Christmas in Cusco

Let’s get the spelling question out of the way: Cusco is often spelled Cuzco.. they’re equally (in)correct, since it’s a transliteration from Quechua. The official spelling is Quscu (which translates as “Navel of the World“, isn’t that a lovely image?)

I figured Cusco would be a good place to hole up for a few weeks during the holidays. My idea was that by taking Spanish classes, I would integrate into a family and a community and thereby not be alone for Christmas. Things turned out rather well..

Introduction to the city

Wandering around lost after walking from the bus station (since I eschew taxis), I ran into a young American couple that I hung out with in Vilcabamba (Ecuador) many months ago. Grace and Cody – they were the ones who stayed so long there because they were making more money from the poker games than they were spending on daily living. Amazing that we should bump into each other here after so long. We were only able to hang out a couple of nights together as they had to finally get back to the States. But they recommended a Spanish school for me to attend here – FairPlay. Back to that in a minute.

I’m glad it was a sunny and warm day when I pulled into town otherwise I might never have stayed so long. The weather this time of year is generally rainy and cold, particularly chilling to the bones owing to the fact that none of the buildings have insulated windows nor heat. I would have difficulty living here if only for that reason. The beds have heavy wool blankets which means that you’re warm by the morning, but it’s freezing until your body heats up the bed. Large, strong hail is surprisingly common here. And yet, the climate is surprisingly dry for the amount that it rains. I suppose it’s due to the thin atmosphere at this high altitude – there just isn’t anything there to hold the moisture. When the sun does come out, things dry out incredibly quickly.

A couple of other odd things about the altitude (3,600m/11,800′) – fires don’t burn very well, due to the lack of oxygen. The matches are huge in an effort to stay lit. On the plus side, that means forest fires are never a problem. On the flip side, if you’re trying to start a fire or keep one going (for a BBQ, say, or in a fireplace), they require contant tending and blowing. Also: since water boils at a far lower temperature up here (88° C vs. 100° C at sea level), there is some debate as to whether boiling water actually purifies it enough to drink. Oh well, I haven’t gotten sick yet.

It only takes a few hours of walking around in the warm sun to fall in love with Cusco. I finally understand why it’s such a tourist destination (nearly a million tourists a year!) – stunning architecture abounds at every corner you turn; romantic views from every hill; and surprisingly gentle and kind residents, uncommon for such a touristed place. Even the touts are not as aggressive or ornery as elsewhere. The central area is refreshingly clean and free of stray dogs – a welcome respite.

This will sound odd, but Cusco reminds me a bit of Istanbul. Built long before cars, many of the streets are just narrow alleyways and pedestrian-friendly plazas and passages. Far more approachable and livable than modern cities with their traffic-clogged avenues designed solely for vehicles, not for people.

The buildings are a sight to behold with their red tiled roofs and foundations dating back to when Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. The Spaniards came and did their damndest to erase the existing culture, but a lot of it survived. In a classic case of empiralism, the Spanish built Catholic churches on top of Incan houses of worship in an effort to wipe out the existing religion. You can see this all over Europe as well – in some cases, three or four layers/cultures/religions built one on top of each other.

The matching red tiled roofs and uniform height of the buildings here are no accident – it’s the law. A welcome change from the usual hodge-podge, haphazard, and function over form of most buildings in Latin America.

Those Incans certainly had a way with masonry – enormous stones weighing hundreds of pounds chiseled so finely and fitted so tightly together that in many cases you can’t even fit a knife edge in between the blocks. And they were built to last. All the walls tilt inward as part of their strategy against earthquakes. Whenever an earthquake knocks down modern buildings (fairly common around here), the Incan walls are found to still be standing. Reminds me of Perpignan, a town in southern France with a modern steel bridge just down river from an ancient Roman bridge. A few years ago a flood swept the modern bridge away – but the 2,000-year old Roman bridge was left standing. You’d think we would have improved our engineering abilities over the millenia, not gone backwards.

Interestingly, there appear to be more arts here than in the far-larger city of Lima. I compare it to Guatemala, where Antigua is the artistic refuge from the workaday Guatemala City.

