Sara in Peru

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Vacation Part Two—A Hare Krishna Ashram April 25, 2012

Filed under: Travel,Vegetarian,Yoga — saraberney @ 12:43 am

I sought rest from the hustle of my normal life in Peru. And rest is what I got, although a different sort of rest than I had anticipated. Britt and I arrived at Eco Truly Park, the ashram we had planned to stay at for a week. The Ashram sits in a secluded field, just a little north of Lima and close to the beach. We soon found out that the ashram was not just any ashram, it was a Hare Krishna ashram.

The sign welcoming visitors to Eco Truly Lodge: "yoga," "restaurant," etc.

The sign welcoming visitors to Eco Truly Lodge

Grey buildings surround a small courtyard

One of the inner courtyards in the retreat compound

A sign advertising "verduras organicas" -- organic vegetables -- outside the restaurant eating area

A sign announces organic vegetables at the outdoor seating area of our restaurant

Okay so you are all probably laughing right now. How did we miss that it was a Hare Krishna ashram? Well to be honest the website doesn’t make clear that the ashram has religious affiliations (check it out: Regardless, we embraced it and I am so glad we did.

What comes to mind when you hear Hare Krishna? For me I knew next to nothing about the religion, aside from the fact that they enjoy making and giving food (I have eaten at Hare Krishna restaurants and heard about groups on campuses). So in addition to learning about a religion that I only knew to be associated with food, I learned that I could become part of a trusting, loving, spiritual, giving community in only a week. But let me back up…

A German man, who practiced the religion, came to South America years ago to build several different ashrams where devotees could live and practice. Anyone was invited and still is invited to visit and live at the ashram. And we saw quite the evidence:

  • painters,
  • yoga teachers,
  • spiritual leaders,
  • Aryuvedic practitioners

The guests included devotees who live at the ashram and volunteers from all over the world (we met people from Australia, Sweden, England, Argentina, and the US in the course of a week). These visitors stay at the ashram for short stays to experience the community or spend months at the ashram writing books.

A retreat colors the side of one of the retreat center buildings

One of the many murals at the retreat center

Eyes and a face color the side of a building

Eyes and a face color the side of a building

As a volunteer at the ashram, I helped out a few hours a day with various activities ranging from sweeping to cooking to painting to baking. And then there was that day we had to empty the sawdust compost toilets. There was talk of planting a permaculture garden our entire stay, but we quickly found out that even though we were at an ashram, things still worked the Peruvian way: slowly! But we went with it and spent time with all sorts of unique, interesting individuals.

The day began with 6am yoga classes taught by Rajmaj, who was quite the character. We were told that Rajamaj had not eaten for 30 days and was living on pranayama (extension of the breath exercises in yoga). We spent hours pondering how this short round man (and I mean round) could teach several yoga classes a day and never eat? Shortly after this we started looking for him at meal times and after a few days found him with a plate piled high, Peruvian style. Lies! After that meal we continuously found him chowing down. His yoga classes on the other hand were unlike anything I have ever experienced. They included jumping exercises, applying pressure (to the point of pain) to pressure points, and breathing and meditation exercises that were so mentally challenging they made you want to cry. (see below practicing meditation exercise)

Brittney and I hold our fingers to our eyes

Britt and I practice meditation exercises

Meal times were my favorite time of day. Okay the food was amazing vegetarian food, but the real reason this was my favorite time of day was that it was the time when the community came together and intentionally shared nourishment and conversation. And it was intentional; we spent hours at the table slowly enjoying the food prepared for their God, Krishna, and sharing conversations that switched back and forth between Spanish and English and German.

Temple came second. Every night after dinner we walked, barefoot, over to the temple with the stars as our guide. Temple was an hour of singing. The devotees took turns leading the songs and playing instruments (one evening they even pulled out an accordion). While I can’t say that I agree with the majority of their religious beliefs, it became beautiful to see their passion and love for God and how that manifested in song and in food and in color. They offered food to Krishna five times every single day and dressed Krishna statues in colorful clothing daily.

