Thursday, June 23, 2011

Peru; between a rock and a hard place, or finally on course?


After a stressful and well-commented double election round played out under the eyes of the world, Mr. Ollanta Humala was elected to be Peru’s next president. Since I am a former resident (I lived in Peru from 1997-2004), and because an important part of our business still takes place there, I was and still am very interested in Peru’s political well-being. I followed the election process, initially with growing concern, but recently with a tiny flicker of hope.

The people inhabiting what today is called the Republic of Peru have lived in various states of occupation over the past 600 years. Initially conquered by the Incas (for about 100 years, from say 1400AD) and subsequently suppressed by the Spaniards as their crown colony until way into the last century. Peru ‘s political reality in the more recent past has been characterized by the Roman “Panem et circenses”, basically coming down to corrupt governments keeping the majority of the Peruvian people poor and uneducated in order to more easily exploit them as a cheap force of labor. This is in many ways still the case, and in my honest opinion what has happened in Peru this month has more to do with the current government not doing its job correctly - in terms of making sure all Peruvians have an opportunity to share in the riches of their land (education, job creation, etc.) - than with the populist, mass-manipulation of which the upcoming president and his team are currently being accused.

As a matter of fact, to a certain extent, what has happened in Peru shows that the democratic system actually works. A majority (albeit a small one) of the Peruvian people did not agree with the way the current government handled its power (and the country’s wealth) and they chose to go in another direction. A direction they hope will eventually give them and their children a better chance to become equal, well-educated citizens with similar opportunities to their fellow country-men.

This is not to say that I have faith that Mr. Humala will do a better job than Mr. Garcia. That still needs to be proven and it is definitely not my place to predict anything. Sadly it is difficult to find an exemplary president in the country’s past, and neither Mr. Garcia, nor Mr. Humala really fit the bill. I tried to read Mr. Humala’s plan (If you read Spanish and feel like it, please give it a try: http://especiales.rpp.com.pe/elecciones2011/2011/01/21/conozca-el-plan-de-gobierno-de-ollanta-humala/) and all I can say at this point is that if he really can stick to most of what is outlined there, then he could actually make a good president.

However, his past does not speak for him. He allegedly supported a coup by his brother Antauro in 2005 against then president Alejandro Toledo, and apparently circulated a bi-weekly paper calling for the Peruvian people to rise-up against the Toledo government. Both while in active duty as lieutenant-colonel of the Peruvian Armed Forces. Also, his recently hidden friendship with, and support for, Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez do not inspire the trust that one would expect a people to have in a candidate they just elected to represent them for the coming 5 years. The fact that a couple of months before the elections he switched his allegiance to Brazil’s former president Ignacio “Lula” da Silva and hired some of his former executives to help him reshape his campaign can, up to this point, only be seen as a smug move to throw his competitors off course and win the elections. Ms. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of one of Peru’s former presidents and Mr. Humala’s closest contender, unsuccessfully tried the same approach to shed some of her more right-wing public image.

n the end it does not really matter who thinks what. Mr. Humala was chosen democratically by the same people that chose his predecessors, so like it or not, he is the man for the job. Hopefully he will be held accountable by these exact same people if he fails to keep his promises.

What is happening in Peru today seems similar to what has happened, is happening and will probably be happening for quite some time, throughout the rest of the continent. After centuries of Spanish/Portuguese rule and a series of make-believe republics followed by, or mixed with, military dictatorships, most Latin American countries have only seen modern democracy very recently. Action causes reaction and sadly many of Latin America’s democracies do not really function the way they should. This is simply because large parts of the population do not receive sufficient education to be able to make up their minds about which presidential candidate would best represent them. It takes a people choosing a president who will invest in their education to get that ball rolling. Depending on the outcome of Mr. Humala’s upcoming presidency we will see if this time that choice was right or not. It will depend on Mr. Humala’s decency; will it be his wish to go into history as the man that saved his people, or will he turn out to be just another charlatan lying to his people in exchange for an easy squeeze? I guess we’ll see soon enough.

Mr. Ignacio “Lula” da Silva has become an icon in Latin American politics and it is not strange that Mr. Humala and some others have chosen to want to be seen more like him than, for example, Mr. Chavez. Even though Brazil has seen a series of “lucky” events form part of its current boost to becoming one of the world’s super powers, Lula has still managed to stay on top of things and realize what in many other neighboring countries has not yet been achieved – how to combine strong macro-economic growth with proper transformations of the actual functioning of society, giving a large portion of the country’s poor the opportunity to grow and become part of the middle class. This may seem trivial at first glance, but until the “Lula Miracle” this had not happened in most of South America. The social changes in Brazil over the past 10 years are the biggest in its entire history.

