FJMC Trip to Peru

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Peru Trip Commentary

All arrived well and on time by about Wednesday midnight Feb 29.

Day 1 - Lima

After a nice flight to Lima, we faced about an hour plus delay at airport going through passport control and customs. So it was a late night for us.  Today started early with a breakfast meeting of the 22 of us and reps from the AJWS (American Jewish World Service).  Then we met for two hours viewing a documentary about the Iquitos Jewish community.  The producer was there and led the discussion.  It was very nice.  Then lunch and then we went on a bus to the ruins of Pachacamac temples.  The park was very impressive, pyramids of sand covering various temples.  The temple of the sun and the temple of the moon were mostly uncovered and very impressive.  The temple site overlooks the pacific ocean (on cliffs) and is truly a desert.  However, just further in the valley one can see the lush green fed by the natural spring.  Apparently the people lived in the valley and walked to the temple for various ceremonies.  There were women who lived in the temple of the moon.  After that we went to a native market and then walked back to the hotel.  We all scattered into smaller groups for dinner tonight. Richard and I then looked over the local market and stopped for hot chocolate and churrios, just like in Madrid.

We are exhausted now and leave at 8 am to fly to Iquitos.

Day 2 - Friday going to Iquitos

This is being written before Shabbat so more about today will come later.  We flew from Lima to Iquitos, about a 2 hour flight.  The only way to get here is by plane or boat up the Amazon.  It is a city at the bend of the Amazon but otherwise surrounded by jungle.  It is hot and very humid and suddenly it rains.  It is definitely 3rd world.  Most of the vehicles on the road are 3 wheel affairs; sort of a motorcycle with a carriage on the back that is covered with a canvas top.  They are all over the place.  Called motorcycle cabs and they joke that they are the mosquitoes of Iquitos. When the rain comes the driver pulls up a plastic sheet to cover him except for his eyes.  One has to be very careful when crossing the street.   The construction is mostly concrete block, not pretty and much of it is being rebuilt or fixed up.  When walking in the street one has to avoid many holes.  The store fronts are open, like much of the Caribbean.  There are beggars on the streets, old and very young.  Also many people selling candies etc.

Our hotel is very nice.  However, the pool is being renovated and all the rooms are surrounding it so we hear the concrete machines and saws.  No swimming for us.  When we arrived we were greeted by about 4 members of the Jewish congregation, called the Israelite Community of Iquitos.   One of the gentlemen, Walter, had lived in Miami for many years and he spoke great English.  Walter took us to lunch at an open restaurant that we would not have dared to walk into.  It was called, are you ready for this...Ari's....  We were able to get dairy or parve food.  I had a grilled cheese sandwich and a drink in a coconut shell.  Richard had a fish sandwich.  Some others risked eating salad.  Then the two of us to visit an agency that receives grants from the American Jewish World Service.  It was fun to wander the streets looking for the place.  We did have a Google map.  However, the address lead us to a grilled gate before a large inner door.  We didn't see the bell and finally someone was coming there and we told them who we were and they let us in.  Too bad that our Spanish speaking family was not with us.  Only one person we met with spoke some English and it was a struggle for her and for us to communicate.  The agency was called Minga.  They have been operational for about 5 years.  They have a place, which I will describe that has 2 functions.  First, they broadcast radio shows in two languages. The shows are educational lessons about prevention of HIV, about women's issues, healthy pregnancies etc.  They say that thousands listen to their programs which are broadcast 3 days per week.  Richard was impressed with their sound studio and equipment.  Their second program is to have high school girls, about 20 at a time come to live in their facility and take a one week workshop.  The workshops teach the same things that the radio programs deal with.  There are 5 program subjects, one for each weekend day they are there.  The dorm is simple, bunk beds, a toilet and a kitchen with cooking outside in the yard on a grill.  It is very much like camp.  The girls are responsible for their housekeeping and cooking.  The facility is have inside (offices, sleeping room) and half outside a covered terrace like area and then an open yard with a thatch covered platform that is their classroom.  All very simple.  Their third program is when they take the same messages and visit different communities.  They had photos to show us of that work.  It was an informative visit and sounds like they are doing important work.

Richard and I then walked around the city.  The remainder of our group was taken on tour by the congregation and they went on a river boat to a village where they met indigenous people and had firsthand experiences with jungle animals.