Guests at the retreat center sit together in prayer

Guests at the retreat center sit together in prayer in the retreat temple

Conclusions? I’m glad I went. What a unique, inspiring experience. When else will I spend a week in a Hare Krishna community, or for that matter any religious community? The week at Eco Truly Park left me truly thankful for the trust and love that comes from being part of a community. Llama is a small community and so in some sense I find some of the same feelings of trust and love there, especially when neighbors bring huge bags of figs or potatoes over to share with me out of the blue. Tomorrow I am headed back to Llama after two weeks of vacation. Thanks to this experience, I am in a place where I am able to give and receive community-shared sentiments more than ever before.


A much-needed vacation—in Peru’s far north April 15, 2012

Filed under: Travel — saraberney @ 2:32 pm

Peace Corps volunteers build up vacation time and I have put off taking mine. I had a week to spend, but it fell on Easter Week—so I didn’t want to be anywhere near a town or city. Why, you may ask? Because Easter Week in Peru, like Christmas week, is one non-stop party for people of all ages. And after staying in Llama the last 3 months building improved cooking stove after improved cooking stove, a crazy week of partying sounded about as bad as eating a plate of potatoes. So my best volunteer friend, Britt, and I did some google-ing and came upon an ashram outside of Lima. We were sold, but not before I could finagle a way to visit ruins in northern Peru that I had been itching to see.

And so the adventure began! J-Lynne, another close volunteer friend that lives nearby, and I made our way up to Chachapoyas, a small city nestled in between Peru’s northern sierra and jungle and the capital of Peru’s Amazonas region. The 14 hour bus-ride to Chachapoyas was an adventure in and of itself.

First stop in Chachapoyas? The market! An hour later we left the market, bellies full of cheese filled humitas (home-made sweet corn tamales), all sorts of strange new fruits, and large glasses of juice made with every fruit you can imagine (made before our very eyes).

A stack of Humitas--wrapped home-made sweet corn tamales on a table, with two local women

Humitas (home-made sweet corn tamales) at the market in Chachapoyas

A view of the stalls in the market in Chachapoyas

The market in Chachapoyas--so many fruits and vegetables

Two pictures with juice from local fruits of the Amazon

Just two examples of the fruit juices made fresh for us in the market

We were feeling bold and decided to hike up to the 3rd highest waterfall in the world, Gocta. What was described to us as a relatively easy hike, turned into a 6-hour hike that kicked our butts and ended with two sleepy ladies.

[Stories from two local residents about Gocta Falls: see the video half-way down the page (the slideshow at the top doesn’t work)]

Britt and me at the base of one of the several falls

Britt and I smiling--exhausted--after our climb to Gocta Falls

Gocta Falls in Northern Peru

A view of the falls from our trail

Back in the city, we found large husks of bright yellow boiled corn and crispy pieces of Chachapoyan-made cheese that we gulped down at a street food stand as we chatted with our cute little food stand chef, all for less than a dollar.

The journey continued the next day when we headed to one of the many ruins around Chachapoyas. These particular ruins were of sarcophagi, or pre-Incan tombs made for many of the Chachapoyan people. What made the ruins particularly neat was that they were built into the side of a mountain. Why we wondered? Well, crazy as it sounds, many Chachapoyan communities were in the sides of mountains for protection.

Pre-Incan tombs built into the side of the mountain

Pre-Incan tombs built into the side of the mountain

The most memorable day was the last: Kuelap, a mountaintop pre-Incan settlement almost the size of Machu Picchu. We opted for public transportation instead of a private tour and found ourselves in a combi at 4am (the only way to get there with public transport). Sleepy, we crawled out of the cab just as it was getting light out, and began the hike up to the ruins.

And magnificent they were, especially when you are the ONLY people there. We began by climbing up hundreds of stairs to enter what resembles an enormous stone fort. The settlement was another of the Chachapoyan people. The Incas eventually conquered this fortress in the 1500s, but only after many attempts.

Inside Kuelap, circular stone structures overgrown with tropical plants and trees surrounded us. These small circular structures are what are left of the homes of the people of Kuelap. We spent several hours walking around, observing etchings on some of the stones, the differences in the homes and the obvious separation between the more and less privileged of the community.

