Protest in Peru

I was not prepared for the barricaded wall of police officers as we followed our taxi driver down the sidewalk and out of the confines of the fenced Cusco airport. As usual, I had done just enough research to be a step above ignorance upon touchdown in Peru. First, we had written a skeletal 6-day itinerary on pace with Speedy Gonzales, the necessary reservations booked for our transport and lodging. Second, I watched a blurry copy of a National Geographic documentary on YouTube exploring the engineering and mystery behind Machu Picchu. That was it.

So, I knew that the astounding ancient Incan royal palace is only here today because the Spanish conquistadores never discovered, and thus never demolished, it. But as we were assailed with a barrage of "Taxi, lady?!" I had no idea what kind of political climate we were entering.

Let's back up. No, #jcompadventures2017 has not ended, and I am still traveling. No, I do not have too much of a savings account left to speak of. But what does one do when one of your best friends texts you and says she found a Spirit flight half-off, and the deal ends at midnight? You get caught up in day dreams of returning to the southern hemisphere; you all but bail on your original Appalachian Trail summer plan (I'm still sorry Jonathan, and I'm still stoked for the Smokies!); your best friend asks her restaurant co-worker if she'd like to join; you do some intense, adrenaline-inducing internet research; and thirty minutes to midnight, you book three flights to Lima.

And that is how Anderson, Annabelle, and I ended up in Peru, topped off by a jaunt to the Galápagos Islands (reasoning: we're already down here, right?!).

I love this continent, the Spanish language I sometimes decode enough to communicate; the feeling of limiting my possessions to a 60-liter duffle and a day pack; and the satisfaction that, while I have the free time (dwindling though it may be), the world has become my playground, God's grand turf in which I get to delight in the wonders He has made for me to romp in.

As with any travel, there is so much I could share, but I have decided to narrow in on these police guards, because they have shaped our whole trip. I was pretty alarmed by our exit from the airport. It was way sketchier than that first night in the DR. I was expecting a pristine tourist city — safe, charming, brimming with the cultural fusion of native history and Spanish colonization. This was chaos.

When we reached our hostel, compromised on (and got ripped off for) the price of our taxi due to a communication discrepancy (18 versus 80 soles), we dropped our bags and headed to breakfast. Cusco, as it turns out, is actually a lot of what I expected. The streets and steep, narrow alleyways are cobblestoned, 500-year-old Catholic cathedrals abound, and everyone gathers on the steps of the central Plaza de Armas, making for an Italian dejavu moment in which I felt bizarrely transported to my beloved Perugia. Four-foot Incan women dress in traditional Andean garb – wool skirts; high socks; worn, brimmed hats; wrapping themselves in brightly patterned shawls woven in fuschia, magenta, and turquoise. They strategically place themselves through the city center with llamas and alpacas, and they'll let you take a picture with them for a few soles. Their leathery faces will not smile in said picture.

If you want to sit down, there are a plethora of traditional Peruvian, pizza, and ethnic restaurants to choose from, but there are also some experienced grandmothers dishing out delicious portions of cheap homemade street food, while carts sell freshly-squeezed juice. Souvenir shops are on every corner, boasting the rainbow flag of Cusco overhead, where you can bargain for a classic woven wool pullover or poncho sweater. Street salesmen haggle you to take a look at their "original" portfolio of artwork, and the sidewalk offers for excursion tours or twenty-minute massages are inescapable. Cusco's elevation is over 4,000 meters, so your lungs will wonder why it's so taxing to climb a flight of stone city stairs. In July, it is wintertime here, so though Cusco is near the equator and the sun's closer rays are comfortingly pleasant at noontime, it is still in the heart of the Andes, and at dusk, temperatures drop quickly into the 40s.

So, still the question remains — what's the deal with these policemen? Cusco is the capital of the Incan empire and the epicenter of tourism today, but as it turns out, it's also the headquarters of unrest and protest. In the last few days, I've learned that corruption in Peru, especially in the government, is rampant. The last two presidents are in jail, the current one has enough money that he doesn't need to embezzle, and police can be bribed off. Teachers are underpaid, and as far as I know, they're heading the protests, but other unsatisfied citizens have followed suit. Right now, international tourists bound for Machu Picchu (almost everyone) must first fly into Lima and then grab a connecting flight to Cusco. A contract was signed a long time ago to build an international airport near Cusco, but for years now, nothing has happened.

The police were present not because Cusco is unsafe, but because protests are shaking up the status quo. According to an email I got from PeruRail notifying me of transportation limitations, the movement was officially called by the SUTEP (Education Workers United Syndicate). The two days following our arrival in Cusco, people took to the streets, parading with signs and chants, flags and even a bonfire. Others literally derailed portions of the railway and blocked off the roads between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, a major thoroughfare of the Incan Sacred Valley and route to Machu Picchu. Long-distance transportation haulted, impotent to the protestors' destruction.

