The Seventeenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2015
Berkeley Prize 2015

TARUN BHASIN TRAVEL FELLOWSHIP REPORT

LIMA, PERU, AUGUST 2015

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

“A complete outsider walks in, sits down, stays on with nothing to do, wastes their time and worries himself. And walks away!” - Leo tolstoy, Anna Karenina

That sums up my essay pretty much from the perspective of the other.

I would like to thank my parents foremost for their efforts in me. Prof. Saurabh Popli and Prof. Sanjeev Singh, for mentoring me. Vineetha Nalla, for choosing me as a worthy partner for the BERKELEY PRIZE. My siblings, school friends and college mates. Thank you. Lastly, I would like to thank the BERKELEY PRIZE for this opportunity.

The words are only a few taken from my diary that I maintained throughout my journey. It is a mix of prickle and goo. They comprise some memories, images and thoughts others might encounter if they ever are in similar places or situations. It might sound more personal than a report, more controversial in thinking at places, but, it is all an honest narration of my experiences and observations. That is precisely why it is so, to comfort the reader’s imagination on the idea of travel or volunteer work. I hope the write-up provides a momentary delight to the readers for their time invested. I thank them for the same.

LEAVING ACT

"But I'll tell you what these hermits realise. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you are connected with everything" - Alan Watts, Audio Files

There is some admirable sense in the idea of travel which is reflected in its two acts of departure and arrival. Taking this idea, I believe I made a sound decision choosing Peru, for both acts were a slow 36 hours; including three flights of eight hours each and two layovers in between of six hours each.

I saw it all here. The daylight of the carpet floor terminals of Delhi; the eloquence of the meandering paths and long corridors that went as far as the vision could; the soft afternoon sun kissing the burnt umber bricks of Heathrow; the sharpness of mullions of contained glass boxes and factory terminals reflecting the sheer elegance of industrial output; the monotony of American transit, the jukebox playing behind the false ceiling of the loo and my first dip of Dunkin's cappuccino with a rough meaty sandwich that was palatable of JFK's conundrum at its dead hours. Tasting from curry to pretzels amongst innumerable faces, none the same - I saw it all here, between short naps and meals and many glasses of orange juice; the momentary delights in an otherwise sadness of immigration lines and frequent security checks. But what I came to admire the most was the very nature of flight itself. There I found the sensuousness of a damp winter morning. Seemingly palpable, it left me yearning for its source. Hours passed by; the rambling of a powerful engine was mellowed to subtle vibrations that allowed for sleep to take over. It reflected on the innocence my mind experienced when it was attuned to a subject, wondering, where possibly else could I have experienced such robustness in one and a half days and felt in it as a sameness? It was just very graceful. And then I landed in Lima to a funny introduction.

"We had a pretty bad introduction, didn't we Lima?" And she has to agree that it is a bad idea - an avenue that leads one towards and away from the airport should not contain flat plastered emotionless facades, a circus of car garage casinos, crumbling brick structures and dead straight sidewalks - and all of this under a grey sky. All that leading to a neighbourhood of patched roads and potholes, of low rise rundown residences with dying planters desperate for revival. "The river is as good as black" told my host as we drove. But it is her very starkness in the polluted landscape that I came to admire the most. While driving from Downtown to Magadalena I noticed a wilting merriment (of winters perhaps). It was a much invited change to see avenues opening into boulevards and trees coming out of ground with their long crumpling stems and creating an umbrella. Beto Mendiola, my host, owns a bike rental store and he handed me a bike for my short stint in Lima. "Most tourists stay here for a day's refuge and head out to Cusco"

We had a fulfilling breakfast and I was off. I felt free cycling on the sides and in centre of the boulevards, and smiled on seeing children, couples and pet owners occupying the lanes, benches and grass. The tall buildings guided my view as I swayed with them with obtuse divergences that defined an interesting playing field for me. The boulevards end into plazas (on the map) but before I even reached there, the endless sky slowed me down. I heard the waves of the Pacific and smelled the brine as the breeze hit me with a sheer excitement washing over me. What an incident. I stood at the edge of Orrianta del Mar plaza and admired its simple symmetric street section - A wide cycling track in the centre is followed by a thin ankle high embankment followed by a wide patch of grass with those orderly planted sprightly trees; the plaza held a collection of stunted trees with thick foliage and dancing stems spread evenly over the circle; fat birds, small birds, black birds, blue birds, stayed on the grass, too lazy and pompous to take flight; they hopped as they picked out weeds and worms and delighted the breeze with their constant chirruping that somehow went unnoticed by people; some sounds were short, some methodical, some like a whistle, some like a beep, some ended flat, some ended deep and I realised there were many more species hiding underneath the cover of trees, the orchestra of the grass is followed by the conundrum of a two lane one way road and a pedestrian walk again. However some boulevards have green at the centre and cycling lanes at its periphery.