Britt and me under the sign indicating the entrance to Kuelap

The entrance to the Kuelap ruins

Part of the Kuelap settlement, against clouds and mist

We were truly above the clouds as we walked through Kuelap

A walkway in the middle of the settlement

A walkway in the middle of the settlement

Paths and circular structures (ruins of homes) inside Kuelap

Paths and circular structures (ruins of homes) inside Kuelap

The place felt majestic. Did I mention Kuelap is in the clouds at 3,000 meters (almost 2 miles high, or twice the elevation of Denver, Colorado)? The silence, the clouds, its grandeur, made me pause and ponder why we don’t create more spaces or communities like this today.

J-Lynne and I spent our last evening together, exhausted from an intense vacation of probably more hiking than we both do in our mountain sites. We had explored the ruins of these ancient people at high speed, and while it was totally worth it, I was ready for a rest.


Reflections on a Trip Back to the US January 7, 2012

Filed under: Adjusting,Travel,Yoga — saraberney @ 1:21 pm
Tags: , , ,

I just got back to Peru after an 18-day trip to the US for the holidays. I spent the first half in Atlanta with my boyfriend and with old friends. I managed to sneak in some yoga classes at some of my favorite studios in Atlanta, hit the amazing DeKalb farmers market, and ate at some of my favorite restaurants like the Flying Biscuit Cafe and Antico (pictured below). I then headed to DC where I saw my family and had a quick reunion with my best friends from college.

It was a lot easier to make the adjustment back to the US than I expected. The first days were a little rough and included a moment where I shed a few tears when I saw my first water fountain at the airport and watched cold, clean water come out for free.

Me smiling in front of a big pizza

Back at one of my old favorites: Atlantico Pizza in Atlanta


Me with my boyfriend Brendt and brother Max on New Year's Eve


Rebecca, me, Ilana, and Emily: best friends from college days, all doing work on social justice projects


Me with Max, uncle David, aunt Nancy, uncle Steve, and grandparents Mischa and Charlotte meeting up in New York

So what big revelations did I have?

Everything is the same. Okay not everything, but most of the things that I miss the most while in Peru (i.e., yoga classes, farmers markets, long runs around Atlanta and DC), are all still there waiting for me. It was also neat to discover that I have adapted many of these hobbies to my Peruvian context. My yoga practice in Peru has become a practice outside in a large field surrounded by mountains instead of inside a studio. My runs in Peru are on curvy rocky roads where I pass the moms I work with instead of on busy streets or in large parks.

What else did I figure out? I am glad I have another year in Peru. Yes, I miss my parents, brother, boyfriend, and friends like crazy and the level of communication with these people when in different continents really sucks. BUT, being back in the US made me realize how important my Peruvian community and the people in my community have become to me and the work I am doing there. Towards the end of my trip as sad as it was to say goodbye to these people, it was almost refreshing and inspiring to feel that I wanted to go back and pour myself into the people and the work I am doing in Llama for the next 10 months and then come back to the incredible community that I have in the US. And yes, knowing that I only have 10 months left to spend here helps A LOT!

So upon reflection, the trip was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself and my loved ones during my service in Peru. Now back in Peru, I have a few months of building improved cooking stoves ahead of me. We have finally reached the final stage of the healthy homes project! Exciting and a little scary; I have a lot of work ahead of me!


A very Un-American Thanksgiving November 30, 2011

Filed under: Travel,Volunteers — saraberney @ 2:46 am

I spent Thanksgiving with three of my closest volunteer friends traveling around the Peruvian desert. We arrived in Ica, five hours south of Lima, and headed to Huachachina, an oasis smack in the middle of the desert. Picture a small Laguna (lake) encircled by a tiny town composed of restaurants and hostels, entirely surrounded by sand dunes. In Huachachina we busied ourselves attempting to sandboard (most attempts ended in burns from the hot sand, small wounds, and a big head rush) and flying across the sand dunes in a dune buggy.

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From Huanchachina we headed further south to the Nazca lines. The lines are a series of animal etchings in the sand from millions of years ago. To this day the theories abound on why the lines exist. Reasons include: irrigation, religious sacrifice, even an alien presence. Because the lines are so enormous they are almost impossible to see unless you fly over them.

We flew over the lines in a four-person plane. We soon learned flying in tiny aircraft is not for anyone with a queasy stomach. Fortunately, none of us have queasy stomachs. Unfortunately, due to the lack of food at the small Nazca airport we had a round of beers instead of lunch.

