John Mahar's Blog

Education, Spanish, Travel, Poems, Bonnaroo reports, and more.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Now I am home. As I was leaving, lots were asking me if I was sad. The truth, which is what I told them, was no. "I'm going home to my house, my job, and my woman, I'm looking forward to it." In Spanish that part about 'my woman' doesn't sound so patriarchal. Anyway, it was a good trip, and I might blog one more about conclusions, or ideas for next time. All the photos of Peru are up on my picasaweb page (see previous post for addy).

Hasta la proxima.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


The music cut out as the truck approached in the oncoming lane. It had been cutting out before, but this time it lent a particularly dramatic effect as the truck, swerving to dodge some cattle on the road, careened toward the grill of our bus. The road didn´t seem wide enough for the two vehicles, let alone the two vehicles and the cows.

I was on my way to Chavin, an archeological site in the Callejón de Huanchucos one valley to the east, just over the Cordillera Blanca, from Huaraz. Chavin is the name of one of many of the pre-Inca cultures that lived in Peru. Chavin was extraordinary in its scope and domination through peaceful means. To put it simply, it was a religious cult and knowledge center that used intimidation and hallucinigens to insure loyalty and offerings.

To my surprise and relief, we avoided collision. But aside from the oncoming traffic, there were more concerns. Boulders up to the size of the bus littered the sides of the road, some looking more freshly fallen than others. Everywhere I looked it seemed something unnerving appeared, and then there was the music. We were listening to Alicia Delgado, a local favorite of the style Huaino, which is kind of like bluegrass meets chinese music, with little mandolin-type instruments, guitars, and harps. Her song "Cerveca, mas cerveza," which means "beer, more beer" was playing, and it made me wonder about the driver of the bus´level of intoxication. That it was Fiestas Patrias, the week-long celebration leading up to Independence Day, July 28th--in which alcohol sales go up 50% across Peru, didn't add to my confort.

If the road, potholed and falling over the side of the cliff it had been carved into, was bad, the curves were disasters. There was no pavement, they were narrower than the road, and all were blind hairpin turns. A few passengeres signed the cross as we entered the tunnel at the top of the pass. Surprisingly, Jesus was on the other side waiting for us. The road grew only more dangerous--perhaps Jesus was there to compensate. On the way down the other side of the pass, I looked down at least 100 feet to the next switchback. Somehow, along with the road a school, some houses, and a soccer field had been carved into the cliff as well. If you were the kid that kicked the ball off the court there, you could be gone for hours trying to retrieve it.

I did, by grace (or thanks to ol' Jesus watching over us), make it to the archeological site. As I mentioned, Chavin was pretty interesting, in that they dominated not through force, but through education and trickery. What does that tell us about education? I'll not ponder that one. A guy named John Rick, a professor from Stanford, was there on site while I was. He claims that, among other things, "Chavín sits squarely in the transition from societies based on relatively egalitarian relations (in which people are fairly close to equal in status and power, and permanent leadership is rare), and states, which are based on intrinsic differences in rights and power between individuals and segments of the population, and a strong, usually hereditary leadership of pervasive control." To see more from Rick, skip to the bottom.

The carvings on the stones are very cool. They combined images of three animals mainly: the snake, representing the underworld, the jaguar, on the ground, and the condor, which, no surprises, represented the heavens. The figures also sometimes included bats.

One of the cooler things there are the stone heads, which, if viewed in a certain order, seem to follow a metamorphasis from human face to a jaguar. This supposedly was the trip they took on the peyote-like San Pedro cactus they used in their ceremonies. As far as I found out, there is not evidence of them using ayahuasca, a somewhat popular, if intense, psychadelic used by shamans in the jungles of Peru today.

RICK, from websites:

SCA: What is the most important thing you've learned from your work at Chavín de Huántar?

