Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — Peru

Cuzco is for addicts

We got into Cuzco early.  It was about 8AM when our driver dropped us at our hostel.  I’d never stayed in a hostel, and images of bunk beds and shared showers had me a little worried.  But when we walked through the blue doors on the steep street, into a beautiful courtyard, I stopped worrying.

The woman at the front desk took our passports and spoke with Kelly in Spanish.  We designated Kelly our primary Spanish speaker, because she’d been studying the most.  She was so eager to speak, that even when the other woman told her she could easily speak English, Kelly refused.  So LeAnna and I listened and nodded along as Kelly confirmed our reservation and bought 3 huge bottles of drinking water.

Because we were there so early, the room wasn’t quite ready, so we tossed our bags in a corner and struck out to see the city.

Cuzco is high.  It sits at 12,000 feet above sea level.  I grew up at 7,000, with regular trips to 9,000, but the only time I spent above 12,000 was on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa for my 30th birthday – where we all became giddy from altitude sickness.  As we toddled out into the streets, it was with awareness of the distinct shortness of breath that accompanied the clear, blue sky.

We made a circuit around our part of town, stopping at the train station and airline office to confirm parts of the next leg of the trip.  Kelly and LeAnna would be continuing on to Lake Titicaca and the Amazon.  While they talked timetables and layovers, I consulted Kelly’s guidebook, and dozed lazily in the plastic chairs of the waiting areas.  I located the Plaza Armas on the map (the main historic square) and read about its history.  Then I turned to the really important thing:  food.  I had no interest in eating llama, or the local staple, cuy – guinea pig.

There were pizza places everywhere (I’m guessing because the wood-fired ovens used for cooking the cuy are a natural fit for pizzas).  The guide book suggested an interesting place off of the plaza, and I filed it away for later.

We tramped through the streets in a jet-lagged haze, making our way to the plaza.

The light seemed strange.  Filtered, somehow.  It was bright and made the morning feel much later than it was.  The streets of Cuzco were coming alive, its cobblestones reminiscent of, but more raw than those of Italy.

The lanes offered beautiful scenes of daily life mixed with simulated authenticity.

Mothers carried children of varying size and age under blankets wrapped tightly around their backs, little hats poking out from the bundles.  I covertly snapped a shot of what was remarkable to me, and completely commonplace to the locals.

Then, just off of the plaza,  I saw something colorful and furry.

When I ran over to take a picture of an “authentic” Peruvian with a llama, I didn’t know that I was supposed to pay for it.  These women make their livings selling snapshots of their clothing, animals and weaving.

The plaza offered great views, bounded on two sides by enormous churches that had competed for the Vatican’s attention and the Pope’s declaration of “most beautiful.”  The cathedral (the Pope’s choice) was built on the base of an Inkan temple.  The other was a Jesuit church.

We had a look around at the brown, brushy mountains and the images of pumas everywhere, scoping out a good place to sit.

The guidebook said that the plaza still served as a marketplace.  By sitting in a park bench, you could avail yourself of vendors.  Paintings, jewelry, knick-knacks, tours, paintings, massages and all other manner of items were pedaled to us, as we claimed our view on the plaza.

We became more comfortable talking with the vendors.  Unlike the vendors on Italian beachesthese vendors would take the time to let us look at their wares, and then move along when we declined, with a polite, “maybe later.”

The maybe later made us laugh a bit.  The third time we heard it we realized that it was ubiquitous.  We decided it must be a way to keep the conversation open for the next time we entered the plaza.  Because the vendors remembered us every time we entered the plaza.  “You remember me?  I showed you paintings yesterday.  I am Pablo Picasso!”  The young men sold mostly paintings.  The women crafts.  Silver jewelry and carved gourds.  Textiles and postcards, and everything under the sun, pulled from bags and displayed one after another with immense patience.

With one woman, the most assertive vendor we met by far, I tried out my theory.  After looking at her carvings, I smiled and said, “maybe later,” thinking I was politely ending the conversation.

“Maybe later is no good for me, lady,” was her response.  I think I burst out laughing as my self-designated cultural awareness was flung out the window.

The morning nearly over, we headed back to our hostel, stomachs grumbling.

Our front desk friend greeted us with a big smile and a grinned, “como estan?”  Our bags were already in our room, and all we needed was our key, which was turned-over heavily to Kelly.

She took command of the huge skeleton key and we made our way up to our second floor room overlooking one of the property’s courtyards.