Before we headed back to Lima, we stopped in Paracas, a small beach town famous for Las Islas Ballestas: a group of islands populated with hundreds of bird species, sea lions, and penguins. We took a small motorboat out to the islands and spent an hour boating around the islands getting mere feet away from the animals.

Before the trip came to an end I insisted on taking my friends to the only Bioferia (organic farmers market) in Lima. What a great decision! The market, several blocks long, consisted of various fruit and veggie vendors, organic tea and coffee growers, dairy farmers, and our favorite a few of Lima’s delicious organic restaurants selling their local grub. A great end to the trip!


The Amazon and Dad’s Visit to Llama October 25, 2011

Filed under: Adjusting,Travel,Vegetarian — saraberney @ 11:00 am

Bronco, short for Broncitis (or bronchitis) is the name my brothers chose for our new family dog. I met Bronco when I returned to Llama after a series of events; 22 hours rowing down the Amazon River on a raft made of logs, seeing my dad for the first time in 13 months, and yet another time making the ridiculous trip to Llama (this time with my dad).

Sara and 3 teammates constructing a raft from balsa wood

Constructing a raft from balsa wood logs at the start of the race

Twenty-two hours on the Amazon River you ask? Well this covered three days and was all part of the “Great River Amazon Rafting Race.” The idea behind the race involved teams of four making their own raft, given logs to get started, and spending three full days rowing down the river. My three teammates and I arrived in Iquitos, a city in the middle of the jungle, and set to work building our raft. After realizing, really realizing, that we had no idea what the hell we were doing, we found Wilber, a local Iquitan, who more than helped us out building the raft. The next day we set off down the river, and the next, and the next. We were all pretty shocked at how much fun we had on the raft despite the heat, the arm pain, and the repetition.

We also all agree that this was one of the coolest things we have done that we will never do again! You can never underestimate how sore your arms will be after hours upon hours of using muscles you forgot existed. But the gray and pink dolphins, gators (or crocs?) and whirlpools that we rowed by a number of times made it worthwhile! As much as I loved the jungle, I was ready to get back to the mountains where I was not dripping in sweat every time I walked outside. I was also excited to get to Lima where I would meet my dad.

After a 10-hour bus trip, a flat tire, and sharing close quarters with a lot of stinky Peruvians, we made it to Llama. My neighbors were pretty excited. However, most conversations went something like this:

Llaminian: Is this your dad?

Sara: Yes, this is Michael.

Llaminian (to my dad): So nice to meet you! What do you think of Llama? How was the trip? You are so tall? Where have you been in Llama?…..

Michael: Sara???

Sara: He just speaks a little Spanish.

Llaminian (to Sara, very confused): Why doesn’t he know Spanish?

Lady holding a guinea pig over an open flame

My friend roasting a guinea pig for my dad (burning the hair off before cooking it)

So I acted as translator for our trip, which turned out to be a fun job. In Llama I ran my dad all over the place. We visited my health promoters and some of the moms I am working with, were fed guinea pig (well he was), watched my neighbors kill a cow and that guinea pig he ate, spent a lot of time picking fruit and veggies from neighbors’ farms, taught a class to teenagers on self-esteem and values, and cooked a lot of yummy food! Aside from the whole cow thing, where I think my dad almost passed out (we were later given its kidneys to cook), my dad loved Llama and I loved how proud I felt showing him my community and home.

My dad pointed out that I will complete a year in Llama this upcoming month. Over the year the nature of interaction, communication, and coordination in Llama has truly grown on me. Whenever I run into someone, whether on my way to the tiny corner store or a neighboring community, I stop and have a conversation with the person. Yes, many times it is about the weather, but it is still an opportunity to stop and slow down. I also find myself coordinating the majority of my meetings and projects when I run into someone or am close by their house and go to make a pop-in. I guess coordination works this way in part due to the lack of cell phones. While many own cell phones, like me, that cell phone spends most of its time resting on a window sill or ledge where it gets a signal and is only used at night or occasionally during the day when the owner is at home.

I recently have realized how much I enjoy communicating and coordinating my work by word of mouth and in person versus over the phone or by email. It’s much more personal and the interactions I have with each person only bring us closer.


A visit from Brendt and a whole lot of composts! September 16, 2011

Filed under: Health,Training,Travel — saraberney @ 11:11 am

I recently got a second visit from my boyfriend Brendt. We spent a week hiking, indulging my food craving (including a cheesecake brought from the US), swinging in hammocks and playing Settlers of Catan.