Day 3 - Our experience of the Israelite Community of Iquitos

We had a very warm welcome on Friday night. There were about 50 members of the congregation present. The services were led by 2 men, lay leaders. They sat on a bench in front of us with a table in front of them. The congregation appeared to sing all the Friday night songs. They were very engaged. We were 22 and so together we filled the room.  Michael Abadi did a yeoman’s job translating and making both parties feel understood.  Several of the locals spoke some English, but you had to get them past their shyness.

The room was in the back of a store that the president of the congregation owned. It was also his house. The space was divided so that we entered from the street when up a set of wooden steps and then walked along a balcony that contained storage rooms on the right and open to the home on the left. We proceeded down a set of stairs to the sanctuary. The room was about 30 foot square with a 30 foot ceiling made of metal. The animals were kept behind us, sheep, roosters, chickens and parrots. The sang along with us during services. The walls of the room where white painted bricks. There was a Aron Kodesh in the corner which contained their one Torah. There were two large Jewish stars on the walls with lights that twinkled during the service. The walls were decorated with the blessings for bread, wine etc. The siddurim we used were in Spanish and Hebrew.

After services there was much hugging. The congregants almost on a one on one basis wished everyone of us a Shabbat Shalom with an embrace. It was very heart warming. They were clearly excited to have us with them. Some of the women and girls joined us in Israeli dancing.

We were invited to dinner at the president's house, an extension of the sanctuary.  All 22 of us and a significant number of the congregation. Dinner was served on a long table which was on the lower level, probably just under the balcony. It was a lovely meal. Zippy, our 10 year old fellow traveler did the blessing of the wine and I did the motzi. Dinner was fish, rice, salad, plantains and yucca. There was also dessert. We all left feeling good and looking forward to Saturday services.

In Peru the work week is 6 days so many of the congregation could not join us. They do not regularly hold services on Saturday. Rabbi Simon led a modified service with Michael Abadi as translator. The moving part of the service was the Torah service. The Rabbi made sure that all the congregants who wanted to could come to the Torah for an aliyah. They came in groups, men and women and some children. This was the first time of most if not all of them. Michael helped them put on a tallit and helped them say the blessings. The sensitivity in the room was palpable. Everyone was so happy and moved close to tears. The rabbi gave a nice explanation of Samuel and the Amorites and being strangers in foreign lands and drew the connection to today’s world.

We finished with songs and then danced again. Clearly this was a very moving experience for them. We were the first group to ever visit them.

During our visit we got to know some of the stories of the congregants. Many were the descendants of Jewish fathers, grandfathers and Christian women. They have decided to seek to become "Jewish" in a way that is recognized by the larger Jewish community. One young man told about how his grandfather on his deathbed told him he was Jewish and gave him his tzitzit. The young man wears it all the time and has been studying for conversion. Twice in the history of the congregation there were conversions held for large groups. Many of those people then went to Israel. Only one came back to live in Peru. The teenagers in the congregation talked about going to Israel for a year or two of study. There was one young lady who had gone to Israel and was trained to come back and teach the children. They meet with her weekly.

We came back after walks for Mincha and Havdalah.  There was a lot of spirit and a nice attendance.  After Havdalah many fun pictures were taken and friendships bonded.  We gave many of them our Masorti kippot and each received lovely presents from the congregation.

We were very touched by the openness and warmth with which they embraced us. It was very personal and very important. We did a mitzvah.

Day 4 - Sunday Amazon touring

Our immersion into the Amazon jungle and the surrounds of Iquitos was profound.  We were picked up early as usual, but were delayed by the weekly Sunday morning military parade at the square in front of our hotel. Happily there was not a display of big weapons but rather several hundred Peruvian military, mostly with rifles, in a flag raising ceremony with music and other pomp and circumstance.  We finally got onto our bus down the block from the square and drove off to the harbor.  What an experience as we exited he bus and walked through a real peoples-feast with the narrow walkway surrounded by locals making amazing vegetable and meat dishes on small stoves.  The people weren't particularly well dressed or prosperous looking but were having a fine time.