One of my first nights in town (12/16) I found myself in one of the British ex-pat pubs with 40 other gringos playing a pub quiz. Good fun and a great way to meet people. One of the many activities organized by South American Explorers.

It turns out that Salima, the yoga-teaching, fellow long-term traveling friend I made during my last couple of days in Vilcabamba is in town. I love meeting up with fellow friends/travelers in various cities on our respective journeys.

Took a walk through the main market in town. Besides the usual fruits and vegetables, there are seamstresses bent over sewing machines in the dim light where you can have your zipper replaced for $1.. stands of vendors selling fresh medicinal herbs for any kind of ailment.. row upon row of juice stands where you can get a huge pitcher of fresh juice for $2.. or the house specialty, made from black beer, fruits, raw eggs, milk, almonds, and honey. Then there is the meat section. Whole pig carcasses laid out for your perusal.. cow’s heads sitting on counters, every part of the animal available. Intestine, stomach, tongue, cheeks, feet, all are available. Huge ribbons of fat are popular. Llama fetus.. frog’s legs.. quail eggs.. baby chicks.. unknown animal brains.. Anthony Bourdain, eat your heart out (oh yes, that’s available too)!

Spanish School and my Home Stay

Back to FairPlay, my Spanish school. One of the reasons I like them is that it’s a socially-conscious organization. Founded and run by a Belgian and his Peruvian wife, it trains and employs single mothers who would otherwise only be able to get a low-end job. The teachers spend 10 months getting trained and many are let go during the grueling process. John, the Belgian director of the school, is a savvy businessman with a heart who left a good life in Europe to do something more productive. His now-wife was working as a teacher trainer in public schools and looking to start her own language school. They make a great team.

In talking with John, I learned a bit about what it takes to start and run a successful NGO, as so many times they fail to get off the ground. For one thing, people here in Peru are mistrustful of non-profit organizations for a variety of reasons. In the 1980’s, a lot of money was given by foreign governments for large splashy projects that promised a lot but didn’t deliver much for the common person. Then in the early 90’s, then-president Fujimori ordered all the doctors in the country to sterilize any campesiña (poor rural farmer / peasant woman) who came in, no questions asked or explanations given. It’s hard to believe someone who has taken the hippocratic oath would do something so horrid, but in fact it’s the professional class here (doctors, lawyers, administrators) that are the most corrupt. The upshot is that the people who need the most help no longer trust outsiders to give it to them.

John and Fanny first tried to start up a 4-star hotel in the valley that was to be owned and run by locals, with all profits going back into the community. Total disaster – the representatives from each of the communities never reported back to their constituents after business meetings; they couldn’t even get enough people together for a vote on anything to move forward; the entire thing fell apart after more than a year of organizing by John and Fanny. It breaks my heart to see so much time, money, and energy put into a project for people who so desperately need it, yet can’t get it together to accept the help. There’s very little thinking of the future. People live completely hand to mouth.. if they happen to make a lot of money in a given month, they’ll immediately spend it rather than saving it for a rainy day. Then they come crying to John for a loan when their child is sick. People get greedy, even those who have been lifted out of poverty by these samaritans. It would frustrate the hell out of me, but it doesn’t seem to bother John. He just carries on.

John shared with me three rules about starting NGO’s that he learned from an older, wiser foreigner living here:

  1. Do something you like. Because ultimately, you’re not going to stick with it if it’s solely for the benefit of others. In John’s case, he’s doing this for the intellectual challenge – helping people is a side benefit, but he’s clear that it’s not strictly charity.
  2. Don’t expect anyone to thank you. This one breaks my heart.
  3. Don’t count on funding from abroad – make it self-sufficient. The reality is that while the school pays for itself (barely), John solicits (and receives) a lot of money from friends and associates in Belgium for training and extracurricular or capital projects – if the school needs a new computer or a renovation to the kitchen, he will ask for specific help for things like that. He’s a great fund-raiser.

