands. Part of the reason I haven’t been writing much, and that when I have it has been not so great, is that I am focusing my mental energies elsewhere.

Solving problems in the workshop and concentrating on developing my skills with a whole new set of tools and experiences has shifted my focus, and new social situations I find myself in are pretty engrossing. As much as I’d like to say that all of that means I’m getting out of my head a little bit, that is not really the case. It is more that I am so mentally exhausted that by the time I actually go to write any of it down, it comes out poorly or not at all.

We’ll see if my writing continues to struggle, or if I find a balance. Honestly, I think it’s just that I’m too busy living to write about it.

The blade, made of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and resin, is removed from the mold and readied for sanding.

A day of work in the shop almost always ends with a dinner with the laughs cooked in.