I do not pretend to be a political analyst, nor do I want to share my personal political opinions here, but I do want to try to figure out what is happening in Peru and why politics in general seem to have become more and more about the well-being of the politician instead of that of the people he/she is chosen to represent. Peru sees similar factors to Brazil at the base of its economic growth of the past 10 years, and if managed well, could potentially follow this example on a social level. In my eyes, Mr. Humala has a chance here to wipe the slate clean and be remembered as the president Peru never had before. If he sticks to his word and really manages to combine Peru’s economic growth with sufficient education and job opportunities for its people, he might not only be remembered as Peru’s favorite president, but as the one that helped a new Latin American socio-political model come into existence.

Now, let’s keep our fingers crossed, our eyes closed and pray for rain…

Thursday, June 16, 2011

God in the machine: Inti Raymi in Cusco and Corpus Christi

Hi there,

I am not a very religious man and although I very much believe there is more to life than meets the eye, I have tended to stay away from institutionalized religion due to some authority issues, which sadly have stood in the way of my enlightenment. That does not mean I do not see the beauty in the history and rituals of some religious habits and festivities, and part of the attraction of Latin America certainly lies in its cultural heritage, and therefore also in its divine celebrations.

I will have to be honest and say I have never witnessed either of the two important religious festivals I am about to describe here. Not sure as to why, as I have certainly not shunned them, I’ve simply not been in the right place at the right time I guess, as is always a possibility when one tries to get to know an entire continent. I was asked to give some reflections on these two events as they are coming up, so I did a little research. I must say that after all I read, I may change my travel plans for this year and make sure to be in Cusco on June 24th and anywhere in Brazil, Peru or Ecuador roughly 50 days after Easter…

Inti Raymi

The Festival of the Sun was a religious ceremony of the Inca Empire in honor of the sun-god Inti, one of the most venerated gods in Inca religion. According to chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, Sapa Inca Pachacuti created the Inti Raymi to celebrate the winter solstice and a new year in the Andes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Today, it's the second largest festival in South America. Hundreds of thousands of people converge on Cusco from other parts of Peru, South America and the world, for a week long celebration marking the beginning of a new year - the Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun.

During the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi was the most important of four ceremonies celebrated in Cusco, as related by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The celebration took place in the Haukaypata or the main plaza in the city. The ceremony was also said to indicate the mythical origin of the Incas, with nine days of colorful dances and processions, as well as animal sacrifices to ensure a good cropping season. The last Inti Raymi with the Inca Emperor's presence was carried out in 1535, after which the Spanish conquest and the Catholic Church suppressed it. Some natives participated in similar ceremonies in the years after, but it was completely prohibited in 1572 by the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who claimed it was a pagan ceremony opposed to the Catholic faith.

In 1944, a historical reconstruction of Inti Raymi was directed by Faustino Espinoza Navarro with indigenous actors. The reconstruction was so popular that it was repeated a number of times and the Inti Raymi festival has now been reestablished as a much looked forward to yearly event.

Corpus Christi

Latin for Body of Christ, this is the holiday when Catholics commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist, or communion. It’s held either on a Thursday or a Sunday roughly 50 days after Easter.

The appearance of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Christian calendar was primarily due to the petitions of the thirteenth-century Augustinian nun Juliana of Li├Ęge. From her early youth Juliana revered the Blessed Sacrament, and always longed for a special feast in its honor. In 1208 she reported her first vision of Christ during which she was instructed to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. The vision was repeated for the next 20 years but she kept it a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the bishop. Sadly, the celebration of Corpus Christi became widespread only long after St. Juliana had died.

Throughout Latin America, Corpus Christi is celebrated every year and it is considered one of the most important religious holidays after Christmas and Easter. Decorating the streets with colorful carpets made from wood shavings and other materials is one of the highlights of this celebration of the faith.

I hope to have given a more or less adequate description of both festivals, which as I said I have not experienced myself thus far. I truly hope to be able to make the time this year or next to go and witness them - let me know if you’re thinking of going too! Also, if you have any first-hand stories to share about any of these festivities then I’d love to hear them.

Thanks again and happy trails

Bart

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Galapagos Memories

Hello!

I still remember the first time I went to Galapagos. It was in 1994 and I was working at Pamir Travels & Adventures, owned by long-time friend and mentor Hugo Torres, doing a traineeship in Sales and Marketing. Those were the last days before email; I actually remember installing the first PC in Hugo’s office with an email account. For all the beauty and peace I find in the natural wonders of the continent I have called home for the past 15 years, I still get bewildered by the pace of technological development we have seen in just about the same time frame. If only we would apply more of our technological creativity to finding ways to protect the very world we live in, we would be way past trying to create paradise on earth, I bet you.