So why did John leave the fantastic life he had in Holland replete with fancy parties, pretty people, a great apartment, a well-paying job and good challenges? Because there were too many rules. He couldn’t have started anything like this back there, what with all of the permits and regulations and laws and restrictions. Here, there is complete freedom to whatever you want to do. I find this ironic, because it’s only recognized as freedom for those of us who come from such cultures that are able to recognize that freedom. People from here don’t think they have freedom. When you come from seven generations of destitute farmers, of course you’re not going to think, “I could be rich” – you don’t have the context or the tools to make that happen. This is one of the things I like about American culture – we are raised with the belief that no matter what class you’re born into, you have a fighting chance to become an astronaut, president, or CEO. A marked contrast from the way most cultures raise their children.

I’ve learned a lot in chatting with John. He doesn’t care about material things. He doesn’t care whether people like him or not, which makes him a great boss. He knows he’ll never fit in here, as locals think all gringos are rich and therefore they have ulterior motives beyond friendship. John lives his life completely honestly – something I’m intrigued by but find difficult to implement. I’m constantly telling little white lies to ease the conversation – how long I’m traveling for (so people don’t assume I’m rich), my lack of religion (to avoid conflict), etc. But life would certainly be much easier if I didn’t have to remember who I’ve told what to, and could just speak the truth in every moment. Something to strive for.

The school is run on a bare bones budget in order to get as much of the money into the hands of the teachers. As part of the financial transparency, you pay the teachers directly for the classes and the school a separate fee for administration. Then another fee to your host family for your room and board. It’s all very complicated, but the intention behind it is nice. The classes are not the absolute cheapest in town, but they’re quite affordable – $6.50/hour. The housing, however, is certainly the cheapest I’ve ever seen. A private room with bathroom and three meals a day for $85/week. Zowie! Way to save money on hotels and restaurants.

Every Wednesday evening the school hosts a cooking class / dinner – a nice social time to get to know fellow students and other teachers. Every Saturday morning they organize a volleyball game for the students and teachers. I have yet to make it to one of these, although it sounds fun.

The host family I chose to live with turned out to be John and Fanny’s, since their house has the nicest rooms. It’s several miles outside of downtown, so the commute gets to be a pain (combis – the minivan buses – are invariably stuffed with people, and are not made for North American-sized bodies), but otherwise things are pretty good. Manche is the grandmother / cook of the house. Sweet lady, doesn’t speak a lick of English, always ribbing me about something in her loud obnoxious voice. She and her husband speak Quechua to each other. It’s a strange sounding language. (Did you know that Google has a search page in Quechua? Strange for a largely oral and dying language). Manche’s husband (Grandpa) has a good job as head of maintenance at the local hospital, but he still farms a plot up on the hill as he likes the work. Imagine, at his age. Perhaps it’s also an excuse to stay out of the house!

Living with a local family has been interesting as one would expect, and gives cultural insight into a world I don’t usually see as a tourist. In the house besides the grandparents (Fanny’s parents) are John and Fanny, their 5 year old twin boys, two or more sisters of Fanny’s, one of whom has a teenage son, and possibly other people. You would think I would have it down who’s living in my house, but I get confused by all the people coming and going – is she another sister? Or just a friend over for lunch?

Manche is a prime example of how much of the culture is stuck in their ways of the past. John bought her a nice modern oven, but she refuses to use it – choosing instead to do her baking in the shared wood-fired oven down the street that the entire neighborhood uses. After watching the sisters scrub their clothes by hand for the third day in a row in the same manner as campesiños do in the rivers, I noticed a washing machine sitting in the corner. “Why don’t you use that instead of all the manual labor?”, I asked them. The only reply was a shrug of the shoulders.

I have a nice room with a queen-sized bed, dresser, desk, and windows on three sides with a great view. The only downsides are the electric shower (which never really gets warm, at least if you want any kind of pressure), lack of WiFi, and the freezing cold! I’m constantly wearing my long-johns and four other layers and still shivering. The food is generally good, if a bit bland. Typical day: wake up at 6:30 (unheard of for me), quick shower to shock me awake, then downstairs for breakfast with Manche and the other student in the house. Walk a few blocks to the bus stop, cram into a tiny combi with 20 other commuters for the 30-minute ride to school. Classes start at 8am (although after three weeks I changed this to 9am, since I’m useless at that hour). Bang my head against grammar for a few hours while freezing my butt off and trying desperately to stay awake.

