Monthly Archives: April 2012

First Impressions of China …

A lot of how you first experience China probably depends on how you feel about China before you go there.

Where I went in China (Sichuan province).

For instance, if you think of China as the majestic, longest- lasting civilization in the world–one  that invented paper, gunpowder, kites, ice cream and toilet paper (hard to say which I value the most)— you’re going to be pretty darn impressed with all the rich history and present-day achievements you see. But if you are pretty sure that with 1 billion people, a land mass only slightly smaller than America (I was totally sure it was twice our size) and an economy growing at breakneck speed, China will be taking over the world in our lifetime – and not in a fun, let’s-break-the-bank European way but in a we-are-all-striving-together-to-suffer-and-achieve way – then you’re less likely to be enamored of the culture. Although I have to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of culture on display where I was in Chengdu. Mostly it was just gray skies, lots of smoking and spitting, a million high-rise buildings, and noodles galore. (But I wasn’t in the groovy old-world part of Chengdu with all the pandas, etc. so maybe I just missed the boat.. or the junk.)

Yup, this is pretty much my memory of Chengdu.

Once you get out into the countryside, though, China is awfully pretty.

The people are adorable, friendly and fascinating. The roads are great. Everywhere you look, you see building and new bridges and tons of billboards offering tons of stuff for sale and people who seem to be coping with the stress of living in this highly competitive, highly regulated country pretty well.

I have no idea what this means, but you gotta love a headline that uses the word "protagonist" right?

And make no mistake: China is regulated. You can’t get on WordPress, any Western blog sites, Facebook, twitter or YouTube in China. And my month-long quest to get a visa to visit Tibet came to naught, as they don’t seem to want to let Westerners in to visit that cheerful, beautiful Buddhist country. It’s astonishing how restrictions like this chafe and bind when you’re used to being able to go anywhere you please and criticize, make fun of, and badger your government (go, Jon Stewart!).

Despite the general affluence of China (there are more thousand-dollar handbags slung over skinny girls’ shoulders here than in New York), I also witnessed some of the worst poverty I’ve even seen.

I heard last night on CNN that the Chinese economy has slowed down to a roaring 8%, although China is still producing more millionaires a day than anywhere else on the planet. But there is a world of difference between people in the cities and people in the countryside – as well as a huge income gap between the haves and the have-nots. Which makes the work that Heiferis doing to improve the lives of rural, agrarian Chinese so vitally important. The people I was with were gentle, thoughtful, grateful and sweet– of course! they were Heifer folks, working in conjunction with some really helpful and committed people from the Chinese government– but I have to say, the overall charm quotient in Chinese cities is pretty low. By the time I got to Nepal and a beautiful monk smiled directly my face, I almost dropped over in surprise, I was so accustomed to the anonymous stare of the urban Chinese.

But looking back, all I can remember (as usual) are the children.

And what’s not to love there?

Categories: Children, China, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Never can say goodbye…

Non-readers, rejoice!

A few of my favorite photos of Peru, virtually unencumbered by any stories or text….

Every terrace was built by Incan hands, hundreds of years ago.

At 14,000 feet, in wind, rain and cold, the Yanqui sandal is made of tire strips and is the only foot-covering Highlands people wear.

Even the boys are fancy ...

Lunch is served.

Three generations of strong women.

And a true gift for giving.

If you want to thank the people who made this trip possible, show some love with a donation to Heifer Peru.

Muchas gracias, mis amigos...

OR.. try this groovy idea on for size: Buy a Sevenly t-shirt & $7 will be donated to Heifer Haiti (which I also LOVE). Next stop: China & Nepal…. stay tuned!!

Todo mi amor, Peru!

 

Categories: Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

I’ve got friends in high places.

Up until now, I’ve spent a lot of time swooning over the alpaca, while paying precious little attention to its camelid cousin, the llama. So in my last blog about Peru (boo hoo!) I’m aiming to rectify the matter.

The llama doesn’t get much respect in many places in Peru– it’s the shaggy, blue-collar cousin of everybody’s favorite cuddle-bug, the alpaca, and the irresistible, Audrey Hepburn-channeling vicuna.

How can you compete with the ever-elegant vicuna?

But in reality, the llama is a working class hero – capable of carrying 35 kilograms of potatoes on its back, trudging long distances without breaking a sweat or requiring too much water, reproducing without drama, and providing tons of meat when it’s required to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To see the best llamas the world has to offer, we traveled to one of the worst cities I’ve ever seen: Pasco, Peru. Heifer’s charismatic country director, Alfredo Garcia, insisted I go to Cerro de Pasco (at 14,200 feet, one of the highest cities in the world) because he wanted me to see firsthand the destruction that mining has wrought …and boy, did I. The irony is that the countryside around Pasco is staggeringly beautiful, reminding me of nothing so much as Paradise Valley, Montana. 

Glorious Iscaycocha, which is Quechua for “land of two lakes.”

Yet when you enter Pasco City, you understand the meaning of “Something evil this way comes.” The mine isn’t near the city, it has consumed the heart of the city in a huge, gaping hole oozing rusty rainbows of effluents pooling into foul, oil-slicked ponds, billows of suspicious fumes, and enormous, variegated hills of toxic mine tailings. It’s a monstrous cavity in the maw of the drab, gray, cold city.

