Sunday, May 30, 2010

Altitude sickness and other challenges of group travel: The Peru Diaries, Part III

By the time we flew off to Cusco, the disadvantages of group travel were clearly outweighing the advantages.

True, in the airport on way to Cusco we again experienced one of the pluses of group travel—a tour leader to get you through the airport confusion. Although we speak some Spanish, an airport is not the best place to practice.

When we arrived in Cusco, we experienced the down side. If we were traveling by ourselves, we would have immediately checked into a hotel and decompressed. For me, flying is always stressful.

But this was a tour with no rest for the weary, and off we went to see some of the archaeological sites around Cusco before descending into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The day was spectacular: dazzling sunshine, an unbelievably bright blue sky. Unfortunately, Rick was getting altitude sickness and longed to get off the bus and lie down in a comfortable bed.

Through some quirk of body chemistry, I feel euphoric at 12,000 feet. I think my constant exclamations about the incredible scenic beauty really got on Rick’s nerves.

We didn’t stagger into our hotel until 7:00pm--beautiful hotel, terrible food. Since we were in the middle of nowhere, there were no other options for dinner other than the inedible food at the hotel.

Rick was still having some problems with the altitude, so we did not climb the impressive Inca fortress at Ollataytambo. I tried not to be too envious of the other tourists climbing the steps to the top. We had the spectacular view and enjoyed visiting the sites at the foot of the fortress.

Rick and I were the least physically fit of the members of our tour group—a generally 60 something group. We both resolved to work on this when we got home. (We haven’t)

Then we wandered around the town of Ollataytambo and visited an elementary school. Our tour group specializes in arranging experiences to give tourists some sense of people’s lives. A worthy goal, but I couldn’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling of being a voyeur from a privileged world. (In a global context, we Americans are all privileged although we may not think of ourselves that way)

The children were adorable and on their best behavior for foreign tourists, but the experience was depressing. The school lacked books, basic supplies and there were 12boys and only 4 girls in the class. Although education is theoretically compulsory in Peru, we learned it is not enforced. And although schooling is free, there are ancillary costs which must be borne by parents. A family with many children may have to choose which children they can afford to send to school. No surprise-- they are more likely to send their sons.

After the school visit, the group went river rafting. Rick and I opted out. We needed a respite from the non-stop chatter of the group and we also didn’t want to risk falling into the muddy Urubamba River. We began to realize how much more difficult group travel can be outside an urban area. When you’re in city, you can easily leave the group—just get a bus or taxi and go off to do your own thing. When you’re in a rural area, you are trapped.

And not only are you stuck with the group’s itinerary for the day, but you are stuck with the group’s pace. After a very good picnic lunch, I longed for a siesta, but there was no respite. We were off to see the town of Urubamba.

We stopped at the home of one of the local residents to witness the Peruvian custom of inviting the neighbors for freshly made chicha, a drink made from fermented corn. According to our guide, the small house was typical of most Indian houses in the past. It had a dirt floor, no windows, little furniture, and was filled with animals—mostly guinea pigs. It reminded me of the 19th century crofters’ cottages I saw in an open air historical museum in Scotland.

Fortunately, most Peruvians' lives have improved and the owner of the dirt floor cottage had built a much nicer structure adjacent to the cottage. For reasons I can’t explain, I felt like less of voyeur (and less uncomfortable) at the chicha ritual than I did at the elementary school. This was one of the advantages of the tour group-–a glimpse into another world we could never have entered on our own.

Also, the tour group arranged a home hosted dinner in Urubamba which was by far the best meal provided by the group. The young couple who hosted the dinner were very hospitable; we did not feel like voyeuristic tourists but rather like welcome guests in their home. It was certainly one of the highlights of the tour. So yes, there were positive experiences, but for us not enough to compensate for the loss of freedom.

Next installment: We finally get to Machu Picchu and it exceeded even my high expectations.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Women’s Studies Class from Hell

The Women’s Studies Class from Hell

Megan Carpentier's recent Huffington Post piece, A Feminist's U-Turn: A Torrid Tale of Disappointment and Discovery caused quite a stir on a Women’s Studies listserv recently.