Then we spent some time figuring out the surprisingly complex locking mechanism

By the time we got in the room and threw down our gear we were appropriately hungry.  Working together we came up with a fantastic meal of almonds, dried peaches and an Italian pecorino cheese that I’d smuggled out of Italy and into Peru.

Other places have things that the US doesn’t have.  Rooms for more than 2 single travelers, for instance.  Our room had four single beds.  We each claimed our own and designated the fourth as the gear bed.  Then we marveled at our accommodations.  Along with the four beds, we had our own, private bath, internet access, breakfast, and all the coca tea we could drink.  All for $55 a night.  Total.

But back to the coca…

When I told people I was going to Cuzco, they all said the same thing, “drink the coca tea.”  I like tea, but I don’t like introducing my body to new addictive substances.  Just doesn’t seem like a good idea.  So I’d planned to tough it out without the benefit of the coca.  But the shortness of breath, sleepiness and vague head pain I was experiencing, along with the pots and pots of coca tea provided by the hostel convinced me that I might be better off joining the locals.

And I was.

LeAnna and I sipped the tea, while Kelly, who would not be spending the next week hiking, looked on.  We had no interest in finding ourselves with altitude sickness two days before the four-day trek that was ahead of us.

The tea is made from coca leaves – that’s coca, not cacao – the leaf from which cocaine is extracted.  It lowers the blood pressure, and allows your body to absorb oxygen differently.  So, in effect, we were doping up for our trek.  It did the trick with our headaches.  Tea in hand, we all moved into the second, terraced courtyard where scores of traveling students were clutching their own styrofoam lifelines and taking in the mountain air.  After a couple of cups, LeAnna and I found ourselves lounging in the sun, our hearts beating insistently in our chests.

Beating aside, we were sleepy.  The 20 hours of travel finally caught up to us, so we soon headed to our bunks for a high-altitude nap.  In our little beds, we crashed.  My last thoughts were of the blood rushing through my heart.  LeAnna, on the other hand, was graced with dreams of falling off of cliffs.  The coca tea was potent.  Kelly slept like a baby.

When we awoke, the day was moving into evening, which meant we could head to dinner.  Yay.  We pulled out the guidebook once again and I found the restaurant I’d identified earlier.  The addicts in us were most excited about a good cup of coffee (because we needed more stimulation), and the “cultural center” atmosphere promised in the book sounded interesting as well.

Books lie.  Or they become outdated at an alarmingly fast rate.  We found the restaurant, and climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor.  We were the only ones there.

We looked out the top floor window onto the streets, and then looked at each other.

Maybe we were just early for dinner.  Maybe there were new owners.  Maybe it would pick up.

We were game for staying, but only because we were hungry and had no other lead on food.  And we wanted Peruvian coffee.  “So, do we drink the coffee?”  LeAnna asked the strange question and we looked at her quizzically.  “Well, it’s made with water, and I’m pretty sure they haven’t boiled the water for 10 minutes.”

Damn.  None of us had considered this.  Parasites weren’t on the list of things we wanted to take home from Peru, and the drinking water wasn’t safe.

A quick debate ensued regarding the drinking of coffee.  LeAnna and I came down on the side of “screw it, we’re in Peru, we’re drinking the damn coffee.”  Kelly came down on the , “can I have a sip” side.

While we waited for our coffee, we checked out the menu.  Along with cuy and other, unidentifiable items, there was a pizza list.  Which sounded delightfully comforting.  We were adventurous, but hungry.  After discounting local fare, we ordered my personal favorite:  pizza with olive and pineapple.  Delicious.  The olives turned out to be Kalamata, a change from the usual, but tasty.

And the pizza was good.  Surprisingly so.  We gobbled the pizza and slurped tentatively at the coffee.  Which was divine.  All thoughts of what could be lurking in the water was tossed aside as we tossed back the beautiful-smelling elixir.

And as we tossed back, we looked up to find the strangest part of the place.

Sperm.  Fertilizing a ceiling lamp.  Yes, that’s what I said.  I don’t know.  I didn’t ask.  We’re assuming this is the “cultural center” to which the booking was referring.  Who knows?

Our stomachs happy, we sat and considered the rest of our time in Cuzco.  We’d need another place to eat.   And we might need dessert.  While we were a little hesitant to consult the guidebook again, we weren’t ready to accept the recommendations of the hoards of barkers trying to bring in business from the streets.