I studied peace, justice, and nonviolent activism in college, but I have not been an engaged activist since. So a big part of me inside said, "Go you, teachers. That's right, Cusco locals. You know something isn't fair, you're speaking up and out, you're wreaking minor havoc, you're using Gene Sharp's list of 198 ways to cause civil disobedience. #respect, big time."

The tourist inside of me said, emoji style, "WTF 😤, we've got FIVE 5️⃣ days here 📆. I am a planner on a strict time budget ⏱. Do NOT mess with my plans 👊🏼. I did not fly down here to miss visiting one of the wonders of the world 🏞."

That's kind of their point though. The economy of Cusco, and much of Peru, is based on tourism. Lima is benefitting off of flights that people don't even want to take, the money of which should really be flowing into the region if Cusco. If people can't get to Machu Picchu, tourists learn about the issues and complain. Word spreads internationally. The government and respective corporations have to respond.

Very (VERY) fortunately, our Saturday booking to Machu Picchu was not affected by the protests. It took us a long time to get there and back, and we couldn't buy a bus ticket until the morning of, which is a long, frustrating line for a sleep-deprived Jessica at 4:45 AM. The organized, announced protest supposedly lasts two days before police really start cracking down. When we were still stuck in Cusco on Thursday, it actually allowed us to investigate and book some sick back-to-back adventures for Sunday – paragliding in the morning and ATV riding through the Sacred Valley and to an incredible salt mine in the afternoon. It was as awesome, and not quite as scary, as you are probably imagining. I've heard people got screwed over in their plans to visit Machu Picchu both the day before and after us. Praise the Lord, for real, that everything has worked out for us. Scaling Machu Picchu Mountain and taking in the whole view – the site itself, the jagged green jungle cliffs, the alpine peaks in the distance – for me, it was a highlight of the past week, and of the last half year. If the protestors had gotten in the way of that, my selfishness would have made me pretty pissed.

Having slotted in everything we planned, though, I also don't have any resentment for the protestors. I admire them; protesting requires courage, risk, and often sacrifice. If causes I care about – especially issues like education, ending sex trafficking, and equality – are threatened, witnessing the Peruvian protesters has instilled a little more confidence in me to engage. As much as anything I learn traveling, I think that's a worthwhile lesson.

Dominican Repose

Just a few days following Georgia and Duncan’s wedding, the rest of the family and I jetted off for our annual #ComptonsConquer family vacation – this year on a home exchange to the Dominican Republic. We knew we would desperately need to slow it wayyyyyy down and recuperate. Now at the end of our vacation, we have finally caught up on some well-earned R and R. The house we traded, Villa Las Ballenas, is situated in Las Galeras on the far eastern edge of the Samana Peninsula, a sliver of land barely attached to the rest of the DR that decided it wanted to have a go at reaching across the Atlantic for Puerto Rico. The village is charming, comprised of local agrarian Dominicans and a substantial smattering of ex-pats barely sustaining European resorts and eclectic dining in the off-season.

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A Toast to Georgia & Duncan

Last night, my sister got married! The wedding took place at Sugah Cain, our family property on Johns Island, under a canopy of live oak trees – truly God’s outdoor temple. A week ago, the forecasted 80% chance of thunderstorms was unpromisingly bleak. A lot of prayer warriors were on their knees supplicating for more favorable conditions, and MAN did Jesus come through. The gentle breeze, glow of the setting sun, and just a touch of summer humidity created the perfect ambiance, but the ceremony itself was even more beautiful.

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In the Center of God’s Will

Happy Spring!!

My life of funemployment has continued to be a cycle of trip research, planning, and itinerary spreadsheet writing; packing; jumping on an airplane; adventuring; flying back home; crashing into bed late at night; unpacking; running a load of laundry; meeting up with a few friends; and planning once more before I’m off on another travel escapade. I have to admit…within that physical merry-go-round, I also endure psychological swings of gratitude, utter exhaustion, a “here we go again/just do it” mentality, and excitement.

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Funemployment & Social Media Falsehoods

If we’re friends on Facebook or you follow me on Instagram, you know that, after an incredible year living and studying in New Zealand — one of the most adventurous, beautiful countries on the planet — I did not settle right into the working life of most young adults.

Since I returned to the States in the middle of the school year and needed to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops to be certified to teach in South Carolina, I devoted the spring to re-grounding myself in American culture (I love this country more than ever), spending time with dearly missed family and friends, obtaining my teacher licensure, and finding a job before August. I realized any leftover time was an opportune window of, as Mariah has coined, funemployment. For the last two months, I have continued to travel and enjoy some of nature’s most precious gems — first hiking among the towering glacial mountains and gale-force winds of Patagonia, then on to swimming in Havasupai’s crystal blue waters and camping in Joshua Tree’s dinosaur rock desert.