Most students do two hours of grammar with one teacher, then two hours of practice with another teacher. In theory, this would be great since you walk around town during the practical session – stretch the legs, do some sightseeing. But I found I wasn’t really learning anything during these later two hours since it wasn’t practical to write down words I was learning, and my retention is crap without pen and paper. But I love my grammar teacher – so I asked to change to four hours continuous classroom time with her.

School is frustrating as all hell. I spent the first week reviewing what I learned in Guatemala a year ago but didn’t retain. Now we’re on to other verb tenses, several of the pasts and one of the future, and my poor little brain is hurting. I know all of this is necessary if I hope to live in Latin America, but it just seems like at this rate it will be several years before I’m fluent.

One minor thing I’m bumping into is that vocabulary I learned in other countries is wrong here – for example, aguacate (avocado) is called palta here. An interesting thing I’m learning is that Spanish is in many ways a more specific, descriptive language than English. For example, there are verbs specifically for “to go to bed”, “to put on one’s clothes”, etc. Things that take several words to describe in English have one specific word in Spanish.

At 12pm, we knock off and I catch a bus back to the house for lunch. Then I either collapse for a nap or head back into town to use the internet or do a bit of sightseeing. I’ll often stay in town for dinner, partly to have gringo-friendly food, and partly since it’s such a pain commuting back and forth. My first day out of the house I took photos every 100′ as a bread-crumb trail so I’d be able to find my way back! [Love that about digital cameras – using them for temporary visual notes. Frequently I’ll take photos of maps on walls of hotels if they don’t have any to hand out. You can then zoom in and pan around on the map on your camera’s screen when you’re out in the field. Almost as good as the real thing.]

My homework has increased from about two to three hours each day. And I’d forgotten how taxing mental work can be – I get as exhausted and famished as if I were doing physical labor.

Like most of Latin America, lunch is the big meal of the day, not dinner, and it can turn into a raucus affair with people shouting over each other, laughing, swapping stories, and teasing. The other day I received a 30-minute tretease from the 30-something sisters on how different animal parts are good for you to eat depending on what state you’re in. If you’re a woman ovulating, for example, you should eat penis (of a cow, I think). Eyes are good for this, tongue for that. These are middle-class, university-educated women telling me this. I’m just saying.

John never comes home for lunch, nor for most holidays for that matter. By his own admission, he’s a workaholic, spending most of his time at the school. I suspect the reason has more to do with the fact that his step-mother and he don’t get along rather than there being that much work to do at school. Manche and John have a lot of differences. For example, when one of the infants had a fever, she said it was an evil wind, and the solution was to drape him in a black sheet. He insisted on going to hospital, and sure enough it was an infection; they gave medication, and it cleared up. Duh. How many thousands of kids are suffering because of misguided beliefs such as this?

People marry for all kinds of reasons, but I couldn’t do what John has done. Living with in-laws I don’t get along with in a house that isn’t really mine – no, thank you.


A few days before Christmas I met lovely woman named Sandra through Couchsurfing. We spent a few days getting to know each other as friends before the romance bloomed. I’ll come back to all the juicy details about her and our adventures together in the next post. In the meantime, I’ll wrap things up by describing what Christmas was like around here.

Although I’m happy to have made a few friends and integrated into a family, I am sad to be alone for Christmas. Alone as in away from my close friends, family, and culture. I think I’m one of the few people who still enjoys the traditions although for me it’s essentially a secular holiday. The songs, food, traditions, and sense of belonging are what make it special to me, not the fact that some dude 2,000 years ago may or may not have died on this day. In contrast to North America, Christmas here is quite muted. Which is actually refreshing if you’re sick of all the over-hyped marketing surrounding Christmas. For example, although the city put twinkly lights up around the square, they only went up a week before Christmas – not two months before as in the States.

A few days before Christmas we had a special cooking class / Christmas party at the school. The teachers had amassed boxes of canned and dry food that they unceremoniously gave each other as presents, which I found a bit odd considering it was the exact same stuff being exchanged. Presents aren’t really done here, normally just a few small things for the kids. A number of the fancy hotels and businesses give away hundreds of toys to poor kids who line up for hours in lines snaking around the block.

December 24th sees the main plaza taken over by an enormous market where you can buy all the gifts, handicrafts, models, dolls and grasses for your nativity scene.. and, of course, fireworks for that night. It’s a wonderful market, full of fantastic sights and sounds. Peasants from the countryside who only leave their village once a year spend days walking to Cusco (and sleep in the square) just to sell bits of moss and grass that people buy to line the floor of their nativity scenes. I only wonder why the market doesn’t exist for more than a single day – I’m thinking of the wonderful Christmas markets in France that exist in every town and city for weeks ahead of time. Marvelous little wooden huts where you buy delicious cheeses and hot mulled wine to sip as you stroll around viewing all the offerings. But I digress.

As in the rest of Latin America, most of the Christmas celebrations actually happen on Christmas Eve. I spent the day with Sandra buying a few presents for the kids in my family and fireworks for that night. That evening I gathered with my host family into the cold concrete fluorescent-lit living room of the house. Wearing all our layers, we lit incence and candles of different colors signifying luck in love, money, etc. Nearly smoking ourselves out, we sat waiting for the stroke of midnight as I admired the nativity scene they had constructed over the previous week. The sisters asked me and the other student why we weren’t getting emotional as they were. At the appointed hour, along with millions of other Latinos, we placed the baby Jesus doll into the nativity scene. It’s such a foreign concept to me, all these grown adults playing with their religious dolls. People even take their dolls to church to get baptised. This year two got left behind, and the priest said he was going to have to adopt them.

After hugs and toasts with sickly-sweet champagne, we headed out into the street and spent the next hour exploding enormous fireworks that would have surely brought SWAT teams running were we in the States. It was crazy – one “firework” (bomb) was easily half a stick of dynamite – I was deaf for several minutes afterwards. When I say “we” set these off, I actually mean the others – I was up against the wall 30′ away, cowering for my life. Our street is quite narrow, so occasionally a car would approach and drive right over the unexploded fireworks. The neighbors started setting off their fireworks inside their garage. Which had a car parked in it. With a full tank of gas. You can imagine my anxiety imagining all the ways we might have died that night. And it wasn’t just us – the skies looked like Beirut during the war.

When we’d burned the last of the bunch, we headed inside and sat down for dinner. Yes, at 1:30 in the morning. It’s tradition. You start with hot chocolate and panetone, a stale fruit bread that’s so popular in Peru there are entire stores that sell only this stuff. Somehow mine slipped under the table to find it’s way into the dog’s mouth. Next comes a soup featuring a potato that was dug up and reburied for three months to ferment. It tastes like you’d expect. Hard as a rock, too. Again, somehow mine got lost in the shuffle.

The actual day of Christmas was a bit anti-climactic. No ceremonious opening of presents like we do back home. My host family prepared the traditional Christmas dinner (lunch), featuring a whole pig. Grandpa took the head back to his room, presumably to gorge on the best parts for himself. Sandra and I spent the day lounging around her apartment watching movies in bed, a tradition I much prefer.

Next post: crazy New Year’s Eve celebrations, motorcycling through the Sacred Valley, and living as a local.



  • Allen says:

    Nice to see the wonder in your posts again. Cusco is now on my list of must-sees.

  • Arthur says:

    Merry Christmas!

  • Eddie says:

    Hi Josh (and Judith)
    Great pics. Did you always have this automatic slide show feature built-in and I just missed it? I like it for quick look, then can go back and do detailed look at shots.
    And now I know what panetone is– Have seen it in local Latino shops here for years in tall, truncated-pyramid shaped boxes.
    Have fun this week!

    • Josh says:

      Note that you can click the slideshow to go fullscreen.. although you’ll need a fast internet connection, since it has to load the high-res versions.

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