JR: In addition to the immense importance of working with the local community, I've labored at two big realms of understanding. The first is how to deal with a site that is monumental in scale, tremendously spatially differentiated (in terms of construction, sedimentation, and content), and went through huge changes in strategy and function as authority evolved. The second is the nature of human authority and what it took to institutionalize and naturalize the idea that humans could have tremendously unequal position in society. Chavín is a lesson in redesigning the human perspective on sources of power and authority; I argue that the long formative trajectory of this site illustrates a level of human originality and ingenuity in rebuilding society, based on the manipulation of belief systems that transforms the world of humans. In the end, Chavín makes me ask big questions about humanity and the way culture has evolved; I honestly do not rest easily with some of the answers that seem to loom large.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It seems time for another Peru update. What´s going on here? Well, the trial of Fujimori is dragging along. Most of the folks I talk to don´t think anything is going to happen to him. All of the witnesses are guilty of war crimes, apparently, and so they beat around the bush in their testimony to avoid implicating themselves, and by the by avoid implicating Fujimori as well. Of course I could be mistaken, and so could the people I talk to.

Huaraz is awash in capital, it seems. New buildings are going up, and, compared to 4 years ago (and even 2 years ago) the tourism development has really kicked into high gear. Lots of places here have wireless internet, so travelers with laptops don´t have to pay the almost 35 cents an hour internet cafe rates.

I know a handful of what amount to small business people here, and they are all doing well. Zarela, who runs the hostel in which I stay, is full and makes other commission arranging taxis, transport, and climbing support services like donkeys and cooks and porters. Yuri, who has a shop that makes and sells mountaineering cloth-gear, has a constant stream of large orders making uniforms for guiding services around the world. Marco, a guide at Galaxia expeditions, has recently moved his company to a nicer spot, increased marketing, and has plenty of clients.
Chris and Ysa, his wife, run a cafe, and it´s successful enough that Chris is rarely there. He also does logistics like Zarela.

All of this is seasonal, of course, but if the off season were bad, these folks couldn´t have made the improvements they have made.

Prices of commodities, like in the rest of the world, are going up here, but the government subsidizes gas, and claims they won´t raise the price until next year. Chicken, for example, just jumped almost 15%. The president (Garcia)´s average approval rating is about 30%, which is a lot better than the 6% of the former president the last time I was here. In comparison, in Bolivia, Evo Morales has an approval rating of 49% and Cristina Kirchner is around 30% as well, if I remember right. Something like that. She has been fighting with farmers over some new tax she put in place that hurts them. Garcia has spent quite a bit on a propaganda campaign talking about all the great things he has done in two years. I´m sure some of them are true, but inertia is hard to fight, and there is a lot of it here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


So I went up to this town Marian and taught for about an hour Friday morning. I addressed all the 5th and 6th graders, which here means 1' to 12 year olds. They were very cute, of course. The school was nice, and so were the principal and other teachers. They were very appreciative that I came up. I started off with a little survey. Since they didn´t have pencil and paper, I had to do the survey by hand-raising. This started out a complete disaster. "Please answer," I asked them. Once a few of them started, most of the rest joined in, and by the last question all of them were choosing one of the answers I offered them. Then I asked them about their water, where it came from, and where it goes. I drew this on the board, and later used the drawing to illustrate the water cycle and parts of the watershed. We discussed some problems for the watershed, and then I encouraged them to form an environmental club to do little community projects. Afterwards I talked with the teachers. I felt pretty good about it, but as far as solving problems goes, the type of lesson I did is a poor strategy. Unless they form a club, what I did was a one-time thing. Nothing is sustainable about it. I did try to explain, through comparison to Kentucky, that nothing happens until people get organized and make changes. Planting seeds, anyway. It was fun, and I think the kids enjoyed it. The principal complimented me (as many others have before) on how easily I connect with the kids. I guess being a goof pays off everywhere.

The pictures are of the school and the view from the street.


Jatun Machay means "big drunk" in Quechua. Or at least that´s what our dog-running-over-awful-techno-listening cab driver told us. Fredi seemed to take not a single precaution in our 2 hour drive up to this climbing area. He spent most of the time driving on the wrong side of the road, both on the way up and on the way down. There are lots of potholes, of course, but they don´t change sides of the road. Anyway, we found, at the turnoff from the main road, that Fredi had a flat tire. "The dog cursed us," he said. Perhaps so, but the spare tire, which was the baldest, fraying tire I have ever seen, did not pop on our way up the rocky dirt road to the refuge.