Cerro is the mining company plumbing for riches here in copper, zinc, gold and silver, and it employs most of Pasco City’s residents. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to live here or, god forbid, raise children in this toxic waste dump, but my Heifer translator Rosaluz Salazar assured me that having a job in the mines is a coveted position in Peru, something that kids from the countryside aspire to.

From here to the unimaginable mines?

Which makes the work Heifer is doing, supporting the tradition of raising llamas in 800 families in 13 agricultural communities around Pasco so critically important. We visited Iscaycocha, a community of 60 people who are part of this Heifer/FODESA project to celebrate a community greenhouse, witness a Passing on the Gift ceremony, and adore some spectacular llamas.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful … hate me for all my many, many awards.

The day was chilly and looked like rain, but when we walked into the 1-year old greenhouse it was toasty warm as Luis Basilio Ramirez and his wife Yaqueline Mesa greeted us. The greenhouse was built by members of the community, with Heifer providing materials and FODESA (a local NGO that’s been working here for 17 years) giving technical advice. It was placed at the Ramirez house because its proximity to the road means all the families can easily come for the robust harvests, and because Yaqueline, crippled in a car accident three years ago, was seriously depressed and needed something to grow. That’s just the kind of close-knit, caring communities that Heifer tends to create (“The projects teach us brotherhood,” one participant said simply.) 

Yaqueline Mesa Ramirez in the community greenhouse.

Now Yaqueline waters, plants, and oversees the organic garden that provides lettuce, tomatoes, beets, cauliflower, carrots, coriander, cilantro, cabbage, radishes and fava beans to family & neighbors who literally have never had vegetables in their diets before. (At 14,000 feet, there is no growing season without a greenhouse.) And those vegetables taste particularly beautiful with the llama meat that Heifer has helped these breeders to produce, promote, market and sell.

Fresh, nutritious fava beans .. yummmm!

For years, llama meat (like llamas themselves) was considered dirty, and vastly inferior to alpaca. But these prime breeders of Pasco are producing such high-protein, low cholesterol, super-clean meat with their award-winning llamas, they have quadrupled its price– and their business plan (written with a Heifer advisor) is to market their llama meat regionally and nationally, with specialties like llama burgers, llama sausage and llama hot dogs winning over dubious hearts & stomachs.

Do the best breeders come to resemble their llamas?

As we watched a third generation of really spectacular Heifer llamas being passed on from one Iscaycocha family to another, the sun came out, candy was thrown to celebrate, and the mining and environmental degradation of nearby Pasco City felt a million miles away. Where God willing, it will stay.

A gift for giving…

Goodbye for now, beautiful Peru!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Hunger, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Guinea pigs … not just for breakfast anymore.

If you’re going to eat guinea pigs (and in Peru, you’re going to) you’re going to have to raise guinea pigs. Which plenty of Peruvians do, in their kitchens, in their sheds, in a random, atomized way.

To an agro-ecologist like David Rocca, who coordinates Heifers “Good Living” IMAGEN (a local NGO) project in Puchyara, Peru, this represents a huge missed opportunity. To his mind, cuy equals the possibility of a commercial venture on a scale that can lift an entire community out of poverty. David is one of the unbelievably committed people working with local communities in partnership with Heifer, (like Cleida and Claudio from my previous Peru posts) who have the vision, plans, expectations, personal relationships with families, and follow-through to make real change happen. And it does take vision to look at a guinea pig and see the cash rolling in.

David Rocca & Sebastian Huillca

But here’s how it happens: When David started to work with Sebastian and Elena Huillca (and their three children), the family had 2 donkeys, 4 cows, 1 horse, a passel of guinea pigs in a rough shed, and a piece of land one hour ‘s walk away. The house was a mess and the yard was worse. In Heifer workshops, the family learned a few new habits that literally changed their life. They established a Healthy Homeand gave each child his/her own room.

Back to the bio-garden!

They built a shed for their animals, collected the manure that was now in one handy place, and with the help of some industrious Heifer worms, used that compost to fertilize their new bio-garden where they grow enough vegetables to eat and to sell in the local market.

The family planted fruit trees.  They learned how to use local clay to plaster (and beautifully decorate) their house, instead of buying expensive materials they couldn’t afford. And in the guinea pig shed, they covered the walls in clay (with happy drawings), built compartments to separate males, females and babies, grew better forage to feed them, and began keeping breeding records to control reproduction and improve genetics.

What a happy guinea pig house!

The Huillcas followed David’s teachings and put ashes in the entrance of the house to kill bacteria, used meds to treat sick animals, and bred the gift of new Heifer guinea pigs with the local stock to double the weight of their piggies. One year later, they’ve both doubled the number of their pigs, and the price they get per cuy at market. (And both their daughters are attending college!)

3 pregnancies a year, that's fertility!

