Archive for December, 2009

Christmas in Peru

On our return from Quillabamba just before Christmas Eve, we returned to Emma’s house, at which we’d been based before leaving Cusco, the willing recipients of an invitation to spend Christmas with the family.  A quick tour around the Cusco christmas market yielded a drunkenly leaning pine tree offcut, which was decorated suitably with (luckily shatterproof) baubles courtesy of a kindly sent package by Lou’s mum.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I attended mass on Christmas Eve; invited by Emma, it seemed too interesting an opportunity to miss, and didn’t dissapoint.  Sadly no photos exist to tell the tale (it seemed a bit in appropriate to take them) but the majority of the experience would not be done justice by them anyway.  Led by a charismatic priest who was a skilled and engaging orator, the service lasted about an hour and was a mixture of guitar-led singing, moving speeches about the importance of forgiveness, family and community at christmas time and the solumn rituals of giving communion.  Delightfully, the edge was taken off the seriousness of the occasion by the tinny and perpertual noise of commercial christmas tunes produced by the flashing lights that were one of the adorning features of the vast nativity scene in the corner of the church (so large that the assistant priest took a couple of minutes to clamber over the scene to ceremoniously place the baby Jesus in his rightful position on the crib).  The mood was also lightened by the escape of a pair of small dogs from the rear chambers of the church, who rushed about the church during the ceremony, delighted to be the centre of attention.  The finest moment of the ceremony for me was when one dog, intent on entering one of the rooms behind the alter, engaged in a hilarous silent faceoff with one of the assistant priests who was trying desperately to balance the necessary air of solemnity and holiness with an overwhelming desire to put a boot up the cheeky creature’s backside.

Next on the agenda was the Peruvian custom of hot chocolate and panetone, recieved well by all concerned.

Christmas day itself was surprisingly familiar; a small present opening session in the morning, thanks to kind friends and family who had sent out various packages, a large lunch wich left everyone stuffed and comatose and family games in the afternoon, socialogical proof that human beings of any country can still get amusingly competative when playing Pictionary.

The one notable difference was, our gifts from the UK aside, the distinct lack of presents exchanged by Peruvians.  The day was for spending time with family, and commerce didn’t get a look in.  A bit sad to think that there’ll be a fine selection of Brits calling the citizen’s advice bureau this new year trying to get advice on how to pay off the debt that they’ve accrued buying gifts for each other that so clearly miss the point of the holiday period.  At least it’s something that has not infiltrated Peru.

Cusco, Peru
28th December 2009


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Working; A Most Confusing Feeling

The previous 2 weeks have been spent in Quillabamba, City of Eternal Summer, assisting with the writing of a business plan for COCLA. For those that can’t read the Spanish website, who are they, and what do they do? I hear the question (if not, skip this entry…)

COCLA are the 4th largest exporter of coffee in Peru. That’s an impressive fact when you consider that there are some big boys operating here, the top 3 exporters obviously being private corporates. It is a cooperative with 8,300 members divided over 21 primary level cooperatives; as the members are do dispersed over the fairly inaccessible terrain of the region of La Convention, it would be a complete impossibility to have central governance for all the members (the furthest members live a full 12 hour journey away from Quillabamba by truck, where they need to deliver their coffee).

The function of the primary cooperatives is to give solidarity between the members; help with harvesting, credit facilities for pre-financing crops (bear in mind you have to pay for seeds etc. a full growing cycle before you have any hope of getting paid, and that is if you have no problems with the crop) and prevent members getting picked off by purchasing ‘coyotes’, buyers of coffee and other products who, up until the influence of the cooperative movement, used to turn up and bully a very low buying price out of the farmers.

COCLA is a secondary level cooperative, functioning for the largest part as a means for the members of all the other cooperatives to access different markets; imagine being a coffee farmer in the jungle at 1500m above sea level in the middle of nowhere, how on earth will you know how to sell your coffee to, for example, a buyer of gourmet coffee from Japan? COCLA establish the relationships with importers and obtain accreditation (like fair trade and organic) to make the coffee a more interesting and valuable proposition for buyers.

In order to do this, control obviously has to be maintained through the production chain; how on earth do you try to get 8,300 different growers spread over a huge region to produce coffee to the same standard (which is pretty high; in cases for the best quality export beans, 5 faults per sample of about 200 can spell failure)? In response to this, COCLA have over the years invested in their own manufacturing plant and quality screening processes, as well as doing endless training programs (with the results taking up to 10 years to come to fruition) to get the farmers up to the level required to consistently produce quality coffee…are you seeing a theme here? Tireless work against all the odds for decades…?

So, how can Lou and I add anything to an organisation that has clearly moved mountains over the course of the last 30 years? Well, a key focus of COCLA is building diversity; it decreases risk. If something goes wrong in one area (crop disease, climate fluctuations, negative economic changes), is there another area to fall back on? Getting farmers to grow a greater range of crops, working over a range of geographic locations and, in this case, selling products through as diverse a range of channels as possible. Lou and I both have experience of developing national markets back in the UK with products, both with limited budgets and resources, often from a standing start, and its this that COCLA is interested in.