There we met Gordo, Kutu, and Cholo, the caretaker´s dogs. Cholo probably could have won a contest for biggest dog balls in the world. The puppies could have won cute contests.

We climbed for two days up there at 4300 meters or so. The place is a surreal city of rocks, probably a volcanic tuft of some sort. My geology skills are a bit rusty. A bunch of friends from Huaraz happened to come out and join Kevin, Chris, Wayne and I on the first day. That night we met some folks from Argentina and Chile. It was a bit of a flashback for me trying to understand Chileno, a particularly difficult to understand from of Spanish. They speak fast and cut off the ends of their words. You pretty much have to know what the subject of the conversation is in order to understand anything.

The next day the puppies joined us and we climbed with the Argentines and Chileans. Good times. Fredi picked us up and managed not to kill any dogs on the way down. He did, however, manage to kill our brain cells with his horrible mix of techno. "If I hear this song ever again it will be too soon," Chris said of one of the gems, a Cher-based remix asking if you believe in love after love. "That could go for just about all of them," Kevin replied. Wayne, smarter than the rest of us, had his ear plugs in.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I am rock climbing tomorrow for a couple days. I´ll go to Jatun Machay with 3 guys from Colorado who are very strong climbers. I´ll pretend. Very interesting rock spire garden kind of place. There are pictures of it on the picasa site in the Peru 06 album. Very stark landscape.

Friday I have been invited to teach some watershed science in a rural school about 5km outside Huaraz in a pueblito called Marian. That should prove interesting.

This is kind of what I expected, and I suppose I´m a bit proud of myself for predicting it: some people, when I mention watershed science, I want to talk to teachers, I want to encourage stewardship of the watershed, etc are going to throw up walls, say imposible, no se puede, and so on. Others will invite me into their classroom the next day. And so it is. I talked to the principal of the math and science high school here yesterday, and he said "very difficult, my teachers come from Lima and go home in the same day." While that hard to believe (although all the locals I told that believe it), if true is quite amazing--that would be 14 hours on a bus in a day, 6 hours of teaching. I suppose they must sleep on the hellride buses. The buses do have very reclinable seats.

There is a lot going on down here as far as projects and development. I suppose one could get into this development work and really dedicate yourself to it if you were good at grantwriting and so on.

My new goal, which I think is the most sustainable idea, is to encourage the students here to form environmental clubs that try to do some activism. That would be VERY COOL. I hope I´ll be able to post more on that some other time.

Also, I want to go to Chavin, the site of Huari ruins. Huari was an incredible culture before the Incas that united people from the forest, mountains, and the coast with religious trickery. Check it out on wikipedia or something.

I also really want to climb a mountain and ski down. This might not happen.

I will go stay at a refuge higher up in the mountains sooner or later as well.


I´ve been in peru over a week, and developments are developing. By the time I leave, I´m sure lots of opportunities will be in place too late to take advantage of them.

I met a guy named Grahm, and he has been coming here for 12 years. He guides a trek through the Hauyhuash range. His clients are doctors and they do two free clinics in the pueblos on the backpacking curcuit. To start acclimating, we took a hike to Laguna 69, which sits right beneath Chacraraju, a mountain he wants to climb after his trek.

First thing was getting a cab. We negotiated a fare with Cesar and he did a good job. Or I did a bad job, both, I guess. For about 5 hours or so (total) in the taxi, we paid around 70 dollars. And he waited for us at the trailhead.

We started out, and Grahm told me about an awesome water purifier. It works with UV rays to destroy any bacteria and/or creature that may be in the water. It doesn´t kill them, apparently, it alters or destroys their DNA so that they cannot bother your intestines. Wow, cool. He also brought a multi-plug adapter for some unknown reason. We passed everyone, pretty much. About 3 people got there ahead of us, and who knows when they started. One of the guys we passed was a deaf Israeli. He was sitting on the ground, Lenny Kravitz sunglasses on his face, tongue out like he was about to pass out. As if there wouldn´t have been language barrier enough (I only know how to say hello and 'I am a beatle'in Hebrew), he couldn´t hear what I said anyway. He typed me a text message on his cell phone in Hebrew. I couldn´t read it. So we tried some sign language. I was under the impression that his head hurt, so I indicated he drink more water. He indicated he didn´t have any. We offered water, he seemed to indicate he had already drank a whole bottle. Apparently he thought that was enough. I indicated he should go down. Neither of us really probably understood the other. Oh well.