Our riverboat was waiting for us with our guide and motorman.  The boat like most others was about 40 feet long and 5 ft wide with a capacity of 30 or so.  It was a good fit and one felt intimate with the river.  There were other boats, bigger ferries and smaller fishing boats.  The Amazon tributary and finally the Amazon itself were just plain huge, miles across in places.  The river flows at a steady 5 mph making it undesirable for small sailboats.  It is 100 or more feet deep making it a true highway to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.  We rode along the shoreline and observed many small communities, some very rustic and others built around modern schools.  After close to an hour of travel we turned off the river and entered a small inlet soon getting to a native village.  This was a show village where the local people would don native attire to earn their livings. The pictures of us using the blowguns and enjoying the handiwork speak for themselves.  Next was lunch at a lodge nearby and a trip to a lecture and demonstration of local pharmacy after we walked through a real village.  We continued with the reality that each day one or two of us would not feel well enough to fully participate - and would rise above the problem the next day.  Our trip to the boat was in a nicer bus and our trip back was in a bus that was more typically rustic with wooden windows and more.

The dining experiences got better with time; particularly as our adopted guide Walter from the Congregation introduced us to new places and gave us confidence that hygiene was good.  Walter was very important to our experience of Iquitos from his perspective as a native of Iquitos who spent 30 years in Miami and finally returned to try to make a difference in the preservation of his homeland.  Just 2 years ago he found out from his sister who had gone through their parents papers that they were Jewish.  His is so representative of the complexity, warmth and spirit of this Jewish community.  He deserves an article of his own as does the cuisines of Peru.  And aren't the cabs of Iquitos precious.

Day 5 - Monday Travel to Cusco

Monday we are off to an early start to the airport.  Leaving a little late and having some mis-communications at the airport added to the stress, but all’s well that ends well as we all got on the flight to Lima and then Cusco, and even got all our baggage with us.  The rough terrain went from jungle to snow-capped mountains to desert as we approached the Pacific shore.  Arriving in Cusco in the late afternoon we are met by our travel agent and ushered seamlessly to our hotel.  We had some time to relax and wander about the town.  Cusco is a tourist mecca, the primary tourist hub in Peru.  It is clean in the downtown area and authentic. As with our other Peru destinations most of the people live in rustic homes.  Dinner was fine as always in Peru as was shopping.  It seems like every day we felt the need to express appreciation to Michael Abadi and Rabbi Simon for creating this experience and solving all our problems while they were small.
Day 6 - Cusco day trip

Cusco is a beautiful city, surrounded by large green pointy hills.  As in most South American cities it is built around squares that are boarded by market shops and stalls.  There are also many Peruvians walking around selling their goods.  It was cool when we arrived so we purchased sweaters.  We had dinner at the Tunupa restaurant, which had a buffet and a folklore show.  It was very classy and delicious but we were all exhausted from our early departure from Lima and were happy to be in bed before 10pm.

The hotel in Cusco is quite charming; very old and designed around an open interior courtyard.  Some rooms have French doors and a balcony facing the street.  There is no heat in the hotel.  Each room has an electric heater and that does the trick.  We also have several layers of blankets.  The weather is very changeable; from cold, like maybe 50s to hot, like maybe 70.  It also changes from sunny to wet from moment to moment as we are at the tail end of the rainy season.  We left on a bus excursion at 9 am and arrived back at the hotel after 5pm.  We visited the Sacred Valley of the Incas and several sites within and around it.  We visited the town of Pisac, and then went on to Ollantaytambo, reported to be the oldest continuous village on the American continent, dating from the 1500s.  The streets were very narrow, just enough space for the bus to pass if the pedestrians clung to the buildings. This village is bordered on the west by a steep hill on which the Incas build a ceremonial center. The part of the hill facing the town is terraced all the way to the top. The terraces were used to grow crops, different crops at different levels as appropriate to the varying climates.  Because of the terraces, the Temple is commonly called the Fortress.   The way to the top is via a series of stairways.  We did not go up these, saving our strength for tomorrow’s adventure.  The Incas built several storehouses out of fieldstones on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo.  They built them high up on the hills because there was more wind, lower temperatures to preserve the produce.  The water system was so clever.  They took runoff from the glaciers and built channels of stone to bring the water to all the terraces to water the crops, also to provide water for the ceremonial fountains and then to the town where this drinking water went through open channels down all the streets. Our guide showed us a "seasonal clock" that the Incas built to tell the change of season.  The angle of the sun on December 22nd made a particular shadow on a formation that they built and from this they knew it was time to plant.  This site was truly spectacular and we could have spent more time there.