From the plaza, I pedaled on the experience the sheer evenness of the streets with the Pacific parallel to me. Entrances, I feel, define the character of this city. They are given focus. The doors are large, the boundary wall is stepped with grass, pebbles or running water. Otherwise its absence creates a recess to form a patio and merge the home to the street. The transition from outside to inside is a pleasurable one. Emotions are tactile, materials are bare and there's no sense of ego; you just want to reach the door. I pedaled on.

After my lunch with Beto, we walked out to be greeted by a sunny afternoon. "It's unusual for this time of the year, it's no sun just clouds." It felt good to encounter the unusual and headed towards the old city. I took respite at San Isidro Plaza. The clouds came back quickly as I sat on a bench noticing my environment. Landscape has no objective really. Its existence of any sort, anywhere, is a reflection on the meaning of existence itself, which is in its truest sense, at the most - accidental. Construct any structure next to a garden or a park and add a similarity - a colour, an angle, rock or grass - a dialogue of a sort - harsh and banal in rich green or abundant in scarcity, everything will eventually fall into place. It is not just a design but something living too. And life is not defined by purpose but absurdity, as Camus puts it. What transcendence is but a reflection upon life as a work of art, its characters, its stories and formations in a self-aware eco-system.

I sat there noticing the pond in front of me - and a crane fishing in it. The bird pedaled with mischief, arching its back and tip-toeing to avoid ripples. Going with the flow of water, carefully observing where its feet fell and if any fish was within the reach of its spine. The fish were an equal part of the act too. They seemed to mock the bird, jump around it. The virtues of a moment are delightful - just be silent and observe science play its play. I just wished for some public restrooms.

I ended up in Miraflores instead of the old city, in an amphitheatre in Kennedy Park, in the presence of a bustling crowd listening to performances, with cinnamon coffee and sweets in either hands and fluffy cats lazing around in the chilly night. Yes, cats! Kennedy Park is the heart of Miraflores and is famous for its fat cats that keep in the park. It is a famous evening spot where people play and rest after a long day or a lot of shopping, and cats do get their fair amount of attention.

As the night turned cold, the cats retired to the porch of a church, and I left for my own bed. I was to leave for Cusco the next day, but sitting there I felt an attachment to the place. It is a good city to live in.

 

REMEMBER HEIDI?

 

 “She was lost in her longing to understand” - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

It is a small village meditating in a valley hosting a shimmering lake. Rafaella’s house is a small adobe construction with country tile roofs, housing kittens, dogs, guinea pigs and sheep, with a small colourful herb garden in centre of the courtyard. The days are long, the nights sudden, sun is shy, clouds unforgiving, the valley is treacherous. 

Figure 1 Omasbamba : Very few people are seen throughout the day, fewer are available to talk. It silences put me in a state of depression by my 2nd week.

 

While men are seen in common shirts, trousers, sports shoes and jackets, women have an entirely different definition of clothing, one with many colours. It is as intelligent and utilitarian as it can be. A hat at top, a turtleneck sweater with a full sleeve blouse that can easily be folded back to the shoulders, button-up woolen skirt overalls that are woven by self-displaying many patterns, leggings and leather shoes. Hardly any skin is exposed to the damaging sun radiation at high altitude. It is heavy and does not give away to the cold winds. The skirt has large pockets at the front and back and smaller ones on its sides - so housework, cooking and farming comes with easy hands on storage. Babies are wrapped in woolen blankets and carried on backs, which seems quite efficient. The genius of the place lies not in men but women. As men are off working in towns, women enjoy lunch together in farms, under the soft sun.

The village reminded me of an anime series, Heidi, hosted by Cartoon Network. I loved it as a child. It was the story of a girl caught between her longing for her grandfather’s presence and his dreamy abode in the Alps and that of a pragmatic world with rest of her family, which resided in Frankfurt that she had to eventually return to someday. It was both sad and beautiful, and correct to the state of lives I was encountering.

There is a sudden burst of existentialism one encounters here as thoughts come pouring down as hard as a thunderstorm. I felt the immense weight of nothingness pulling on threads of my mind, making them loose. Surrounded by dry mountains that are a value for vision, I felt the uselessness of one’s being here. The radio played in the background with an eerie female voice.