David is such an ardent believer in the potential of guinea pigs, he contends that profits will begin to repay Heifer’s investment in 2-3 months (including passing on the gift). And his math works. Guinea pigs are ridiculously fertile; females can have 3 pregnancies a year, and the better the feed, the quicker the baby comes. What David has taught his farmers is that if they take care of their guinea pigs— guinea pigs will pay off– big time– for the whole family.

Cuy is served in almost every restaurant in Peru, from sidewalk cafes to the swankiest eateries, so the demand is virtually unlimited. Its meat is high protein, low cholesterol and supposedly truly delicious (that’s right, I wimped out).

A gentle man, Felipe Ayachu.

And unlike bigger animals that demand grazing and herding, guinea pigs can be raised on small plots of land, and handled by older beneficiaries like Felipe Ayachu, who is trying to keep his farm running despite an illness, with only his devoted daughter to help him.

David’s also inspired enthusiastic spark-plugs like Dolores Delgado – whose sterling example of taking the guinea pig ball and running with it has been so inspiring, she’s moved her community’s Heifer involvement from 3 families to 35 (out of 40!)… built a whole new guinea pig barn and organic garden, and doubled the price of the town’s pigs! It’s what she promised Heifer President Pierre Ferrari she would do when he visited Puchyara last year, a meeting she remembered with overflowing tears and copious hugging.

Dolores' experimental, hydroponic, awesome new GP house!

Beautiful Dolores & daughter.

In fact, it’s the example of Heifer beneficiaries like Dolores, Felipe, and Sebastian who start showing up with big, fat guinea pigs for sale, their homes shining with fresh clean designs, and their gardens bursting with produce, that catches neighbors’ attention and spurs participation in the project. These early adopters have become Heifer/IMAGEN promoters, their communities have organized, and now David has the success stories and community backing to intercede with municipal authorities to continue to invest in the materials, seeds and structures that will make Puchyara Pigs the toast of nearby Cusco.

Writing a whole new future for families in Puchyara...

A succulent cuy may never pass my lips, but I predict that before long, David’s dream will be a yummy roasted reality.

Heifer's Carlitos loving his cuy.

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

A Fiber Primer for Yarnheads.

Although I used to embroider and do crewelwork in a past life, I have never been known to Stitch without Bitching, and nobody has ever accused me of having any real talent in fiber handicrafts. However, I do know art when I see it, and the day I spent with Heifer at Ocongate, Peru in the presence of the Six Stars of Bacchanta weavers was nothing short of magical (quite possibly because there was a lot of shopping involved).

The Six Stars setting in the Ausangate Andean Range... not bad, right?

This Heifer/AEDES project is part of Heifer’s Cusco umbrella project to help 4,333 families in 22 Highlands communities close the value chain of breeding alpacas: raising, shearing, spinning, and weaving the precious fiber… then going all the way to the final step of producing knit goods that will maximize their income. After all, when the Highland families do all the hard work of producing the fiber, wouldn’t it be great if they got the major income that comes from making stuff from that fiber??

Master weaver Francisco

To that end, Heifer and its local NGO partner AEDES are helping the 120-member Six Stars organization, with the super-charismatic Francisco at the helm, to learn advanced methods to clean, dye, categorize, create and execute uniformly beautiful designs that can then be sold in local and regional markets (like in nearby, tourist-laden Cusco) at a highly profitable price point.

The women demonstrated “phusca” (Quechua for spinning), which the Highlands women do incessantly, walking around with balls of alpaca fluff that they relentlessly twist and refine to convert fleece into thread.

There are 31 different categorizations of alpaca fiber, from thickest to most desirable thinnest (31) and with Heifer trainings, Six Stars participants have become adept at both breeding their animals to produce fibers of a higher category, and learning to knit with these super-fine fibers.

Up close & personal with an alpaca's fleece --unbelievably thick & luscious!

Butterscotch beauty

Natural alpaca fiber in all hues, particularly blacks and browns, are hugely in vogue –particularly the darker colors (and Heifer is providing those alpacas for breeding). But for the sheep’s wool that is used in many other handicrafts, natural dyes are all the rage. Victoria showed us the flowers and herbs that produce the yellows, purples and blues for their wool weavings, as well as the scales from insects who live in cactus (!!) and produce a rich,vibrant red.

Alpaca fieltros..cute!

Felting (rolling tight little balls made from the short neck hairs of the hirsute alpaca) makes use of every bit of the precious fiber, and is used in necklaces, earrings and bracelets with a modern whimsical twist. But one of Francisco’s favorite claims is that Six Stars is bringing back ancient and forgotten Incan designs, with its plethora of birds, spiders, chicanas (the Incan cross) and condors that revere the past.

In the future, however, it’s all about these trainings empowering the Highlands people to stand up for their own food sovereignty, land security, and the right to the profits from their incredible hard work. One of the oddities of Peruvian commerce is that every organization needs to be legally registered with the government in order to be recognized, enabled to work with other organizations, and to sell its wares. Heifer has helped Six Stars to register (a lengthy and expensive process) so now the group can work with the Ministry of Tourism, export its beautiful fibers, and participate in the trade economy.

Softer than soft ...super-premium baby alpaca fur is the most valuable of all.

What can I say but … coming soon, to a store near you!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. Customized Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,257 other followers

%d bloggers like this: