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Welcome to Perú: April 19 – 30

Cusco, the city of the Incas, the cultural capital of Perú.  At 3400 meters above sea level (11,300ft) it sits, spread across a shallow valley: a sea of terracotta roofs at the center; on the outskirts adobe huts lap at the edges of low, green-brown mountains; the steeples and towers of the city’s countless churches poke upwards like islets. The cobblestone streets are steep and lined with thick stone and whitewashed walls. Short metal doors open off the streets into lush courtyards with stone fountains and ornate balconies. The narrow sidewalks are crowded. Tourists talk loudly in foreign accents or move slowly with their noses in guidebooks, little kids chase dogs and weave between legs, tiny old women with long braids tied together at the bottoms, wearing multiple skirts and sweaters and felt or straw hats move up and down with loads of reeds or potatoes on their backs.  There’s barely room for one to walk; someone is always stepping into the street to pass, sometimes in front of a taxi that’s hurtling down the fifty-five degree sloped street.  The cabs honk but don’t slow down, yet somehow no one’s ever hit.

There are two Cuscos. One, which includes the central Plaza de Armas and the adjacent streets with their “turistico” restaurants and tour agencies, belongs to the extranjeros (foreigners), and vibrates with the heavily-accented English of a hundred different touts and vendors swarming around the tourists, looking for money like mosquitoes hunt unprotected skin. Postcards, watercolors, handmade jewelry, painted gourds, finger puppets and musical instruments are paraded and displayed; young girls stand in the middle of the plaza passing out cards, “Massage, lady?  Waxing?  Pedicure?  Manicure?” Restaurant employees hover in the doorways with menus to attract clientele. “Yes, lady, yes, we have a free drinks for you!  Free drink!  You want Mexican?  Or you want tee-pee-cal foods?  Si, yes, we have, only ten soles!  Please, lady, come, come!”  Competition is fierce and therefore prices are low, but even so, the cost of one meal in a tourist restaurant would buy five in a local place.

Outside of Tourist Cusco, pollerías line the streets, selling rotisserie chickens in pieces (an eighth of a chicken with a plate of French fries and buffet salad costs four soles – USD$1.50), and in the mercado (market) there are dozens of abuelitas and mamichas (literally: little grandmas and mamas) standing over small gas ranges cooking up almuerzos completos (complete lunches: a huge bowl of thick soup with corn or potatoes to start, then a plate piled with rice, salad, and the main course of chicken stew, or a piece of fish or beef or sheep, or with French fries cooked with tomatoes and onions) for less than one US dollar.  Clientele have their favorite stalls, and at the popular ones the benches overflow and people eat standing up, passing the bowl of ají (hot sauce) back and forth, shouting for kachi (Quechua – the indigenous language – for salt). A roll of toilet paper is provided to wipe the grease from your fingers.  And in the same mercado: dried pears, spices, shoe polish, rugs, chocolate, flowers, cheese, fruits, corn, woven fabrics, ceramics, flour, vegetables, backpacks, cleaning products, pig heads, shawls, fruit juice, towels, herbs, quinoa bars, freshly butchered cow portions. There are metal drains in the cement floor for washing down the fish guts and cow blood and spilled soup. In this Cusco, they speak Spanish and Quechua only.

The city is a carnival, and everyone in it is a barker.  Women stand on the corners wearing yellow aprons, holding cell phones, selling air time, announcing their wares, “llamadas llamadas llamadas llamadas“. On the outskirts of the city, combis (crowded, battered vans) rattle through the potholes with a man or woman hanging out of the open door shouting the destination, “chin-CHAIR-o-chin-CHAIR-o-chin-CHAIR-o!” but barely slow to admit or deposit passengers.  I watched one woman in stilettos and a business skirt run full tilt after a combi destined for Urubamba while the caller held out an arm to help her aboard, all the time commanding her to “sube-sube-sube-sube” (“get on, get on!”).  I love the combis.  They’re slow and they’re crowded; they stop for anyone who waves an arm from the sidewalk or shouts “¡Baja!” (“Stop!”) from the inside.  “Too full” isn’t a concept that the combi drivers acknowledge.  People sit on top of each other and stand in the space between the seats where your feet are supposed to go.  Abuelitas with five different bags of farm produce doze in the back seats while clean cut business types pass dirty-faced children back to sit on top of the bags of potatoes.  Young mothers carry infants on their backs in brightly colored mantas, the little ones nearly invisible in the folds of fabric, until a tiny grasping hand fights its way clear or the van jolts through a pothole and suddenly you find yourself staring into two curious brown eyes.  I love the crush and the proximity, the smell of the earth in the clothes of the old men, sharing smiles with the other passengers when the road gets rough or when the sliding door gets stuck and both the driver and his helper have to get out and yank it open. Peruanos seem always to be smiling.  There’s a saying here: in Perú, everything is possible, but nothing is certain.  I like Perú.  You can’t drink the water or find paper in bathrooms (a roll of TP in a Ziploc bag is a permanent resident in my daypack), but for thirty-five cents you can buy hot corn on the cob with salty Andean cheese from a woman on the street corner, and if the combi is too full, you can always ride on the roof.


The country is poor, but the people are descended from the Incas, from kings, and they are strong.  Their ancestors constructed stone citadels on mountain tops at elevations greater than 3000m (9,800ft), quarried, carried, shaped, and stacked rocks, some the size of cars.  They carved steps out of the hills steep enough to give tight-rope walkers vertigo, but I’m willing to bet that they didn’t need to use their hands to climb them. Jeni and I, however, out of breath and without shame, perfected the “four-appendage” climbing method over our six days approaching and exploring the most famous Inca ruins, one of the new seven wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. Why did these people build in this place?  So high, so remote, so difficult.  The strength that must have been required and the ingenuity – a marvel.  I must admit my knowledge of the history and the culture and the methods is lacking.  It was not the details so much as the overall honda of the ruins that brought tears to my eyes, once, twice, three times, surprising and unexpected, welling from some vein in my soul as yet untapped.

Our approach to the site took four days.  The anticipation grew during the hike. Long, full days, each one better than the last.  It was a different experience for me: hiking with a group of twelve; mules to carry the packs; breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks all provided and cooked and served under a tent with chairs, a table, napkins, cutlery.  Many in our group had never been on a multiple day hiking trip.  For one young Korean girl, this was her first hike. Ever.  One guy had half-healed broken ribs, and two contracted altitude-aggravated stomach bugs.  Even Jeni, my fellow hard-core hiker chick, was suffering from bronchitis – yet no one ever complained.  We took it slow, we took a lot of rest stops, we talked, we bonded; we had a blast.  I learned a good lesson in anti-snobbery, and the slow pace meant that I took heaps of photos.  It took us two days to climb from Mollepata at 2900m to the 4600m (15,091ft) pass below Mt. Salkantay (6271m / 20574ft).  The word “WOW” was never far from my lips, though I rarely had enough breath to speak it.  Atop the pass, we built a cairn of rocks to honor Pachamama (the Incan mother earth).  Dozens of other small rock towers stood on rocks across the barren saddle.  Clouds drifted between our legs and among the rocks: Pachamama tasting her offerings.  On the other side of the pass, the route meandered down the side of a valley past small farm houses of branches and stone and thatch.  Locals rode past us on horses or stood in their doorways, watching us pass.  Families live in huts on the sides of the mountains, raising their children and their crops kilometers from roads and from their neighbors, linked only by rough foot and hoof paths.  There’s no such thing as “wild” space, it seems.  The land is used, inhabited, despite the altitude, the remoteness, the difficulty of the life.

As we descended, the terrain changed abruptly.  “Welcome to the Jungle” began to play in my head as banana trees replaced alpine grass and bamboo and flowers and creepers crowded the trail.  I had to step aside to let a spider the size of a lime with dark hairy legs pass.  Wilson, our guide, picked grenadillas for us to try, a type of passionfruit with a hard shell and pulpy seeds inside that look like frog eggs: sweet and juicy.  On the fourth day we reached the train tracks and got our first view of the mountaintop fortress of Machu Picchu.  It was hot, and we were sweating, surrounded by banana trees and the sound of insects, and there it was – Machu Picchu – right there.  I could imagine Hiram Bingham and the original explorers in 1911, bushwhacking through the jungle and then suddenly noticing some interesting terracing on top of the peaks.  And then we were there!  Day five – we made the steep climb to the ruins to arrive at six AM when the gates opened.  Jeni and I lagged behind a bit, hesitant to look.  After so much time and planning and energy, here we were.  It was a bit silly, but we held hands, looked at the ground, and shuffled towards the edge of the first overlook, then counted to three and raised our eyes at the last moment…awesome.

Words and descriptions are pathetically inadequate.  There are rock walls and buildings and structures, there are gardens of orchids and a temple that resembles a work of abstract art, all shapes and designs blending into one another, in harmony with the surroundings and with Pachamama.  The ruins are literally built into the top of a mountain.  The walls give way to cliffs which drop dizzyingly to the river below, and in all directions are similar peaks, steep, green, and dramatically independent of the valley and each other.  Jeni and I spent one day, then came back for a second full day, paying extra for the privilege, exploring, climbing the surrounding peaks, relaxing, absorbing, meditating. I don’t remember ever being so content, so utterly at peace in a place.  On the day before my birthday I was sitting on top of Montaña Machu Picchu with Jeni, mixing guacamole in a plastic bag and staring down at the ruins and at the mountains around above and below. And I was smiling.

So ends chapter one of the Peru Story.  Stay tuned for more, and check out the photos.  Two new albums: “Argentina” and “Peru #1″.

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