Last to last night we finished the steps in front of the newly done floor. I liked the technique of putting buckets to create recesses for planters. I had started out with mixing cement and coarse aggregate on my first day, that made my hands swell, and graduated to levelling and finishing of a red oxide floor. I was supported by three villagers that guided me through the construction work, and a fellow volunteer, who being a girl was allotted kitchen work. Omasbamba has segregation of work for both the sexes based on physical strength, a sheer disappointment for her and I seemed to defy the case anyway. I was deeply comforted by her presence as she made up for my poor Spanish skills throughout the day.

Twilight went by warmth of the kitchen. There were boiled corn and potatoes for starters, a stew of some sort, that was served at almost every meal and chicha. All the while, radio played commentary of a football match. There was an atmosphere of merriment as the family came together for a meal. Food here consists of a handful of selections: rice, bread, spaghetti, quinoa, corn, green onions, pork, lamb, lemon, chilli and lastly three thousand varieties of potatoes. Most of it is indigenous produce.

Night went under the three layers of blankets, as adobe walls gave way to cold winds quickly, after the sunset. I shivered and had a lot of nightmares. My professor tells me it was mostly because of the cold. The next morning, at breakfast, the entire family listened intently to the news on the radio informing the opening of a hospital in Chinchero; a town connecting Omasbamba to the highway, and has a school. People in the village depend on nearby towns and Cusco for jobs and public facilities like schools and hospitals.

Soon after breakfast I was handed a plough and sent to the field along with some school boys (winter vacations) to till the farm. The job was good pocket money for them. They spent the days of their vacations hitting the ground mechanically, discussing mobile phones, drinking chicha and whistling at girls passing by. The sight of a tractor going to the adjacent village moved them. They paused to admire the machine. What that tractor must have taken a quarter of an hour to dig, took five of us nine hours. The day did not seem very productive.

What I once thought of the great pleasure about farming was what I came to abhor the most - acceptance for the mundane. This comfortable familiarity that the village enjoyed a decade back has caused a massive slowdown today. The adjacent village has been trying to move in, build a road, to access the lake this land hosts, and Rafaella being the economic advisor of the village has been opposing that. There is an optimistic way of looking at it, where a transactional relationship can help build a stronger community. What greatness can be achieved with 40 families at hand anyway? They have coca-cola at the small run down store but no fruits. How can evolution occur without accepting change and experiment? Opportunities are not found, they are created. Tilling on the farm all day, I felt as if there was no difference between me and a bull. To say the truth, there wasn’t. A man’s job here seems to be all muscle and no brain. The next day I was sent off to another field. This time it was just me and two cows.

Figure 2 The only shop in Omasbamba. It serves breads, grains and biscuits and many packaged drinks.

 

At lunch, Rafaella showed us some of her weaving she did from Llama wool. In the middle of it two tourists came and we were sent inside. Omasbamba is one of the villages of the sacred valley, a tourist hotspot and hand weaving is a major source of income. We came out when the tourists left. For some absurd reason, they did not want to reveal they were getting help from volunteers or had any contact with the outside world whatsoever. I found many women packing their products to take back home. All this ruckus was for just two tourists. A tourism based society I believe is the worst idea for a people because it enslaves them. The lives here delve on the image of a society that is already dead. And seeing their sorry state, I felt an aversion for the wonder of the world I so long had dreamt to visit. Only if it could vanish, these people will be let out of the leash with which their history binds them.

Over the weeks, the kitchen became my favourite place. Medy, my field manager, was right about it being the locus of the house. It is the climate, as I came to understand, that defined the social and family values of the region and its hierarchy. The burning stove and its smoke provide warmth to the space in a cold atmosphere. So after 6, everyone is placed at dinner. The women sit on stools near the stove while men occupy the table. Some might perceive it as anti-feminist but it is quite the contrary. As men are off to city working multiple jobs, it is the women that take care of the house and fields. Thus women contribute not only to the income of the family, but the crop produce and overall resource management; they are the only ones who know how to cook. Rafaella’s sitting next to the stove and serving food seemed a symbol of authority. Every man was having his supper under her grace. There was a continuous call of gratitude from the table to the stove.

After dinner, they sat together against the wall, Rafaella next to the stove like always, Ruby her daughter, in the middle and Zenobio, her husband, on the corner stool quite timidly as he always seemed. There is an honesty in their lives that I saw under the light of the bulb, confined by those blanched cherry walls, stained sooty timber and charred edges of the mud stove. It was heart-warming as Ruby read out to her parents and her father helped with the pronunciation. Everyone slept early.

