More from Cusco and the Sacred Valley


I’m sure you’re dying to hear about my new girlfriend, Sandra. As I left off in the last post:
A few days before Christmas, I met a lovely woman named Sandra through Couchsurfing. We spent a few days getting to know each other as friends before the romance bloomed. And a week later, we moved in together! Unlike most Peruvians who live with their parents until they have a family of their own (and even then, often all live together in the same house), Sandra has her own apartment. A lovely one-bedroom with lots of light, plasma TV, and a kitchen.. something I’ve sorely missed having.

Sandra grew up in Cusco, then spent a year and half living in the States as an au pair to a wonderful American family that took her on vacations. She perfected her English while living in the States, which is great for me since my Spanish is still not conversational. After returning to Peru, Sandra spent nine years living in Lima. She prefers the opportunities of the larger city, but moved back to Cusco when her company transfered her. Moving quickly up the corporate ladder, she is now the front desk manager of a large, fancy four-star hotel here in Cusco. I’m really impressed with the company and the way they treat their staff and run things – the management style is exactly the opposite of the company and boss that I left.

Sandra has high aspirations and a strong drive. Although she’s quickly being promoted and will probably become general manager soon or be given her own hotel to run, she wants to move overseas – perhaps Asia – and gain experience in larger and even more luxurious hotel chains.

It’s wonderful visiting her at work. Although I used to stay in places like this when I was touring, I’ve spent the last year and a half staying in cheap dives.. so it feels deliciously decadent to sit and have a cocktail in the well-appointed bar with the roaring fireplace and attentive staff. Peru recently celebrated Pisco Week, and the hotel bar obliged by creating some wonderfully inventive cocktails, such as pisco infused with eucalyptus. Yum.

Sandra’s parents own and run a small hotel and travel agency here in Cusco, so she grew up around tourists and the ilk. Her family is middle-class by American standards, which is upper middle-class by Peruvian standards. I’ve had lunches with her parents and brothers several times now, and they’re all very sweet. Her family has a maid, which is normal for middle-class families in Latin America, but is something I would have difficulty getting used to. I prefer to clean up my own messes. And while it’s nice having somebody cook for you, I’m not comfortable with the inherent inequalities – the maid eats at the kitchen counter while we eat at the dining room table, for example. I know she’s being paid a fair wage, is not an indentured servant, but still, it feels odd to me.

One of Sandra’s brothers is a dentist, while the other one works for their parents in the travel agency. I took the opportunity to have my teeth checked and a cavity filled by the dentist brother. Cost? $3.50. That’s not a typo. I also had my teeth whitened, a procedure that costs several hundred dollars in the States, and here was $100. Yes, the office was sterile with all the modern equipment you see in more developed countries. Although there were a few differences.. no dental assistant, he did everything himself.. and the entire time, his friend sat repairing cell phones at the desk next to the exam chair. Funny.

One day Sandra’s other brother accompanied me to the market to buy new hiking shoes. It was nice of him to point out which vendors sold real articles and which sold fakes. He also pointed out a guy he knows that I should keep a bit of distance from since he’s a pickpocket! I ended up getting a pair of Merrells with Vibram soles for $80 that would be at least twice that in the States.

Brichera” is the word here for locals who prey on foreigners in order to gain something – whether it be drinks, gifts, or a ticket out of here – usually in exchange for companionship and/or sex. There are both females and males (bricheros) who employ this strategy. One learns to watch out for these types when meeting local women. Fortunately, Sandra is the complete opposite of a brichera. She always insists on paying her half of things. She’s fiercely independent and strong-willed – two qualities I value in a partner. Yet she is also loving, attentive, and kind. She has the eyes of Eva Longoria, the smile of Julia Roberts, lips of Angelina Jolie, and cheekbones of Salma Hayek. Her look is more intoxicating than a double Long Island Iced Tea on an empty stomach.

Another thing I like about Sandra is that she’s an adventurer – she was a girl scout, loves cockfights, and, get this, is a paragliding pilot!
I feel one can tell a lot about a person by who they choose as their friends. Just as my best friend is female, Sandra’s best friend is male. And he’s super cool. He flirts with everyone – male, female, young, old. You know the type – great to have on your side in any situation. Strong ego, doesn’t let boorish people get him down the way I let them affect me. We’ve hung out a number of times along with her other friends, and I like them all. My only problem is the language barrier – I always end up feeling like the retarded cousin tagging along, smiling dumbly in the corner but unable to really participate in the conversation. Since I can’t understand what’s being said, I always feel behind, not knowing what’s going on or where we’re going next. It’s incredibly frustrating. Is this why I like being alone and often shy away from people, since I know I won’t be able to communicate? If so, it’s a self-fulfilling trait. Not good.
Why do I have such a block with this language? Am I afraid of feeling stupid?
I find Sandra’s pronunciation understandable, as is my teacher’s, but not most people I meet. What’s the difference – higher education?

An analogy for my past year and half: like living inside of a foreign film without the benefit of subtitles. Understanding the gist of things, while missing all the subtle details.

New Year’s Eve

During the five evenings leading up to New Year’s Eve, the city put on a spectacular in the main square. (This is the first year of it, which is why you won’t find reference to it in the guidebooks). They erected an impressive sound, video, and lighting concert system in front of the cathedral and each night staged a different presentation. The first night was the best – but unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me! It was a mix of neo-pagan fire twirling, acrobatic breakdancing, historic reenactment, overly dramatic interpretive dance, drumming fiesta, and Bread & Puppet theatre utilizing literally hundreds of performers in elaborate costume. I was extremely impressed with the production values – and remember that since I work in the biz, I’m highly critical. The entire thing was well-rehearsed, and interestingly, presented in Quechua, but translated into Spanish. Much of the presentation was organized by a local theatre company which puts on similar shows throughout the year, albeit on a smaller scale.

My favorite part was watching the enormous torches of real flames burning just inches from the large fabric backdrop. The “fire marshals” were two boys with little pails of water. Nice try. I could never get away with that in any country I’ve toured to!
The second night was comedy, mimes, and traditional dances. Less impressive, but a good effort nonetheless.

Although these productions were new this year, the actual New Year’s Eve celebrations are as old as dirt. They involve: collecting as much gunpowder / fireworks / dynamite / bombs as you can, then as much booze as you can carry, and go hang out with your friends along with the entire rest of the entire city all crammed into the main square. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, I forgot that you have to put on yellow underwear (over your jeans) and run around with a suitcase at the stroke of midnight. The yellow signifies good luck, and the running with a suitcase ensures that you’ll travel this year. Whatever you do at midnight on New Year’s Eve is what you’ll be doing the rest of the year. Me, I was just trying to breathe. Clouds hang over the city the next day – only they’re not clouds, they’re all the smoke from the night before. All the fireworks going off in close proximity was pretty scary. I don’t know how many people sustained serious injuries.

Escaping from the war zone, we made our way to a discotheque where crazy kids were dancing on the bar. Good fun. Finally around 4am as we were headed home, we ran into some other friends who dragged us back out to a reggae bar. A couple of hours and drinks later (after witnessing Sandra dance some fierce salsa), I look out the window to the light of day.

Daily Life in Cusco

Much of the last six weeks I’ve spent as a house husband. Cooking (which I’ve discovered a passion for), fixing things up, etc. I installed dichroic track lighting in the kitchen since I couldn’t stand the single fluorescent bulb. That was an adventure in itself – sourcing all the parts, learning how things are done differently down here. Wire nuts, for example, don’t exist. In the States, you can’t not use wire nuts when doing anything electrical. Basically the entire country of Peru is in violation of modern electrical codes in developed nations. But projects like that are fun to sink my teeth into after aimlessly wandering for so long with no job nor hobbies.

I came across a scale the other day and weighed myself for the first time in over a year. Surprisingly, I actually weigh less than when I started this trip. This is weird, since I feel like I’ve been eating non-stop. With all the time in the world, especially here in Cusco where there is yummy gringo food, I’ve been pigging out. And not exercising. It must be the altitude – apparently it causes weight loss all by itself.

A couple of occasions Sandra and I rented a motorcycle for day trips out of town. Once to the Sacred Valley of the Incas stopping in at all the little towns and markets along the way, and once south of Cusco, to other little towns known for their gastronomic specialties:
Sailla is the capital of chicharron (fried pork); Lucre is known for their duck and deserts made by nuns; Tipon is the home of restaurants specializing in guinea pig, as well as the site of a beautiful Incan site; and Oropesa is an entire town devoted to bread bakeries. This town is interesting to wander through – our noses led us to a bakery that is run by the great-great-grandson of the founder, whose skull is prominently displayed above the doorway. The enormous wood-fired oven is nearly 200 years old. Each bakery stamps their family symbol into the top of each loaf before being sent to Cusco for consumption. But it’s actually difficult to find much open during the day – the town is eerily quiet, as bakers sleep during the day! It’s a whole different story at night, when everything comes alive.

In the motorcycle video below you can see us pass a group of campesinos working on reparing a water pipe next to their dirt road. Inspriring – it looked like the entire village was in on the repairs, from the old men to the children.

The sun was setting on one of our rides as we were coming back into town and suddenly got stopped in a traffic jam. Being on a bike we maneuvered our way around the vehicles until lo and behold, we found ourselves in the middle of a crazy religious parade! Replete with costumed dancers, brass bands, grills of meat, and drunken bystanders. Being in Peru, it was no problem driving a motorcycle straight through the whole affair. I love those moments.

One day we went shopping for furniture for Sandra’s apartment. Sandra has great taste, a modern aesthetic, similar to mine. But despite hitting every home furnishings store in town plus all the markets, we couldn’t find a thing. It’s all tacky, cheap-looking stuff – what would be described back home as “white trash”. I empathize with her living in a city where the common aesthetic is far below you.

For some strange reason, dance remixes of songs from the musical Grease are really popular in the clubs here. This is weird for me, since everytime I hear one of them it takes me back to the time I worked on a gender-bending version of the show for a gay & lesbian theatre company.