According to Carpentier :
My semester stuck in Introduction to Women's Studies came at a price: the cost of my overt feminism.

She then goes on to describe the Women’s Studies class from hell. As someone who taught Women's Studies for many years and was an active member of the National Women's Studies Association, I can attest that Carpentier's post is a caricature of Women's Studies. But I have no doubt that courses such as she describes do exist.

As in every discipline, there are teachers who simply recycle what they’ve been doing for the past 30 years and who become increasingly out of touch with a younger generation of students. So it’s no surprise this happens in Women's Studies as well.Women’s Studies has been around long enough to have its own cohort of burnt-out teachers.

I was afraid of going down that road myself. I recently retired from my job as a teacher of Women’s Studies and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at Community College of Philadelphia. I had been teaching at the College for thirty-four years and the job was getting same-old, same-old. I didn’t want to end my days as a burnt-out teacher, so I retired a year ago. Not a moment too soon!

The gap between my age and the average age of my students got wider every year, and the age gap was also an ever widening cultural gap. I knew next to nothing about the pop culture world in which my students were immersed.

This was brought home to me when I walked by the Women’s Studies bulletin board my last semester at the College. (I retired from my job as Women’s Studies coordinator a semester before I retired from thr college.) On the bulletin board was a flyer posing the question: “Is Beyonce a feminist?”

It would never have occurred to me to use Beyonce to interest students in Women’s Studies. I know she’s a pop singer, but that’s about all I know. A new generation of Women’s Studies practitioners is changing the field and connecting with students in ways I would never have imagined.

I realize that not every sixty something Women’s Studies teacher is as out of touch with popular culture as I am. I so prefer the pop culture of my generation to the rap music, indie rock, and current crop of celebs that interest today’s students.

My pedagogical philosophy has always been: teachers need to understand their students’ world, start with their students’ own experience, and build from there. I still believe this but no longer wanted to make that effort. I wonder what Carpentier would have thought about my classes during my last years of teaching.

What I found most interesting about Carpentier’s post were her remarks about turning to the internet for the feminist education she was not getting in Women’s Studies classes.
The discussions I'd missed in my women's studies class, I found on the Internet; the conversations that I'd needed to make me think harder, better and more critically about gender equity, intersectionality, the personal and the political, I found ten years later outside of the classroom and in the company of strangers I might never actually meet. Writing about women's issues made me learn more about those issues and the feminist theories about them than hours in a classroom ever did, and allowed me to finally feel right reclaiming the word "feminist" for myself.

This echoes what young activists have said about the internet as a vehicle for feminist organizing. I have heard young feminists say that for them the
internet is their mode of doing feminist organizing as the established
feminist organizations are out of touch with their interests/ priorities.
See my post on generational tension within the feminist movement --which in some ways parallels generational tension within Women’s Studies.

And it’s not just young feminists who appreciate what the internet has to offer. From fellow retiree Sylvia Bereskin who blogs at For The First Time: Feminist Women Entering Retirement:

Those of us meeting here in the blogosphere have to be really aware of the ways in which we're breaking down so many barriers; this is a 'room' I can walk into and talk with other feminists and our own age doesn't necessarily even come into the mix. A much more equity-supportive environment for communicating, don't you think?

While this aging organizer still places a high value on face-to-face contact, it’s clear that the internet has opened up possibilities that we are just beginning to take advantage of.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Peru Diaries: The Pro’s and Con’s of Group Travel, Part II

Moche sculpture in Museo Larca

For the first few days we tried to focus on the positive aspects of group travel to convince ourselves we had made the right choice.

Having the hotel room ready when we arrived from the airport at 7:00 a.m. was really nice. Tour groups can arrange this; individual travelers usually cannot—unless they pay for an additional day.

We had a much easier time dealing with the group after a nap. Everyone was as upbeat and chatty as they were on ride from airport, but Rick and I were in better shape and better able to adapt.