MAXIMO NIVEL

“Only connect.” - E.M.Forster, Howards End

It’s called volunteer tourism. International Volunteer HQ is associated with many smaller organisations, Maximo Nivel being one of the prized ones. It functions for IVHQ and beyond it in Peru, Costa Rica and Guatemala. They understand their work needs to be coherent to the atmosphere of the city, not always fashionable. The work is slow and mainly due to lack of manpower but they take pride in achieving long term goals. The organisation focuses on human development and their recognised programs include teaching English, child care, nursing and jungle conservation. Over the years, they have educated over a thousand underprivileged children and adults, and helped them find colleges or jobs. Their efforts provide aid to a large number of hospitals on the periphery of the city and have helped conserve a part of the Peruvian Amazon.

They have created a transactional relationship between tourism and volunteership. Volunteers are placed in several homestays under housemothers. Working hours vary but breakfast and dinner are served at home. This system creates house groups serving in different parts of the city that collect every night at Wild Rover or Paddy’s Pub to share their experiences and explore the night life together. Apart from work and leisure, Maximo Nivel organises group activities at their centre of Avenida el Sol every evening, where the volunteers can interact with city people and understand each other in an informal manner. It promotes city sense with a certain sense of responsibility and this soft development makes a greater impact over the due course of time. It is not just a sense of fulfilment one attains but rich friendships too.

MAKING SENSE?

“It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories” - W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

I felt lost in the mayhem of modern day Cusco, as my bus found its way to the terminal. I couldn’t help but notice the nakedness of city’s architecture and landscape. An entire valley appears to be a squatter settlement. Almost every building in Cusco consists of exposed brick structures, unplastered post and beam constructions; no detail, ornament, face or colour. While in my ‘Theory of Settlements’ studio, I used to imagine the brick cities of Indus Valley, but I was bewildered at the sheer placelessness of articles presented in front of me. The city is devoid of all emotion. But that is the overgrown part of Cusco that expands on the hills like a giant army of ants. The old city centre is a different story. It is Bohemian. The base of all walls comprises random rubble, to preserve the character of large Inca stone walls. Above the stone that ends at sill, is adobe or fired brick bonds, plastered on the face, naked on the sides; white or warm colours, with timber balconies and ornamented brackets, facing well defined pavements and cobblestone roads, that rise up and down at slopes unforgivable in today’s world, revealing the vistas that picture the situation of the cultural capital in warmth of the valley. Food is abundant and clothing is rich. I could not stop myself from appreciating the Spanish for designing Plaza d Armas. It is probably the only place where Starbucks sits in a centuries old building and does not look awkward. The whole city seemed present there. I was though offended by the amount of commercialization of culture and history. The city seems desperate, selling the history of the Incas and Spaniards, minting on it shamelessly. It seemed to me as a form of prostitution now, after coming back from the village. In the present era, it has no identity; it is dead. Roaming around, it was bizarre to witness the capability of a ruin to generate such a life or at the very least, sustain it. Nothing really started again after the Spanish left. The Spanish did not leave anything to begin with.

Figure 3 Typical style of the city centre.

 

The first day of Construction and Renovation saw us climbing over 400 stairs with timber planks to reach the construction site. We had to help with the construction of a school for a humble neighbourhood. The process seemed slow due to lack of resources and manpower, primarily. A major problem was the transportation of material to the site. As roads did not reach the plot, volunteers had to carry materials and tools over 300 feet. The first storey was expected to be complete before the rain hit, so that there was a shelter for classes to begin with. The only downside would be not being able to see the finished product.

Figure 4 Preparation of frames, some brick bonds and pouring in the column. Done by me.

 

I started with woodwork. I learnt to fix nails and to work the hammer and prepared shuttering for columns. The day went by fast. We constructed columns throughout the week and left the site for the next batch of volunteers. Our field expert then introduced us to another site for the next week.

Figure 5 Site 1. With the field expert. The photograph aptly describes the height to which volunteers had to carry construction materials.

 

Some neighbourhood, about 210 steps from the road leading to a terraced basketball cum football court, had a small kindergarten. The sunshades were broken due to play. The fencing was done later on to prevent further damage. Marco, the field expert, first broke down the ceiling to reveal bamboo strips, woven to the rafters like a mat and plastered like wattle and daub. I hammered the bamboo into strips to be fixed inside out, inverted for the base of the new ceiling. Others weaved it and nailed it to rafters. Other works included cleaning walls with sandpaper and scraping off layers of extra paint from the base of the wall. Another layer of paint was added. Finally the mat was plastered. Such a technique over permanent concrete constructions proved feasible when money was scarce. Maximo Nivel is responsible for the maintenance of all schools constructed under their volunteer program.