Sara and Brendt hiking near Huaraz; mountain lake.

Sara and Brendt hiking near Huaraz.

Back in Llama things have been crazy, mainly for my legs. We are planting 8 vegetable gardens with 8 different groups of moms from the healthy homes project. But before we can plant we’ve got to make COMPOSTS! So I have spent the last few weeks in these 8 different communities with my hands covered in poop (for the composts of course) helping the moms make composts. Because some of these communities are 2 hours straight up a mountain, my legs are ready for a rest!

Most of these mothers have never planted a real garden before. I say “real” garden, because most mothers plant a few onions or cilantro or carrots in their backyards. These moms are unfamiliar with composting. When they do use fertilizer it is normally chemical fertilizer or they simply sprinkle animal poop all over the farm where they intend to plant.

I gave each group of moms a list of the different materials used to make a compost and told them to have the materials ready the day I would arrive to help them make the compost. Most days, when I arrived I found multiple bags of animal poop but none of the other ingredients. All the moms seemed to think giving veggie and fruit peels (another material used in the compost) to their animals for lunch was a better recipient than our compost…oh well.

So work-wise things are going great! We plan to finish the last 3 composts this week and then patiently wait until they are ready so that we can plant the gardens. In the meantime I am making house visits with our health promoters to the homes of each project beneficiary to see where we will build the improved cooking stove and enclosed area for guinea pigs. Currently a handful of the moms are cooking outside on the ground, others have very old stoves and plan to build an entire new room where we will construct the new stove.

One final “noticia de exito” (note of success): Since we finished the series of training sessions with our health promoters, we recently started something new—a monthly educational session with our promoters that they replicate in their communities to groups of mamas. The first group of health promoters tried it out last week and I could not have been more proud. In this particular community there are 2 health promoters. They stood up in front of 10 mothers and led several activities on nutrition: what makes up a healthy diet, symptoms of malnutrition in children, they even talked a little bit about vitamin C and fiber. We shall see how the rest of the health promoters do this month!


Travels with a fellow Llaminan September 6, 2011

Filed under: Health,Travel — saraberney @ 9:54 am

I set out with Dionicio Alejandro Vega Ramirez at 4 a.m. last Sunday morning. Destination: Piura, a Peruvian department situated about 30 hours north of Llama. I had asked Dionicio, one of Llama’s health promoters, to attend a four-day long Peace Corps training focusing on the construction of improved cooking stoves and latrines, gardening, and animal husbandry. It was a good deal for Don Dioni (as we call him). Peace Corps would cover the tab and he would get to adventure out of Llama for one of the first times. It would probably help to mention that he is in his mid-50’s.

Don Dioni and me

Dionicio Alejandro Vega Ramirez and me

So we set of for Piura together. Five long bus rides later (one of which we had to chase after in a taxi because it left without us), we arrived exhausted. Still, we managed to make it through four days of building latrines and improved cooking stoves, planting gardens, and giving chickens and turkeys vaccinations.

It was pretty interesting to spend so much time with my community partner. Let’s see… During the trip we stopped at a supermarket. It happened to be his first time inside of a supermarket. One of my friend’s community partners asked for a photo inside the supermarket. It was also interesting to see how dependent this older man was on me. Upon boarding the bus for example, he looked down at his seat number, saw that it was seat 2, and then asked me where he should sit. Well seat 2 is probably towards the front of the bus Dioni…. I guess in the developed world we take structure and ordering systems (like seat numbers) pretty for granted.

Difficulties aside, this was a really interesting learning experience and exchange of cultures for both of us. We got a little more comfortable with each other, brainstormed some project ideas (he suggested we solicit all of the embassies for money to pay us to make improved cooking stoves….), and returned to Llama ready to hit the ground running.

With the help of the rest of Llama’s health promoters, we had the final educational session with the moms for the healthy homes project. We had given them the task of cooking something healthy for the meeting. It turned out to be one of my fullest days in Llama. The menu consisted of: white bean salad, mazamorra (thick soupy paste) of quinoa, mazamorra of pumpkin, fried bread (very healthy in my opinion), ceviche, barley, and banana cake. All in all a very successful travel and return!