Another highlight of the day was a visit to the Incas ruins in Moray.  There we saw terraces that the Incas built in a natural hole, huge circular agricultural terraces.  They used these terraces as a laboratory to grow crops, and train them to tolerate different conditions. There is a 27-degree temperature difference from top to bottom.  There was also a very sophisticated irrigation system.

We skipped lunch in order to get back to Cusco for dinner.  Another night of great local fish and vegetables - followed by an early lights out.

Day 7 - Wednesday to Machu Picchu and Purim

Certainly Machu Picchu was one of the real highlights of the trip. Because it is a distance from Cusco we had to leave the hotel at 6 am, which was painful, but worth it.  We took a bus about 1 1/2 hours to the Peru rail and travelled another hour or so to the Machu Picchu station - Aguas Calientes Station.  The bus ride was characterized by narrow switchback roads where you held your breathe so as not to see an oncoming bus or truck. The train ride was characterized by magnificent vistas of steep green mountainsides on the vertical steep drops to a rushing, turbulent brown river that was filled with boulders and white water; way more violent than possible for white water rafting.  The train was very elegant much like being on plane in first class with snack service etc.  When we arrived at Machu Picchu we took another bus to the top of the mountain.  We saw where the Inca Trail comes in and heard from many people how hard a trail it is to take it from Cusco. Many steps up and down as you transit the mountains.  I think it takes 3 or 4 days and they have tent camps along the way.  Even if I was 20 years old it sounded like it was over the top for me.

Awesome, breath taking, beyond words, amazing.  Machu Picchu means old peak.  It is close to 8000 feet above sea level. Most archaeologists believe it was built as an estate for the Inca king who lived in the mid 1400's.  Our guide said it was an administrative headquarters from which the Incas could manage their vast empire.  It was also a religious site.  It was abandoned during the Spanish conquest of Peru but not discovered by them and consequently they did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over much of the site, and no outsiders knew of its existence.  Hiram Bingham, a Yale professor came upon the site in 1911 and returned with a formal expedition.  It deserves to be one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was a "wonder".  It was also a 'wonder' that we were all able to climb the many steps to go through the "door" and enter the area. Even our guide was impressed.  We spent about 2 1/2 hours walking the ruins.  The space is composed of 140 structures or features, including temples, parks, and residences.  There are more than one hundred flights of stone steps of granite and numerous water fountains.  These were interconnected by channels and water-drains perforated in the rock that were designed for the original irrigation system. Again the engineering was impressive in the structures, as with the orientation of the site to the "clock of seasons" that they used to know when to plant etc.

We did not realize how lucky we were with the weather.  We had sun and clouds at the site.  It went from hot to comfortable.  However, when we went to a lovely lunch in town the tropical rains came down reminding us that we were near the jungle.

Getting back to Cusco we took the train to our bus.  Peru rail put us on a coach that was like a parlor car.  We sat around tables and were treated to a lovely snack.  Then the fun started.  The staff train car put on a show.  First there was a costumed cat faced character like a "sprite".  He danced with Zippi, Sharon and Shelley.  Then there was a fashion show.  The staff modeled a variety of alpaca sweaters, capes and coats.  This was followed by their sales cart. Leah purchased a beautiful poncho like garment.  We had such fun on this part of the trip. We were exhausted and exhilarated.

After the train it was the bus and a long drive back to the city and another fine dinner this time at our hotel, the Picoaga after celebrating Purim with Rabbi Simon.

Some of us cleaned up and two of us dressed up. Mike and Shirley, our president and first lady, arrived in costume and raised the "happiness" level in the room. Rabbi Simon led us in our celebration of the holiday by a sophisticated discussion of the Purim story as folklore story and it's relationship to the Hanukah story. It was very insightful for many of us. He read from a Megillah and sounded the grogger he brought with him from Eastern Europe. We ate hamantashen that were very tasty. It was very nice to be in such a remote part of the world and celebrate the holiday together.