Our guide, Marco, was excellent. One of 11 children and the first in his family to pursue formal education, Marco had a compelling personal story. Our walking tour of the Miraflores neighborhood would have been much less interesting without his running commentary on a changing neighborhood. Lima is on something of a building boom and sadly old colonial buildings are being torn down to make way for the apparently insatiable condo market.

But after an hour or so, the walking tour started to feel like a forced march. When we got tired of walking about in the hot sun, we left the group and hung out in a cafe overlooking the Pacific. This is our kind of travel—-taking it slow, building in a lot of time for leisurely people watching.

Adapting (or in our case failing to adapt) to the group was an uneven process: one step forward, two step back. The next day was a real test--a day long city tour. On the plus side: we covered much more ground on the tour bus than we could ever have on our own and saw parts of the city we might not venture into by ourselves. We went to the archaeological museum, toured the old city, saw the amazing Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, the Domincan Monastery with its colonial treasures and one of the most beautiful courtyards I’ve ever seen, had a tour of Lima’s best and worst neighborhoods and finally the recently excavated pre-Incan ruins at Pucllana.

Yet every advantage has its corresponding disadvantage--the pace was too frenetic for us. Sure we saw a lot, but we felt we experienced relatively little. True, when we have arrangements made for us, we cover more ground and benefit from the economies of scale of group travel, but the lack of freedom takes some getting used to.

On our final day in Lima we decided not to participate in group activities. I felt a little guilty about not participating in the day’s trip to Villa El Salvador, one of the shanty towns surrounding Lima. According to the tour group brochure:

What began in 1971 as a desert location for lima’s impoverished inner city residents has today expanded into a 350,000 person squatters’ community—and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee for its excellence in social work and community growth.

As someone who has been a life-long social justice activist (admittedly not consistently) I thought I should be supporting the visit to Villa El Salvador. But this was supposed to be a vacation and I wanted to see the pre-Incan treasures in Museo Larca and do things at our own pace.

Larca was a man with a mission. He dedicated his life to collecting the art of pre-Incan civilizations and was determined to prove that there were rich civilizations in Peru before the Incas.

Larca introduced me to the Moche whose amazingly life-like ceramic figures are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Amerindian cultures. His collection of Moche erotic sculptures is one of the museum’s biggest draws with a separate building devoted to “sculptura erotica”—figures engaged in just about every conceivable sexual act.

The museum itself is a work of art, beautifully designed and with a spectacular courtyard coved with bougainvillea, geranium, as well as many tropical flowers I’d never seen before. And there’s a wonderful cafe/restaurant where we lingered for well over an hour. This was our kind of traveling--doing relatively little but doing it well. It’s not how I traveled when I was younger and was trying to pack as much as I could into a day, but it’s a style that suits my husband and me at this stage in our lives.

The next day we flew off to Cusco from which we would go to Sacred Valley of the Incas and then Machu Picchu.

Escaping from the group was not going to be so easy once we were out of the big city.
To be continued.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Peru Diaries: The Pro’s and Con’s of Group Travel, Part I

My husband, Rick, and I have been traveling together for 30 years. We’ve developed our own style and at this stage in our lives it’s hard to learn new tricks. Group travel requires adaptability and I’m afraid that’s not us.
What follows is an attempt to give a fair account of the pro’s and con’s of group travel. My apologies if I sound like an old curmudgeon.

Whether its group travel or individual travel, traveling is getting harder. And it’s not just a matter of flight delays, long lines at security, ever shrinking seats and disappearing amenities. Taking a mid day flight to Miami with a long lay-over before a midnight flight to Lima is just too much for our sixty something bodies. Access to business class lounges made it tolerable—but just barely.

Our tour group, although it offers relatively low budget tours, manages to get surprisingly inexpensive upgrades to business class. Always ask your group-- you might get a pleasant surprise.

The downside to our business class upgrade—it’s going to be really hard to take a long international trip in coach next time around.

When we arrived at Lima airport, the pro’s and con’s of group travel became immediately apparent. First the pros: when you are dead tired, it is really nice to have everything all taken care of. The tour company met us at the airport with bottled water and we were soon in a van en route to the hotel. The tour guide gave us all sorts of useful information such as the need to carry around small denominations. Small coins are critical if you want to use public restrooms in Peru. (Access to a restroom is really important to me!) He said he was bringing someone to the hotel to change money for us later in the day—now that’s a real service.