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Our first 72 hours in Chile have gone so smoothly. I floated into the customs entry line amidst the sea of others disembarking from our flight, unaware of my surroundings as I usually am — especially after a three-leg, twenty hour journey. “Well hello there, friend. Fancy seeing you here.”

And there, just a row ahead of me in line, was Mariah. I dove under the line divider and embraced one of my best friends. There was lots of jazz-hand jumping and high-pitched outbursts and laughing and more hugging.

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Travel Nerves

Happy Valentine’s Day! As my soul friend and Italy study abroad companion Mariah so aptly posted earlier today, this year, Cupid set us up on a date with the mountains – in Patagonia! If you’re sheepishly hiding your ignorance that this word is more than just a fluffy fuschia fleece name brand, you’re not alone. FYI though, it’s also the region in Chile and Argentina at the very bottom of South America. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll land in Santiago, reunite with Mariah – who I haven’t seen in 15 months – and the first big JComp Adventure of 2017 will commence!

It’s a good thing I’m so cheap that I pack most of my meals for layovers rather than pay inflated flights in terminal food courts. Sitting outside of JFK’s Terminal 4, I have finally landed in limbo, both physically and metaphorically. Physically, because my layover here is 6 hours long, and in my haste to get to my next gate and THEN relax, I did not have the forethought to realize that customs is not going to screen me four and a half hours before my departure. So rather than chilling in the comfort of a lounge seat or restaurant bar in Terminal 5 where I landed two hours ago, I ate my unrefrigerated leftover crab cakes outside of the terminal, on a blue plastic chair that’s technically only reserved for the handicapped and elderly anyway. Now I’m cumbersomely attempting to write this post on my phone and kicking myself for a rookie mistake. I hate making rookie mistakes.

I’m in a metaphorical limbo, because on this hard seat, I rest in the calm surf before the wave of cultural excitement about to crash over me once we begin wandering the streets of Spanish-speaking Santiago. Prior to the “rest” of sitting for twenty hours in transit, the last few weeks I have been running on a speeding hamster wheel around Mt. Pleasant – trying to submit teaching applications, and squeeze in a few more babysitting jobs and friend outings, and finalize trip plans for the next few months, and finish up wedding projects for Georgia. I emailed Save the Dates, successfully uploaded the invite list to the RSVP online platform we’re using (…all 618 guests); and finished designing, printing, cutting, and glueing chic burlap Extra Information inserts. Whew! All these to-dos, with a deadline of today, have been simultaneously exciting and exhausting. They did not, however,  allow much time to process or reflect or get stoked about the fact that I would actually shortly be embarking on one helluva journey. 

Beyond the to-dos, my mind has more recently gotten stuck in the stress of packing, like making sure I had, and could fit, food for 11 days on the trail. Or how I had to run to Dick’s Sporting Goods this morning because Georgia accidentally took the ONE pair of Nike shorts I planned on packing. And how that kind of threw off my relatively “together” mental preparation for some hectic packing two hours before I needed to leave for the airport. How I’ve already realized that I left my hat drying outside after it was washed, or how I forgot to pack an extra pair of contact lenses and dark chocolate and cushions for this planters wart on the bottom of my foot and toilet paper in a ziplock bag and deodorant (deodorant! Which I refuse to spend $6 on in the airport). How I couldn’t find one pair of the wool socks I wanted to bring, and the other pair I did bring I neglected to put in my carry on, so my feet are going to be cold tonight. Things I should know by now. Petty things, many of which I can solve with simple purchases  and don’t affect my overall travel, but remembering after the fact, still mess with my mind, still make the butterflies in my gut act up a little, still make me question how experienced or novice of a traveler I really am.

But it’s all good. Because if I was too busy beforehand to get excited, being in the airport now makes me STOKED. All I needed was to walk through the sweeping terminal halls, bask in the serenade of foreign languages around me, the portrait of people who don’t look like me, setting off to their own destinations. And strangely, as I leave my birth home, I also rediscover my world-wide home in this international environment I find so invigorating. For me, I intrinsically associate airports with the anticipation of enriching experiences and welcome opportunities for growth. My nerves have subsided, and if the small packing hiccups I made are the biggest mistakes on this trip, we would be sailing on serene seas.

But I know better than that; mountain trails and international travel are mired in obstacles. It’s the nature of the beast, and overcoming those hurdles is one reason I gravitate to them. From not quite having all the camping permits we need, to intentionally deciding to hitchhike and find accommodation in the cities day-by-day, I have a hunch Patagonia will provide its own unique set of complications; we’ll take them as they come.

As we do, your prayers for safety and protection are, as always, deeply appreciated. Until the next post!