Figure 6 Broken Sunshades. Rest of the plaster was removed to reveal the extent of damage to the frame.

 

Figure 7 Redone mat held to rafters by nails and wires.

 

Figure 8 Redone sundhade after plastering. Upper part of wall was cleaned and painted too. Lower part being painted.

 

The working hours in the city were short and we left work around lunch after starting early in the morning. The afternoon went by roaming around and exploring food in the city. It’s funny how the city sprang back with its image to provide for a delightful evening. From behind the clear glass of an ostentatious pizzeria, I viewed the twinkling hills in the backdrop of the cathedral that rose above the screened views captured by the articulated colonnades. Lighting was warm and the stone burnt passionately in the light, ever so delicately as if they each were innate to the other. Music played from behind the false ceiling decorated with wine bottles to form a subtractive hip roof, but the texture, the tablecloth, the floor and the walls were reflective of the earthly colours of the city. Its glory and nakedness were one in that moment. As I saw the parade cross Avenida El Sol to Plaza de Armas and then to Plaza San Francisco - the dance giving away to the spectacle of innumerable spectators all woven in the wholeness of this city. I bought some Incan souvenirs from one of the many shops next to the Twelve Angled Stone and back I stood in the deconstruction of the Spaniards, of plastered whites and timber balconies and I couldn’t help but appreciate a tension reflected in history, the very pathways, the contours and the screens. From the earth emerged the Incan colours of heavy dresses and from mountains emerged the burning clouds, proudly to the beats of the performing band. That is how I will always remember Cusco, that vivid juxtaposition of historic events, of lost identities and inflicted ones. It plays with the tourist’s mind with its own conflicts, drawing them in like a spider’s web, a sublime one.

Figure 9 Plaza de Armas at night.

 

WATER TRAIL

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

It was cold and dense and silent. A rainforest. Clouds passed leaving only tracks visible. Anything down in the valley or up at the peak remained hidden in moving eddies of a thick white blanket. I walked wearily unsure of myself.

The trail is laid out alongside Incan water channels, thus the name Water Trail. It goes upto the blue lagoon next to Omantay, the second highest peak in Cusco Province, just before the highest peak Salkantay. We passed through some thin stretches and steep drops. We had lunch at a camp situated below the lagoon. It was clear blue and one of the most serene sights I have ever witnessed. On the other end was the receding glacier of Omantay. I had forgotten to wear gloves and by sunset the temperature fell drastically. I stood for some time and recorded sounds. Recording sounds was a newly acquired hobby for me while on this trip. As slow as it was to get to the lagoon from the campsite, the easier it was to get down. We rummaged through the slopes, half a hundred, like an army of hooligans as seen from the campsite. The winds and streams from Salkantay kept noise throughout the night. The sky was filled with stars but we could not stand outside to appreciate them. I lay in a tent that was inside a bigger tent, in a sleeping bag wearing a two layered jacket, over a hoodie, over a woolen shirt and shivered. I had contracted a cough over the trek and found it hard to breathe. Somehow I survived the night.

We continued up next morning and if my calculation is correct, we were to climb 700 metres in a couple of hours to reach Salkantay. We reached Soyrococha, a valley so vast that the sky seemed to fall apart. In the middle of nowhere, stood a house hosting a small souvenir shop. We took some rest and carried forward, still out of breath. I was panting out of my wits at the brow of the highest point and felt ecstatic to see a hundred faces once there. I could see a ring of snow at the base of Salkantay and I ran to touch it. Having seen snow for the first time, I felt like a child once again and hurried to feel it. The ground turned from gravel to upturned rocks challenging me further. I saw some Japanese circling a patch of snow and taking pictures and shared a muffled laugh with myself. I ran forward hoping to jump in snow. Alas! My sprint ended with a sudden drop circumscribing the neck of the peak, like a garland, but one that in the mountain’s pride barred any traveller from touching it. The snow was there but I couldn’t touch it. I stood there and laughed a hearty laugh at the mockery thrown at me by Salkantay. My emotions converged to a singular happiness. I sat there looking at the peak intently to register it in my mind. Then walked back to where the Japanese were. Machu Picchu was a couple of days away, but my journey had ended.

Figure 10 The lagoon. Cliche pose.

 

 


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