Why I Write

It feels a bit wrong to make my first post after a long silence one about why I write. Maybe I should call it “Why I no longer write so regularly” and talk about things like work-life balance and learning to give myself time to process tricky emotions and adapt to big changes, and about having so much to say after such a break that I don’t know where to start. This seems as good a place as any though, participating in a blog hop that my friend Lauren tagged me in.

Lauren writes a little about food and a lot about coffee. She’s also a something of a social justice champion and creator of the $35 food challenge, in which I have always been too scared to take part. Maybe I’ll do it this year, where AU $35 will buy me about PEN S/90 worth of groceries, which means I can maintain my fine dark chocolate habit… Anyway, if you live in or travel to Sydney and care about your coffee, go read Lau’s blog. She’s aces.

Anyhoo, I’m supposed to answer a few questions to elucidate why I write, so I’d best get on with the questions: Read More

So what’s it like being an environmental volunteer in the developing world? I can only answer as to my experiences here in Peru, but the same things hold true in many other places.

For me, this year has brought a lot of big challenges beyond just from being a long way from home and working in a foreign language and culture. The toughest stuff has been the reality of my work: good environmental management depends on understanding the problems out there and the resources that are available to (try to) deal with them, and sometimes can be quite shocking. Read More

When you choose a path to walk you cannot know exactly where it will lead you.

At best we can only see part-way to where the journey will take us and the obstacles we will encounter.

Adjust to the path as you find it and let it lead you where you need to go.

Let the journey become part of you.

Hello! This is a really quick post to say that I’m alive and well-ish, after being floored for a week by a rather nasty sinus infection. My respiratory system really dislikes the cool, humid Lima winters, especially the way the humidity traps the serious air pollution and deposits it all over the inside of my lungs. Mmmm!

So I’m pleased to say that I’m getting away from it for ten days, heading off on a trip-of-a-lifetime to the Amazon jungle! Ok, so I’ll be spending half my time in the jungle city of Pucallpa, which by all accounts is a NOT a trip highlight. Pucallpa will be a good immersion in the threats to the Amazon and social challenges resulting from urban expansion and economic modernisation. It’s mostly poor shanty-slums in a cleared and developed section of the rainforest, with logging the major industrial activity, but from Pucallpa I am travelling on to Purus.

You’ll struggle to find Purus on a map. It’s a tiny speck in a sea of near-pristine forests right near the border with Brazil. The only way into and out of Purus is the float plane that comes twice a week and lands on the river. It’s not on the tourist routes: there’s not even a hostel in town. I only know about the place because of my work with Peruvian natural protected areas. Two areas – Purus Communal Reserve and Alto Purus National Park – are managed by national parks staff based in Pucallpa and Purus, and the Director of the Communal Reserve has invited me to come for a visit. He will meet me in Purus and show me around. Yeah I know, I’m spoilt. Read More

Head north out of Lima to the town of Huaral, in the valley of the river Chancay. Turn east and follow the river valley through the desert plains and into the foothills of the mighty Andes, passing the irrigated fields and orchards that help to feed the mega-city. Drive by ancient mud-brick temples crumbling back into dust, by rural villages nestled into bends in the river…

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On Sunday I went with the crew from Los Pantanos de Villa wildlife reserve into central Lima, where they had a stall at the FestiFeria. The FestiFeria is a moving fair of government services that visits the poorer districts of the city and I was interested to see the sorts of things they do. As well as providing information about educational and recreational services, the fair also provides front-line services that people would otherwise struggle to access: there’s a triage unit and medical consultations, dental services, domestic violence support, notary services and registration assistance for various government initiatives and programs, or even just getting an official ID card, which can be a challenge when you’re poor and illiterate.

Each time I wander into the poorer parts it changes me. It steals a little more of my optimism and energy, my faith in humanity. It teaches me a little more about Peruvian culture and politics and the daily reality of many. Each time I come back understanding more about the causes of Peru’s social and environmental problems, and understanding how little I can actually do about any of it. This huge, tangled mess of culture, history, colonialism and human nature… I trace the problems to their roots and through my ecologist’s eyes begin to see the way the environment has influenced culture to get to this point – a society so destructive of the very resources that it depends on to survive – and shake my head at the irony of modern human behavioural ecology.