Contrary to what I learned elsewhere, Sandra taught me that it’s better to just get in a taxi without negotiating the fare beforehand (provided you know what the fare should be). Along these lines, I usually carry exact change so there can be no argument. Well, one night I didn’t ask the fare, and I didn’t have change. At the end of the ride I hand over a 10 Sole note for what should have been a 2 Sole ride. The driver handed me back 2 Soles. Whereupon we proceed to have a 15-minute argument. I was quite proud of myself – carrying out the entire thing in Spanish.. starting politely yet firmly, explaining that I knew what the fare should be, and that he was to give me my remaining change. Every five minutes of arguing he would hand over another 1 Sole coin, and I would raise my temper yet higher. I made it clear I wasn’t leaving his cab (and he was losing business) until he handed me the rest of my change. It ended with me yelling that he was a thief, that I was calling the police, and that I’m not a stupid gringo that he can take advantage of. I got all my change in the end.

I just learned why the back of my neck turns beet red after only an hour walking around town without sunscreen on. A few years ago, Cusco was found to be the spot on Earth with the highest ultraviolet light level. Yikes!

One day I went for a run with a couple of Sandra’s friends. It ended up being a grand adventure – bouldering over Incan ruins, jumping rivers, and getting doused with water balloons by local teen girls. At one point as we were taking a break by a farmhouse, the resident campesina noticed Gino lifting rocks as weights. She goes into her house and comes back with “special” rocks – supposedly extra heavy, extra strong, used by the Incans to break bigger rocks. After several minutes of joking around, Gino says, “thanks very much”, and we move to leave. “Wait”, she says, “you haven’t paid me for those!” These people never miss an opportunity for a sale.

Sandra’s grandpappy used to say, “Never trust a dog’s limp, a woman’s tears, or the sky in the mountains.” How true, how true. Particularly the last one. You can leave the house in the morning thinking, “oh, it’s sunny and beautiful out, I don’t need my umbrella.” Only to discover two hours later that the temperature has dropped twenty degrees and the road has turned into a river.

Speaking of, I thought it was either me or Cusco itself that was cursed with the Charlie Brown syndrome, but it turns out that this entire region has received more rain in the first half of January than it typically does in the entire month. Which has sadly led to some terrible flooding, including wiping out the train tracks leading to Machu Picchu. I feel fortunate that I had just seen the ruins the week before (details and photos in the next post). But for a lot of tourists, Machu Picchu was the main reason for their trip to South America – so we have a lot of unhappy campers and cancelled reservations as a result. Hotel occupancy has plummeted, staff are being furloughed, the entire economy is affected because of it. Not to mention all those who lost their homes or farmland. Sandra and I took some day trips out of town to see the damage first-hand, and it’s heart-wrenching. 25,000 homes destroyed, key bridges swept away, dozens dead, thousands of tourists stranded for three days, the entire valley is ravaged.

It’s interesting to see how wrong the international media gets it – from the nationalities of those killed to the names of the towns to the locations of things. Makes you realize how the media is just like the rest of us – playing the game of telephone without checking facts and sources.
Here in Cusco itself, there is little evidence of the disaster. We had no water for two days which was annoying, but nothing compared to what others were going through.

Ironically, the disaster will be a boon to other less well-known sites. We saw buses of tourists pull up at historic churches and Incan sites in little towns that normally never see tourists. The tour operators are scrambling, given that their main draw is off-limits now for many months to come.

I’d like to give a big shout-out to Steripen, the water purification wand that I’ve raved about before. Back in Lima, the device fell from my bed onto the floor and subsequently stopped working. I contacted the company, and they offered to replace it. FOR FREE. Including shipping to South America. Sure enough, a new one arrived with no questions asked and no need to return the old one. How’s that for customer service!

Another Christmas gift that appeared out of the blue was a care package from my dear friend Abi. She just spent a year on a Fulbright in Australia, during which time we occasionally commiserated about missing our home culture. Since she completely understood what I’ve been going through, she sent me a wonderful box full of things unavailable down here – chips from home, fine chocolate, nuts that are insanely expensive down here so I never buy them, a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years, and most valued – new music! Also on the discs of tunes is an audio book, which you know I love, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to read – The Audacity of Hope – read by the author himself, Barack Obama.


Standing in the Plaza de Armas, central square of Cusco, during New Year’s Eve. Thousands of fireworks being set off all around, everyone drinking heavily, pandemonium and revelry despite the rain:
Riding a dirt bike up and down mountain roads, passing campesinos and farm animals, while exploring the Sacred Valley:


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  • Eddie says:

    Me gusta Sandra!

  • Allen S. says:

    Very cool that you were there during the flooding… from an experiential viewpoint only of course. Nice to meet Sandra, maybe she can write a post or two?

    Keep working on that Spanish. I’m sure you’ve heard this plenty: poco a poco… Stay in classes!

  • judith johnson says:

    loved catching up even hearing some things in person last week and now on the blog. Scary videos, loved. Amazing no one is hurt with the fireworks! I want to be in a bubble watching them and the people. Great description of sandra and so true.

  • Sandra says:

    i love you!!!

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