The guidebook listed a European bakery.  A place where we could get more coffee and a piece of cake.  Potentially perfect.

Kelly needed an internet café, so we worked our way down the main street, searching for a shop that looked both legit and safe.  At every corner was clogged and we were barraged by women with handbills asking if we wanted massages.  “Maybe later,” we answered, and they agreed.

When Kelly entered the back of a shop, LeAnna and I sat waiting, catching up on each other’s lives, and musing about the days ahead.   Sitting there talking about the emotional and the mundane, we were treated to a preview of the camaraderie that would thrust itself upon us as we made our way through the truly foreign experience lying in wait.

And then we were walking again, through the streets of Cuzco at dusk, past murals of a maturing justice, and fountains and tourists and locals.  Toward pastry.

We would visit the pastry shop every night that we spent on Cuzco.  We would order a total of 10 desserts in the three visits.  Nine of them would be delicious.

The shop was lovely.  White-shirted, black-aproned Peruvian boys waited by the door, hands clasped behind their backs, their dark hair and eyes sparkling at the mix of locals and tourists streaming in and out.

Our three desserts and coffees were consumed, and we laughed lightly, comforted by the familiar look and feel of the place.  Caffeinated and sugared, we stepped out into the dark plaza in front of yet another ornate church, where we found a backlit Mary standing watch.

Odd churches were nothing new to me, and I was interested to see the Peruvian flair overlaying the Catholic basics.  Kelly and I stepped inside to find one of the strangest church interiors I’ve ever seen.  A couple dozen life-sized saints stared down at us from high niches.  Wooden or ceramic, each of them was dressed in real clothing.  Satin, lace, wool.  They all had complete textile clothes.  Some had jewels.  I wouldn’t have expected this to be so strange, but it really was.  Instead of the feeling of benevolence I have felt from the carved statues of saints, this felt like life-sized dolls staring at us as we made a circuit of the large church.

LeAnna, who had wanted to be culturally sensitive, came in to see what was taking us so long.  I’m sure we had wide eyes, due to caffeine overload, and the strangeness of the scene.

We weren’t far from our hostel, just on the other side of the Plaza Armas.  Despite our sugar highs, we were starting to fade.  As we walked back, the night took on a fuzzy, sparkly feeling, the scooters rattling past us along the ancient stones.

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August 16, 2010   2 Comments

Getting there

I went to Peru.  With two of my friends.  Kelly and I dated years ago.  Now she lives in Atlanta.  LeAnna and I play softball together in Portland.  And, strangely enough, she and Kelly met each other in Ireland, even more years ago.  The three of us discovered that we were all considering hiking the Inka Trail and decided that we’d make a go of it together.  After months of planning, Kelly had found us great accommodations and a fantastic tour company, and LeAnna had navigated the oddities of the local airlines.  I just tagged along.  I think maybe the brought me as the entertainment.

We started our trip on the fourth of July, meeting and flying out from Miami.  We looked out from the airplane windows to see hundreds of fireworks displays below us, cheering us on our way.

This was a big adventure.  I was just one week back from Italy, where I’d spent a month, but already Peru was shaping up to be a bigger adventure.  It struck me that Italy was now a familiar place.  A place with a familiar sound and smell and taste.  Peru was completely new.  I’d never been to South America.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been to Mexico.  And although I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, the 12,000 foot altitude of Cuzco seemed worlds away.

And that’s where we were headed:  Cuzco, via Lima, where we would acclimate for a couple of days before the trek.

The first real excitement of the trip began in Lima where we navigated the complexities of purchasing a ticket on a local airline.  We were unable to purchase a ticket online.  We could reserve, but not purchase, so once in the Lima airport, we needed to pay for our tickets – in cash, at a special counter.  Fortunately, Kelly and LeAnna had been practicing Spanish, and I had been speaking Italian for a month, so I could understand a fair bit.  My college Spanish threatened to re-emerge, but never really followed-through.

After Kelly and LeAnna took care of their tickets, we found out that, for some reason, I was booked on a flight an hour and a half later than the flight the other ladies were on.  Not good.  The shuttle to the hostel was not likely to wait or return for me.  I’d have to work it out when I got there.  Alone.

Kelly handed me a map and told me the name of the hostel.  Then she wished me luck, and they ran to catch their plane, which was scheduled to leave very, very soon.  I stood in line to check my bag for the later flight.  I’d been told by the agent at the payment desk that I could not get on the earlier flight.  Darn.