I was halfway through my traineeship when I had a meeting with Hugo and his wife Mireilla about how actual travel experience could enhance the sales process. That same afternoon, we had a group arriving from Germany. Since at the time I was the only one in the office speaking German, Hugo asked me if I wanted to accompany the driver to go and receive the group. The group consisted of Dr. Gerd and Mrs. Christel Gigler and some of their best friends, who had come to Ecuador to celebrate their 25th marriage anniversary in style. We had a nice conversation aboard the bus on the way to their hotel and they asked me to accompany them on their city tour the next day, which I did. The day after we were bringing the group to the airport for their flight to the Galapagos Islands, when Gerd all of a sudden asked me: “Bart, we have chartered a ship for our honeymoon, it has 10 beths and we are 9; would you like to join us?” I needed to ask him to repeat that twice before I really understood what he had just said, and when I looked at Mireilla who was with us that day, she nodded and gave me a look, as if to say “what are you waiting for? This is a chance in a lifetime!” So, after some (about 5 seconds) of thinking I agreed and after some practical issues (such as me not having brought anything to the airport but the clothes I was wearing and for some reason my passport) were solved, I found myself with my new friends on my way to the Galapagos…

Samba was a refurbished, formerly Dutch trawler, which today would be considered a luxury, small-group cruise vessel. With five cabins it was actually smaller than most ships one will find, but therefore that much cozier when traveling in a group of friends. We sailed the 8-day, westerly route and it was one of the most amazing trips I have made in my life, when it comes to marine wildlife. I watched, swam and played with so many different species of animals I can hardly remember them all: Giant turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, golden rays, manta, sea lions, leather back turtle hatchlings, black hawks, albatross, red- and blue-footed boobies, spinner dolphins, blue whales, frigates, finches, Galapagos lizards, and so many more that it still dazzles me thinking back on it.

The only experience to come close to this was my 6-hour boat ride on the “Golfo Nuevo” Bay near the Valdes Peninsula, when I actually had an 18m (54ft) Southern Right Whale come up alongside our zodiac, look me right in the eye, kind of asking for a tap on the back. I did and he (or she; I did not verify) started spinning slowly around his horizontal axis, allowing me to caress his skin and have one of my life’s most awesome encounters with nature.

Not that the Galapagos did not offer similar opportunities: I went snorkeling with a piece of rope to play with an abundance of sea lions, who tried not only to bite the rope, but also take off my fins and mask, which was both scary and fun; Swimming back to the surface I literally swam through a cloud of golden rays, only to surface finding a pelican perched on my head, as the ship mates had decided to have a laugh and throw some leftovers of the preparation of the fish for that evening’s feast into the sea next to the boat. I watched a Galapagos hawk spot, catch and devour a baby leather back turtle only meters away from where I was laying, observing how hundreds of its fellow hatchlings made their way into the ocean, surviving the first of many perilous episodes in their lives; I almost stepped on a blue-footed booby, who had placed her nest right on the trail designated for two-legged visitors, completely impervious to the risk I posed her; I saw thousands of spinner dolphins jumping over each other in a feeding frenzy as we followed a pair of blue whales below Isabela Island; I stood in a bay, water to my knees, with two resting reef sharks laying at my feet, while small Galapagos penguins swam across at less than 10m (30ft) distance. I did and saw all that and remember thinking: “this must be the best traineeship ever…”

Galapagos is one of those very few places on earth where we can see what the world would look like if we had not consistently hunted and killed every animal in sight, what it would feel like if man and animal were actually able to live side by side, sharing the same space. I can tell you it is beautifully humbling and if you love nature, this is a place you definitely should not miss.

For a couple of ideas on Galapagos holidays, please have a look at the following links:

Galapagos & Peru Discovery

Galapagos: Last minute and special offers!

Thanks again for reading, hope to see you here soon!


Happy trails,

Bart

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Dreaming of Brazil


Hi there everyone,

I have been quiet for a while, busy discovering new corners of South America, and doing some work while at it... I do promise to get back here more often from now on!