The national coffee market in Peru is growing pretty quickly, and even though COCLA has sold coffee nationally for the last 15 years, the market hasn’t really been geared to high quality coffee, due to the majority of the best beans being exported. Things are starting to change now, however, and the plant machinery that COCLA already own that produces roast and ground coffee (‘raw’ green coffee beans are the export product, due to a higher tariff on finished product, which means more processes need to be performed on the beans to get them to a state ready for consumer consumption in Peru) ready to start churning out greater quantities of product. It’s a great opportunity, with the market on a tipping point, and fantastic that (provided the business planning thing works out and we end up working alongside COCLA) the work that we do will find its way back to helping a fair proportion of the 8,300 families that rely on COCLA, especially in the face of global economic downturn and a dropping export market for coffee.

All this has found Lou and I tapping away on laptops in an empty conference centre at COCLA’s headquarters on the dusty outskirts of Quillabamba, trying between us to develop strategic ideas together in English, and then translate them into Spanish.  It’s fairly amazing that I’m in this situation after hoping for it over a year ago, working on the edge of the jungle in Peru in such an exciting project with real potential to make a difference.

Quillabamba, Peru
27th December 2009

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Meanwhile, On The Rest of The Web…

Here’s a couple of the best bits from the various blogs that I keep an eye on from the last month…

The first is a jaw dropping video sequence that I found on The Adventure Blog which was made for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City that puts into scale just how large the Universe is. The video begins in the Himalaya and slowly begins to pan out, past the moon, the solar system, and so on. It does a fantastic job of making you feel very, very small.

Also recieved a great post from Made In England about the latest movie from the very cool Woodshed Productions; 180° South. It’s a film about surfing, sailing and climbing, but generally it’s a remake of a legendary trip and film from 1968. There’s an interesting slide show of the trip here too, simple but well put together.

Apart from all the slick modern production stuff, the really exciting thing was the original trip; Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia & Black Diamond) and Doug Tompkins (founder of The North Face), plus three other chums set off in an old camper van to surf, ski and climb their way through South America, on their way to be the 3rd team to climb Mt. Fritzroy (Cerro Fitz Roy) in Patagonia (it’s that iconic granite slab used on the Patagonia logo).

Unfortunately the only evidence of the original film (Mountain of Storms) online is this short clip (voice over is hilarious). Feeling like I’m so close to all that Patagonia has to offer, the temptation to jump into a van and scoot down south is overwhelming…but I suppose I’ll have plenty of time to do it.

Cusco, Peru
21st December 2009

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Motorbike Excitement

Our friend Fredy has two motorbikes, and in an act of generosity that surprised me even by the incredibly high standards that Lou and I had experienced in Vilcabamba thus far, lent me the keys to his 4 month old Honda so that we could ride up the valley to Vilcabamba Real to see the sights, based on my obviously insubstantial comments that it had been “about 3 years since I last rode a bike”; try 7 years (and that was for 2 days…)

After a bit of mangling the clutch to get going and a few stalls, we wound our way up the mountain, Lou wisely riding pillion behind Fredy instead of me. My face, according to Lou, set in a grim mask of concentration, I wove the bike around muddy switchbacks occasionally cutting out the engine with my ineptitude, Fredy waiting patiently for me at sporadic points up the hill, seemingly unconcerned with the damage I must have been doing to his engine.

It was all worth it though; the motorbike buzz soon overcame the fear, and I got better at the gear changes. Before long we were zooming along tracks in the back end of nowhere, crossing river fords swollen with rain and dodging languid dogs in little towns as we navigated the rutted and winding streets. Eventually we ended up at a the top of a waterfall at some incredible altitude overlooking a lush mountain pasture being grazed by cows, whose owners were hiding from the driving rain under ponchos, balefully staring at the manifestation of a pending task and chewing coca leaves to delay the inevitable.

Vilcabamba, Peru
20th December 2009

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Fun With Plantlife

Old Man’s Beard x1
Camera x1

Vilcabamba, Peru
19th December 2009

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The Monthly Shopping Trip

Mule train; if you stand in one spot in Vilcabamba for a couple of  hours, a ton of these will go past,entering the village unladen and leaving as you see, with tarp-wrapped bundles containing sugar, flour and rice (and,occasionally according to our friend Fredy, a few kilos of coca paste intended for dishonourable uses),staples that do not exist in the far flung corners of the mountain region, and that the incoming drivers trade in exchange for the potatoes that they carry from their fields; cash features in no part of this process.

Stopping one of the drivers, I asked where he was going. “Choquequirau”, came the answer. “But that’s eight days away!”, I responded. “We can do it in three”, he replied, before turning and trudging away up the path to the hills (crossing the Inca bridge out of town), beginning his three day walk, the midway point of a six day shopping trip.

Try to remember that next time you throw a strop in Waitrose when you can’t get the balsamic vinegar that you were after…

Vilcabamba, Peru
19th December 2009

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Ancient Civilization 1, Peruvian Government 0

This is one of the two bridges leading from Huancacaya to the Rosaspata ruins. It’s Inca design, stone support pillars holding up a structure of heavy wooden beams and wooden cross struts. It’s been outside the community for hundreds of years.

The photo is taken from a big concrete bridge, built in the last 10 years, painted in the blue and white colours that feature on all municipally funded projects. No-one uses the big, expensive concrete bridge. The spanning section is made of sheet metal, supported by thin, springy metal rods,that make it bounce when you walk over it. This means that mule trains, which constitute the majority of passing traffic and form the purpose for such a bridge, can’t use it. They use the Inca one next to it.

Vilcabamba, Peru
19th December 2009

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