But I am my father’s daughter.  He traveled extensively while I was growing up, a manufacturer’s rep for an international company.  We’d traveled as a family, and I’d seen him work with desk agents.  He’s magical.  I’ve seen him talk an entire family onto a full flight.  I’ve seen him get free first class upgrades for all four of us.  When it comes to travel, there is almost nothing he can’t do.  Or at least that’s the mythology I’ve developed.  A mythology that can come in handy when I’m in a foreign country needing to be emboldened to make a little magic of my own.

So, as I approached the desk, hefting my 35lb pack, I focused, and I channeled my father – in Spanish.  Or Italian.  It’s not clear what I was speaking, exactly.

I asked the agent if I could get on the early flight.  She looked at her watch and asked another agent.  Who went to work, typing frantically on her keyboard.  I felt like I was on the Amazing Race.  They worked together, speaking rapidly and in low tones.  Finally, the second woman nodded, and the first took my bag to label it.  Then she handed me a small, squarish piece of paper.  I looked down and saw that it was a ticket.  For the early flight.

“Esta bien?” I asked.

“Si.”  She looked at me staring at her in awe.  “Rapido!”

I smiled, nodded, and took off running.

Then I heard her behind me.  I’d forgotten my water-bottle.  We both hopped over the ropes that separated the lines of travelers.  She smiled broadly, handed me the bottle, and I was off, looking for Kelly and LeAnna who still thought I was on my own.  I found them in security, after being turned around and sent to pay my airport tax.

In Peru, you cannot enter or leave the country, or even fly domestically without paying a tax.  When we flew to Cuzco, we paid about $8 American.  When we left the country, it was about $30.

Once the tax was paid and the validating sticker attached to my little ticket, I was able to run through the checkpoint, and into security.  “Kelly!  LeAnna!”  They looked back at me, in the middle of taking off their shoes.  “I’m on!”

We all smiled and celebrated, and they waited while I danced through the metal detector.  Then we made a break for the gate.  We arrived 15 minutes before the departure time, just as they were closing the door to the runway.  We were sure we’d missed the flight, but the gate agent put up her hand, made a call, and then pointed us through the door and to a bus.  Well, we were pretty sure which bus she pointed too…

We were elated.  We’d all made the flight.  We snapped pictures, and chattered through our grogginess.

After 10 minutes of sitting in an empty bus, we started to worry.  There was almost nobody on the bus, and the flight was supposed to be leaving in 5 minutes!  Kelly couldn’t take it.  She walked off the bus to confirm that we were in the right place.  The airport worker checked his watch and told her that, yes, we were on the right bus and that we’d leave in a bit.

Apparently, departure times are kind of a general rule, more than an absolute.  The bus filled up with people and we took off.

The hour and a half flight was a treat.  Primarily in Spanish, we were instructed about safety, and handed snacks.  It reminded me of air travel in the US 15-20 years ago.  We had leather seats, as much as we wanted to drink, and a meal complete with breakfast sandwich and cookies.  All for about $100.  Maybe less.

I usually sit on the aisle, but I would have sat on the wing to get on this flight.  As luck would have it, I was on an aisle, with an occasional view out the window.  I watched as locals and returners looked out to see the terrain becoming more and more rugged, mountains emerging from plains.

The approach to Cuzco was a little intense.  The mountains were close on either side, and we turned hard to get to the strip.  And extreme landing for an extreme place.

On the ground, we celebrated again with high fives and acknowledgements that “We’re in Peru!”  In the shadow of the “Oxi Shot” sign, we repacked our bags and wondered if we’d really need the canned oxygen during the next week.  I laughed and made some Spaceballs “Perriair” joke that nobody got.

It was 8:30AM when we walked outside to find our shuttle.  The sun was piercingly bright in the thin mountain air, leaving the sky intensely blue, and the hills surrounding the city a washed-out brown.

Our shuttle turned out to be a guy with a car.  We located our names on his list and convinced him that we were the ones he was there to pick up.  The we tried to locate our seatbelts, and held on tight as we rumbled through the city over cobblestone streets, through plazas, and to our hostel.

Our driver came to an abrupt stop on a steep, one-way hill and we hopped out.  The adventure, though just officially beginning, had already given us a lot.  And, packs in hand, we were ready for more.

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August 1, 2010   6 Comments