The con’s were just what we expected. The other people on the tour were very nice and a very upbeat group but their non-stop chatter during the ride from the airport gave me a headache. When you’re exhausted and in a not particularly good mood, all this hyper-cheeriness can be tough to take. (I know I sound like a grumpy old lady.).

But despite the exhaustion and our longing for quiet rather than non-stop chatter, entering a city you’ve never seen before is always exciting. I didn’t know very much about Lima and didn’t quite know what to expect. The ride from the airport was grim—-but what city has a beautiful ride from the airport?

But then the surprise: we were soon on an ocean road. Lima comes right up to the Pacific Ocean. Of course I knew Lima was on the Pacific but I hadn’t realized that so much of the city proper was right on the ocean.

In a state of absolute and total exhaustion, we stumbled into our hotel. The hotel was pretty much what we expected from a package tour: clean, in a reasonably good location, but lacking in character. Definitely on the minus side is the lack of choice of hotels. Over the years Rick and I got very good at finding charming affordable small hotels in European and Latin American cities. Only the expensive group tours have really charming hotels.

Our hotel was perfectly okay, but it’s not one we would have chosen. I was a little apprehensive after reading some very negative reviews on Trip Advisor, but the breakfasts were good and there was an attractive bar which turned out to be a good place to hang out at night.

The restaurants included with the package tour were also on the minus side of the ledger. Rick is a real foodie and one reason we travel is to explore different culinary traditions. We search out small restaurants which serve interesting food and good wine at reasonable prices. Tour group restaurants (with the exception of high end or food-themed tours) are generally mediocre at best. So we seized the opportunity whenever we could to go out on our own and make our own restaurant discoveries.

We generally do rather well as Rick and I put a lot of effort into restaurant research. We always spend more on food than on lodging when we travel and this time we figured since we opted for a relatively low-cost tour we could splurge on a few high-end restaurants.

We sure can’t afford to go to the best restaurants in town in London and Paris, but we can manage this in major Latin American cities. So here are restaurant recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Lima:

Astrid y Gaston: the guidebooks call it the best restaurant in Lima. I‘ve only been to three restaurants in Lima so can’t comment on that, but can say this was seriously good and by American standards very affordable. It serves Peruvian cuisine—they call it novoandino

La Rosa Nautica: Seriously good seafood in a beautiful if touristy restaurant overlooking the Pacific. The portions were gargantuan. My husband, who usually has a very healthy appetite, could not handle La Rosa’s gigantic dishes.

To be continued

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Peru Diaries: I didn't want to get on that plane

My Mt. Airy garden on April 8

It was really hard to leave my garden. Our trip to Peru was originally planned for mid March before all the action happened in the garden. But mudslides and avalanches got in the way; Machu Picchu was closed and the trip rescheduled.

We had a choice of dates to reschedule and I thought mid April would be safe. The real glory time is the last week of April when the Carlesii viburnum and the lilacs are out.

Well, we had an amazing early April with temperatures in the mid 80’s and an astonishing eruption of bulbs and flowering shrubs several weeks ahead of schedule. I was not a happy camper when we got on the plane to Lima. The trip I had been looking forward to was now getting in the way of smelling the lilacs.

My ever sane husband convinced me that I can’t let missing the bloom period of a favorite plant get in the way of enjoying a trip I had always wanted to take.

In 1972 I spent a summer in Ecuador and Chile. When we flew over Peru, I thought that we should stop to see Macchu Pichu, but decided we’ll get that together next year. It didn’t happen and now 38 years later I finally went to Machu Picchu.

And for the first time in our lives, my husband and I traveled in a group. It just seemed too hard to make all those arrangements on our own, and as retirees, the economies of scale in group travel were a further plus. We’d never deal with the lack of freedom that group travel entails if were going to Europe, but for Machu Picchu we thought that perhaps a group made sense.

There are advantages and maybe for some it works—-but not for us.

To be continued.