Musings of a YFGM Intern

In January 2016, I attended the FWCC World Plenary Meeting in Peru. This is an account of my time there.

A is for Andes. We can see the foothills from the hotel window in Lima, but it’s on the flight to Cusco that I catch my first real glimpse of the mountains. They are greener than I expected, more alive-looking.

Breathing is more difficult here. It’s an effect of high altitude: in Pisac, where the gathering is being held, we are at a height of nearly 3000 metres. Sitting down I’m usually fine, but after the ten-minute walk from our hotel to the main hall where we gather? Not so much. I’m also sleeping about 12 hours a day. Apparently, this could also be a side-effect of the high altitude and not just me being lazy.

Cicadas sing in the grass every evening as we make our way past the corn field back to our hotel.

Dogs everywhere! Despite all the warnings I had in England about them being rabid monsters, I find them generally polite and well-behaved. There are three dogs at the Royal Inka, the hotel complex where the Plenary sessions take place. One of them likes to spend his days dozing in the front pew of the chapel, surrounded by gladioli.

Excursions to nearby sites of interest take place on the second day after I arrive, and I get on a minibus for an eight-hour tour of various Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley. At the ruins in Pisac, there’s a mountainside covered with small apertures from where the Conquistadors raided the tombs within.

Flowing close to our hotel is a small river. We’re told that the water was once clear and carried fish, but is now contaminated by pollution from Cusco.

Granadillas on the breakfast table every morning. Quick! Get one!

Half-finished houses – roofless, windowless, doorless – are dotted along many of the roadsides in Pisac. I don’t know who they’ve been built for and whether they are work in progress or just abandoned. They’re made from adobe brick, a mixture of mud and straw that’s been dried in the sun.

‘If you want to do x, yes you can!’ This is the format in which our guide for the Sacred Valley excursion gives us permission. For example: ‘if you want to take photos, yes you can!’; ‘if you want to use the toilets there, yes you can!’ I don’t know whether it’s a quirk of the Spanish/Quechua language or a personal idiosyncrasy, but I like it.

Jenny Baines and Jenny McCarthy are my roommates, both for the unexpected overnight stay in Lima and during the gathering in Pisac. Surprisingly, sharing a room with two people both called Jenny leads to very little confusion, shedding new light for me on the (rare but not unheard of) practice of giving all your children the same name.

Kittens, geese, hens, rats and dogs are among the menagerie at the farm near our hotel. The farmer’s daughter has soon sussed out my desire to stroke the kittens, and when I walk past the farm in the morning, she often scoops one up and puts it in my arms.

Lima Airport welcomes us to Peru with a flight cancellation and a gigantic statue of coca cola bottles outside the front entrance. Cola is pretty much everywhere in Peru. You can even buy ‘Inca Kola’, a sweet, yellowish fizzy drink that tastes a bit like Lucozade.

Market day is every day in Pisac. The best purchase I make is also the cheapest: a cup of Chicha Morada, a juice made from purple corn.

Names and logos of presidential candidates are daubed on the walls of many of the houses. I spend the trip assuming the Peruvians are a super-political people. On the last day, I overhear someone explaining that, as part of their election campaigns, the different parties offer to repaint people’s houses in return for being able to advertise their candidate on the walls.

One hundred percent cocoa chocolate is for sale at the ChocoMuseo shop in Pisac, and I try a bit. It’s not as bad as I feared and not as good as I’d hoped. I don’t buy any.

‘Pachamama’ is the Incan term for ‘Mother Earth’. During one of the sessions in the Consultation for Sustainability, a Friend describes how Peruvian farmers don’t need any convincing that the planet is in trouble: he says they can tell just by the feel of the soil in their hands.

Quakers believe different things about God. For some of the British Quakers I speak to, experiencing a more programmed and theistic form of worship and discussion is one of their favourite parts of the Plenary. I find it more difficult, feeling like I’m under pressure to profess belief in an intervening God.

Riding in the back of a tuk-tuk for the first time, I’m surprised to see several brightly coloured stickers of Mary and Jesus above the windscreen. By the end of the week, I’m surprised if I get into a tuk-tuk and it doesn’t have Mary and Jesus stickers.

Shamanic retreats are advertised at a number of hostels and guesthouses in Pisac. According to my guidebook, these kinds of retreat bring a lot of tourists to Peru. It’s what the American guy who serves me in the ChocoMuseo shop says he’s come for, at any rate.

Terraces are flat platforms of grass descending down a hillside, each one ending a little further back than the one below. They were used by the Incans for agriculture. At Moray, our guide explains that the different levels create their own microclimates, so a variety of crops can be grown.

Ulrike’s is a German-run café just off the market square in Pisac. I sneak away from the gathering one lunch-time and have lasagna there. Beans and rice are nice… but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Vehicle checks are being carried out by police on the road between Pisac and Cusco on the day of our departure. It transpires that the minibuses hired to take us to Cusco airport aren’t legally allowed to go that far. We have to take a detour to avoid the rozzers and I miss my flight to Lima.

Walking to our hotel in Pisac for the first time, the two Jennys and I aren’t quite sure of where we’re going. We accost one of a group of young men walking past us on the lane and show him the map we’ve been given. Without any ‘Where shall I meet you?’ or ‘See you in a bit’ to his friends, he lets them go on, walks us to the hotel, and waits until someone arrives to let us in.

Xenophobia isn’t something I experience as a foreigner in Peru. Walking down the back streets of Pisac, I pass by the locals seemingly unnoticed. Part of me wishes my otherness would cause them to ask me questions and talk to me, but the closest contact we get is dodging cars together.

Youth and age become more blurred for me at this gathering. I meet many old people who seem young, and many young people who seem old.

Zonked out in the days after returning home, I start to scribble down the things that have stayed with me from the trip, unsure of how I’ll combine them into a cohesive piece of writing. Then I remember the poem ‘On the Difficulty of Imagining an Ideal City’…

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