Day 8 – Cusco half day

Only 6 of us were willing to get up early after our big day yesterday to see the ruins outside of Cusco.  We went to Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy lady” by our guide), an Inca fortress that showed great examples of the fine work they did with the granite rocks.  The rocks were huge, some 3 or 4 times larger than us and carved to fit so tightly in the front so that net even a piece of paper could slip between them. They did not use mortar. We were shown that in the back, the rocks were locked together by metal clips that they fashioned.  Located on a steep hill that overlooks the city, it contains an impressive view of the valley to the southeast.  Surface collections of pottery at Sacsayhuaman indicate that the earliest occupation of the hill top dates back at least a millennium.  Sacsayhuaman included a Sun Temple and a large plaza area covered in grass that was able to hold thousands of people.  When we walked around it was only us and a herd of lamas and alpaca.  They were very friendly and roamed with us for a while.  Later in the morning we met up with our group and were guided on a walking tour of the old city. We visited the Temple of the Sun that was inside a Church.  We also toured the city hall with its paintings and sculptures of natives.  We left Cusco that afternoon for Lima for another beautiful flight over the Andes.

Day 9-10 – Lima on Friday and Shabbat

Lima is a very large city, the fifth largest in South America.  There are 9 million people in the city; 3,000 are Jewish.  Our guide, Sandra, was a young woman who was about to get married and whose sister in law was married to an Israeli.  It was fun sharing wedding advice and her experiences of Judaism.  On Friday we toured the various parts of the city.  The most impressive were the two museums we visited.  The Larco Museum was a private collection of 45,000 artifacts representing over 5,000 years of Peru's history.  The building and exhibit halls were as impressive as the collection.  We all wanted to spend hours there, but alas, we had more to see.  We went to the Gold Museum which exhibits countless gold, silver and copper pieces.  We were reminded that the Incas did not value the metals for their monetary worth, but for their shine.  The gold is for the sun god and the silver for the moon.    The design of the art in both museums depicted the Incas view that the world exists on three levels: the upper or heavenly level where the gods are, the earthly level where predators like man and animals are and the lower level where our ancestors are.  They prayed to both the upper and lower for help in survival.  Then they were also concerned with opposites:  dark and light, male and female, upper and lower, etc.  They felt all was necessary for a successful life and they did not say for example that dark was bad and light was good.  It all was natural phenomena.

We spent Shabbat with the Jewish community that was established in 1870.  Rabbi Guillo Bronstein is the leader.  The temple was like all South American Jewish buildings, non-descript from the exterior and well fenced with a guard.  Inside, the building was modern and beautifully appointed.  The bima was located in the middle of the seats and the ark and reading table were in the front.  Friday night we were inexperienced and sat in front of the bima and the entire service was behind us.  The Peruvians knew to sit on the sides of the bima.  Saturday we corrected our mistake. The services were similar to our North American services; they sang through the usual Kabbalat prayers. Rabbi Simon gave a talk in Spanish which appeared to be well received.   We were then invited to dinner with a few members of the congregation.  The food was catered.  We started with a super vegetarian cerviche and then a chicken dinner, much like we would get in North America.  At our table we spoke with a teacher from the day school.  98% of all the Jewish children in Lima go to this one school, from Orthodox, Masorti and Sephardic temples.  We were also seated with the rabbi's 15 year old son who was a magician.  He and Arnie Miller were trading tricks all night.

Saturday the women from our trip met together for breakfast at the hotel while our men went to services.  The temple does not recognize women and we were told there is only one who attends.  Services were from 8:20 to 10:30.  So the guys joined us by 11 for our free day.  Five of us decided to walk to the Pacific Ocean and put our feet in the water.  It was about 10 blocks to the waterfront and then we needed to go down off the cliff to the beach.  There were many steps.  We saw a beautiful wharf with a very fashionable restaurant.  We taxied back up the cliff and then walked back from the restaurant.

We attended MaAriv and Mincha and Havdalah at the temple and had our third meal there.  Then some of us joined our guide for a tour of a new park that contained laser light shows at 15 magical fountains.  Several were just for viewing: like rainbows, tea cups, flowers, and some were to play in and get wet, one for kids and one for adults.  One was a tunnel for us to walk under.  The most spectacular was one they projected holograms onto fountains.  We listened to the swan lake music of the dying swan and saw the ballerina perform the choreography.  It was spectacular.  There were many other musical and dance performances, mostly Peruvian folk dances.

We left for home the next morning.