Today, let’s talk about Brazil. We have heard more than enough about it on the news lately, but I get the feeling the focus has been somewhat economic. Even though it is interesting to see how world financial flows have been thrown around and today’s money makers are in fact the developing countries of yesteryear, whilst the big powers of pre-2008 are scrambling to get by, that is not what this blog is about. Brazil has become Latin America’s economic super power and that is not something that can or should be ignored. In the realm of travel it has had two interesting consequences:

First, travel to Brazil has become more expensive; the Real has revalued a lot and prices are similar to those in Europe and North America, if not, in some cases, higher. That said, we are still traveling in great numbers to the old, and the not so old, continents, which means the current price tag on tourism in Brazil is probably not going to be prohibitive to travelers. One main difference is air fare prices, which remain very expensive throughout the Latin America region, compared to similar distance long-haul flights in other parts of the world. One day I will try and investigate how this comes to be and if something could be done about it, but for now, the cost of international flights will remain the only real obstacle for people to travel to Brazil and its neighbors. I promise that when I find a cure for this, I will share it here first!

Second, Brazilians are rapidly becoming the largest visitor groups to their neighboring countries. For Argentina this is already the case, with almost 20% of all Brazilians traveling abroad heading for Buenos Aires, Iguazu and Bariloche. Also Peru is well-visited, with Machu Picchu as the most important destination. This might in the end mean that some of the entries you will see from me in the future will be written in Portuguese… J

Funny, I am sitting here in the attic of my house, winter is about to hit Buenos Aires, and I have just found out the heater up here has decided to stop working. Six degrees Celsius outside and I am thinking of Brazil… Last time I went (apart from a few stopovers) is already a while ago now, a little over a year in fact! I wrote a piece on the North of Brazil then and I remember dedicating some of it to the Feijoada dish this region is famous for. Sitting here, sipping a cup of instant soup to keep warm, I all of a sudden feel hungry, so let’s see what the Feijoada is all about again, shall we? I Googled a bit and found a good entry, which I hereby will copy, hoping the good people on about.com/homecooking as well as Mrs. Heidi Haughy Cusick (who’s book “Soul and Spice” is mentioned as the source) will be happy with my enthusiasm:

“The hearty Feijoada stew is the national dish of Brazil. It's loaded with black beans, pork, bacon, sausage, ham, and beef. Plan ahead to soak the beans overnight. This recipe takes some time to cook, but the result is well worth it.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 3 hours

Total Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Ingredients:

· 2 cups (1 pound) black beans, rinsed and picked over

· 3/4 pound pork butt or shoulder, trimmed of fat

· 6 ounces slab bacon

· 1/2 pound smoked pork sausages

· 1/2 pound hot Portuguese sausage such as linguica

· 1 or 2 pounds ham hock or shank, cut into 1-inch rounds

· 1 large yellow onion, chopped

· 2 to 4 ounces dried beef carne seca, minced (optional; see Note)

For the Seasonings:

· 3 garlic cloves, minced and sauteed in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

· 6 green onions, including tops, chopped

· 1 yellow onion, chopped

· Large handful of chopped fresh parsley (about 1/2 cup)

· 2 bay leaves, crumbled

· 1-1/2 tablespoons dried oregano, crushed

· Salt and ground black pepper

· Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

Preparation:

Soak the black beans overnight in water to cover by several inches. Drain.

Place the drained black beans in a saucepan and add water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the beans are tender, 2 to 2-1/2 hours. Add additional water as needed to keep the beans covered.

While the black beans are cooking, prepare the meats. Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Dice the pork butt or shoulder and the bacon into 1/2-inch cubes. Place the pork, whole sausages, and bacon in a large baking pan. Roast until well done. The sausages will be ready after 35 to 40 minutes and the other meats after 45 to 60 minutes.

Cook the ham hock at the same time as the meats are roasting. In a saucepan, combine the ham hock rounds and onion with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until tender, about 1 hour. Remove the ham hock rounds from the water and remove the meat from the bones, if desired; set aside. Or leave the rounds intact for serving alongside the black beans. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl. Add the strained onions from the liquid to the beans. Add the cooking liquid to the beans if needed to keep them immersed.

Once the black beans are almost cooked, check to make sure there is plenty of cooking liquid in the pot. It should be rather soupy at this point. Stir in the beef (carne seca). Cut the sausages into rounds and add them and all the other cooked meats to the pot. Then add all of the seasonings to the pot, including salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the beans are very tender.

Taste and adjust the seasonings. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro or parsley just before serving.”

Of course, cooking this up at home is the second best option, and will suffice only until you can make your way to Brazil in person and sit down to an authentic Brazilian feast accompanied by a cachaca or two and perhaps a little samba. Here are a few ideas for you if you plan to visit:

Salvador and the beauty of Bahia

Diamantina National Park and Salvador

OK, I am off out to buy black beans and bring a little Brazilian heat into this cold Buenos Aires day, talk to you later!

Happy trails

Bart