Peru’s environment is inherently unstable and unpredictable. This is a land of earthquakes and landslides, where a loose chip of glacier destroys a whole district every 50 years or so. It’s a place of rainless deserts, harsh highlands and thick jungle, where resources are frequently scarce and fiercely defended. Rainforest soils are too thin and poor to support agriculture, but traditional tribal hunting and gathering has been replaced by forestry, oil and gas extraction, illegal mining and ill-advised cattle ranching as modernity stretches its grip into the Amazon. Rain falls in great torrents that wash away the young earth of the still-rising Andes, then disappears for 7 months of hard frosts and cloudless days in alpine plains where the hearts of empires formed and fed their armies by sculpting the mountainsides into innumerable terraces . Desert life depends on the flow of Andean water both overland and underground, and on the richness of the sea. Ecologically suited for small settlements, Lima now holds almost 10 million people trying to make a living in the dust.

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Caporales is a folk dance originating in Bolivia and spreading into parts of the Puno district of Peru and areas of Argentina that share the Amaya culture. The roots of the Caporales go back to the Saya, an Afro-Bolivian song and dance style that developed in the negro and mulatto slave communities brought to the Viceroyalty of Peru to work in the mines and on the plantations of the Spanish conquerors. The costumes and movements of the Caporales dance draw on the caporal – or foreman – character developed in the sayas: the mulatto elevated to the favoured position of right-hand-man, the commander of the African slaves and indentured Andean workers, and the dance itself is connected with reverence of the Virgin of Socavon or the Virgin of Candelaria, two aspects of the Virgin Mary considered sacred to miners and in Peru and Bolivia.

The Caporales dance in its modern incarnation emerged in the late 1960s and quickly gained popularity. A fusion of Afro-Andino, Amayan and Spanish elements, the Caporales is an energetic dance performed by a team of male and female dances. The striking costuming references the foreman’s traditional uniform, embellished with aspects of Spanish military uniform and the indigenous Andean love of colour and decoration, and is as flirtatious as the dance style itself. The men jump and stomp in displays of strength and stamina, while the women’s elegant twisting motions lift their skirts and showcase the strength and form of their legs and hips. The bells on the men’s boots reference the chains worn by slaves and indentured workers, in reference to the dance’s cultural roots.

The Caporales dance has become hugely popular over time, and is danced widely in Peru, with regional competitions leading up to a national dance title that is fiercely competitive and just a little Strictly Ballroom. Dance teams practice for months to choreograph and perfect their routines prior to performance. Well, normally, at least.

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I shouldn’t speak so harshly of the Peruvian coastal desert. Although I’m a creature of green, hilly places, deserts can be spectacularly beautiful places to visit that have a marvellous effect of putting things into perspective and making day-to-day worries seem very small indeed.

The Peruvian coastal desert is arguably part of the mighty Atacama, which stretches 1 000 km from northern Chile and eastern Bolivia all the way along the Peruvian coast until just shy of the border with Ecuador. Covering 128 000 square kilometres, the Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world: the Andes to the east block the arrival of warm, rain-bearing winds, and along the coast the Humboldt Current maintains the dry, stable conditions while also keeping the temperatures cool, which is why it never rains in Lima.

The Humboldt Current is also responsible for the incredible richness of marine life on the Peruvian coast. The current drives the up-welling of deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters which supports huge levels of productivity. The sea here smells strongly of fish and algae and absolutely teems with aquatic life. The resulting abundance of seafood, coupled with the cool climate and river valleys carrying fresh water down from the Andes, has meant the Peruvian Coastal Desert has been home to a variety of human civilizations for thousands of years.  Read More

Last week I passed the half-way point of my project here in Lima, so it seems a good time to reflect on the six months that have been and to consider what the rest of my year here may bring.

It hasn’t been easy. Really: under-statement. As some of my posts have documented, I’m struggling with the day-to-day reality of life here, as well as with the bigger issues of environmental management and social justice in Peru.

On the daily level city living just isn’t for me. I dislike crowds and noise, and enjoy spending my time hiking, gardening and interacting with my local community. Here I’m caught in a city of almost 10 million people, bang smack in one of the driest deserts on the planet. The city is an enormous sprawling beast of concrete and snarling traffic jams, growing rapidly as squatter-towns spring up on the urban fringes. The only green places are the manicured parks in the wealthier suburbs and I miss the mountains and wild places so readily accessible back home.  Read More

This planet, this remarkable pale blue dot, is our one and only home.

There is no nobler cause than to take care of it, to work towards a greener, fairer, cleaner future.

Let’s create the kind of world we want to live in: every day, every choice counts.

This is our home and we all can shape it.


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