This was my first hike here, and my head hurt a bit too when we got to the lake. It was blue blue blue. See photos at my picasa site (See previous blog for link). Wow, everybody (eventually about 25 or so people arrived) was very impressed. The climb up Chacraraju looked quite straight forward to me, unexperienced with snow and ice climbing. I´m sure it isn´t.

So, it was cool. Cesar was there waiting when we got down, and he flew down the dirt roads like a bat out of hell. When we saw the little bus in the ditch on the side of the road he slowed down for a bit. Once we were on pavement again he was doing 140km/hour. This on a 2-lane road in the mountains. I slept in order to stop having to deal with the terror. I awoke to the taxi stopped on the side of the road. Cesar was not in the car--Grahm said he got pulled over. A very friendly smiling police woman poked her head in the window. ¨Where did you come from today?¨ ¨What time did you leave?¨ "Did you see the Llanganuco Lakes? They´re very pretty, don´t you think?" Confusion reigns here. When Cesar got back in the car, he told us that she had asked him for money. "But I didn´t give her any," he said proudly.
"Muy bien," I told him. That was actually the second time he had been pulled over. Que mala suerte.

Friday, July 11, 2008

this is a view from the top of La Casa de Zarela, and to see others check out

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Today I might get to leave Lima. The plan was to head to Hauraz less than 2 hours after arriving. I am staying at a cool hostel where I have met all kinds of good people from all over: Israel, Brazil, USA and Wales. I talked music with Marcos from Brazil, gave sagely travel advice for eveyone´s next destination, and discussed politics with everyone. I shared some kosher dinner with the Israelis, (and avoided talking about palestinians) and one of them taught me an Israeli song--he played it on the recorder while I copied him on the harmonica. I taught him when the saints go marching in. He kind of knew it already, I guess.

There´s a general work stoppage here today, and it spilled over to yesterday and it might affect tomorrow as well. Certain regions of the country, according to one taxi driver and the news, are ¨paralizados.¨ But if I´m lucky I´ll be leaving for Huaraz tonight.

The work stoppage was called by a large union here, and a few others joined in. The workers at the gold mine in Huaraz, for example, are on strike, and teachers as well, so schools were closed today. There was a political cartoon showing an angry mother yelling about the strike as her children came home early from school. There is a general sentiment in the city that a complete work stoppage is going a bit too far. The manager of the hostel remarked--¨They want tourists to come in, and then they do this [the wk stpge]. It would be like if I piled up a bunch of rocks in front of my door.¨ So some people have little sympathy.

There are various reasons for the work stoppage. As in the rest of the world, gas and food prices have gone up, causing problems for drivers of transport and families. A gallon of gas here costs around 6 dollars. And here the average salary is around 200 dollars a month (or so).

I asked a taxi driver what they´re going to accomplish. He stuttered a bit before saying ¨they´re keeping a promise, they said they would stop work, and they did.¨ He went on to talk about the reasons for the strike, adding that most of the foreign aid money sent to the Ica region after last year´s horrible earthquake and ensuing disaster has been stolen by various political agencies.

Another thing in the news is that Alberto Fujimori was finally extradited from Chile. Apparently he came to Chile (from Japan, where he has been an international fugitive) considering running for reelection. Yep. Chile, kindly enough, respected Peru´s request. A former general has been testifying that Fujimori knew about all the death squads and massacres and so on. It was not just his hitman, of sorts, Vladimiro Montesinos. Meanwhile, Montesinos, for a reason I can´t figure out, was in an ad on tv saying that people shouldn´t be involved in the work stoppage. This is really weird for a few reasons. 1. He is in prison. 2. People in general have a negative opinion of him.

On this confusing note, I´ll give up the computer to someone else.