Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Quick Tour of Cajamarca

I recently made a trip to the border with Ecuador to renew my visa, as I do every ninety days. This time Sonia decided to accompany me, so we included a little side trip to Cajamarca, a city in the mountains about halfway to the border. It´s the place where Francisco Pizarro and his mob began their conquest of the Inca empire, capturing the Inca king, holding him for a ransom of gold and silver, and then killing him. He and a few hundred soldiers killed the Inca´s five thousand defenders in the main plaza of Cajamarca without suffering a single casualty, thanks to their possesion of guns and horses. It has been estimated that over the next hundred years or so the population of South America was reduced by eighty to ninety percent, mostly because of diseases introduced by the Europeans.

Cajamarca is known as the dairy capital of Peru, and we visited one of the oldest haciendas in the region, where the cows are called by name to come to the trough and eat. (Actually the cows are lined up single file by one person, and another person calls them by name to enter the stall with their name over it. So it´s not as if the cows respond to their name, but they do seem to remember which stall belongs to each of them.)

We also took a couple of scenic tours, one to las Ventanillas de Otuzco (the windows of Otuzco), a pre-inca burial ground which was raided by the Spaniards looking for gold and silver objects that might have been buried with the dead in the small graves carved out of a cliff, leaving thousands of empty graves that now resemble windows. We also visited a regional park in Cumbemayo called El Bosque de Las Piedras (the Rock Forest). Besides having lots of interesting rock formations caused by erosion, it is home to the oldest known aqueduct in the Americas, a nine-kilometer canal carved out of the mountains around 1200 B.C.

Lord of the Miracles

October is known as the ¨purple month¨ in Lima. It´s the time when literally millions of people join processions to venerate a religious icon known as El Señor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles). The priests and other VIPs in the processions wear purple vestments. The icon is a replica of a famous painting of the crucified Christ that was made on an adobe wall by a black painter during the sixth century. An earthquake leveled almost all of the buildings in Lima in 1746, but the painting was untouched, and some viewed its survival as a case of divine intervention. Later, according to the legend, a young man who was suffering from an incurable disease went to the wall every day to pray, and was cured of his disease. He then organized a group of people to make weekly venerations at the wall, and over the years the practice developed into the more elaborate processions that now take place every year.

The largest and longest procession takes place on October 28 and 29. It begins in the morning and finishes on the following morning, and follows a simple rectangular circuit in the center of the city, making one detour into a hospital to offer hope to the ill. It covers only a few kilometers because the icon is very heavy (framed in lots of silver and gold) and requires about thirty people to carry the platform on which it sits. Each team of porters slowly walks a few blocks over a period of an hour, then hands it off to a new team. At each change of the guard, the flowers adorning the platform are removed and new ones placed on it. People decorate some parts of the route just hours before the procession arrives, making religious symbols in the street with colored sawdust and flower petals.

A group of veiled women walks in front of the icon carrying incense, and a group of men dressed in purple walks behind the icon. There are several stands set up along the route where the procession stops so that the dignitaries of the organizations who finance the event can be recognized and say a few words. And of course there are ambulatory vendors everywhere, most of them selling turrón, a very dense, dry cake with purple frosting, adorned with lots of sprinkles.

You can stand on one of the side streets and watch the procession go by, or you can take the plunge and join the ocean of humanity walking in front of, alongside and behind the icon. But once immersed in the flow, you pretty much lose control of your movement. Sonia and I decided to join the procession so that I could get closer to the icon and get some good pictures. The crowd pressed from behind, and when the street narrowed it pressed in from both sides. The best we could do was to stay on our feet and try to anticipate curbs and other obstacles, and then plan our exit a block in advance. It was the only time in my life that I feared that I could be trampled. Fortunately we survived the experience and managed to get some good photos.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Sawdust-Burning Stove

I became interested in sawdust-burning stoves when I saw one in a comedor several weeks ago that hadn´t been used for quite a while. The owner said that the neighbors complained whenever they used it because it produced a lot of smoke. It seemed like a really good idea, since sawdust is at least 5 times cheaper than firewood. I decided to see if I could find a less polluting way to burn it. I found a couple different designs on the internet, the most promising one by a former Peace Corps volunteer. It consists of a metal container (recycled can or cylinder) with a hole in the bottom placed on top of a couple of bricks. A tube is inserted into the hole while you fill the container with sawdust and tamp it down. Then you carefully remove the tube, place a sheet metal donut over the top of it and seal the edges with a little sand or dirt. To light it, you just roll up a sheet of newspaper and light the bottom end. To use it as a stove you have to place a couple of metal bars across the top to support the pot. The cylinder I used is about 10 inches wide and 20 inches high. In my version of the stove, I riveted another, larger diameter cylinder to the one containing the sawdust, so that most of the pot sits down inside the cylinder, improving heat transfer to the pot.

I like my wood-burning bread oven and use it a lot. But sometimes I´d like to be doing other things while my bread or cake is baking. If I´m not monitoring it every four or five minutes and adding wood when needed, it´s impossible to maintain a constant temperature. So I´m hoping to use the same principle to convert my oven to use sawdust, too. But in the sawdust stove above, the diameter of the burning sawdust (and hence the surface area) slowly increases as the sawdust is consumed, causing the temperature to rise gradually but significantly. So I´ve built another version of a sawdust burner to use with my oven. It uses the same type of cylinder, but before packing it with sawdust I insert four triangular metal forms, creating four smaller columns of sawdust each with a constant width. I´ve tested it and it seems to burn at a pretty constant temperature. Now I just have to play with the size of the opening and the height of the sawdust column to achieve the particular temperature that I want for baking.