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.

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The less-traveled road to Cusco

Back on the coast I looked at the little map in the guidebook to see what the most direct route to Cusco is. Which it turns out, is not always the fastest route! What the map didn’t show is that the most direct route actually takes the longest.. about 30 hours in fact, over rough dirt roads. Ah well, the joys of unplanned travel…

My first connection is in Pisco, just an hour or so north of Ica. Not being a morning person, I miss the early bus.. and I don’t like traveling at night, particularly when the scenery is so spectacular. So, I figure a night in Pisco couldn’t hurt. Listen, fellow traveler: do as I say, not as I do. Pisco is an abomination of a town. Had I landed here a year ago with less experience under my belt, I probably would have burst into tears. Ugly, ugly, ugly. People trying to rip you off at every turn. Even the hotel, which normally takes the side of their guests, tries to tell me as I’m leaving that the taxi fare to the Pan-American highway is in fact twice what I had paid the night before – and even that was a rip-off. In moments like these you simply turn your back on the hustlers and walk away with your middle finger held high.

It’s funny that some places don’t realize that travelers do in fact talk to each other, and that ripping people off will only lead to less business in the long run. But then, many people I interact with don’t think in the long term – only what will make them a buck today.

The ugliness of Pisco isn’t really their fault. Just two years ago, an 8.0 earthquake struck this area killing 519 people, injuring 1,366, and destroying 58,500 homes – fully half of the buildings in town. Rebuilding is dragging. The entire place is a construction zone. Hot, dusty, and dirty. No reason to come. Move along now, nothing to see here.

Just off the coast, however, are some islands covered in guano (another Quechua word – along with pisco, coca, condor, jerky, llama, puma, quinine, and quinoa – that’s made it into the English language.) During Peru’s guano rush of 1850-1870, 10 million tons of the stuff was carted away. This had the effect of lowering the islands’ height by 30 metres and almost destroying the bird population – which includes the Humboldt penguin (Arthur!), flamingo, pelican, and of course, boobies! Guano rush?!
[An historical aside – the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing U.S. citizens to take possesion of any island containing guano deposit (providing it’s not already owned by another nation). It also empowers the President to direct the military to protect such interests. Who knew?]

After waiting by the side of the road for a while (why did I get up so early??), the bus eventually rambles up only an hour or so late. Once I’m settled in, the stewardess inexplicably picks me to go downstairs into the first class section. Woo-hoo! Really plush, huge comfy seats that recline all the way. Further along in the journey she takes a bit of trash from a passenger, opens the window, and throws it out. Did I mention that we’re in the middle of pristine wilderness. How do you begin changing behavior like that which is so ingrained? The scenery is spectacular, I’m glad I waited to take the day bus. We’re traveling over puna, that alpine-like terrain that looks so beautifully desolate.

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Written by in: Peru | Tags: ,

Fun in the desert

Four hours south of Lima lies the Ica desert, a moonscape of surreal sand dunes. Paleontologists know this area for the fossilized bones of gigantic whale-eating sharks, sea sloths, and other long extinct marine animals. Oenologists know the region for its vineyards, planted by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Hundreds of bodegas (the other use of the word – not the corner store where you buy your cigs, but rather a winemaking hacienda), from big industrial affairs to small traditional rustic operations, produce the famous pisco white grape brandy as well as a variety of ports and wines. I took a tour that went to one of each operation. As you might expect, the small family producer was much more interesting. Each March during harvest, the grapes are hand mashed. Actually, foot-mashed. I’d love to come back during this time, it sounds like quite a party. We saw photos of the pretty “grape queens” dancing away with dozens of other revelers in the vats – surely the strangest disco that exists. After the grapes are crushed underfoot, they are further squeezed by lowering an enormous 150-year old tree trunk onto the mess. The liquid is then siphoned off for fermentation. The remaining skin and seeds are spread on the ground (basically thrown away) – it’s what you walk on around the grounds. Originally the wine was aged in cylindrical clay containers leftover by pre-Incan cultures who made them for fermenting chicha, but nowadays it’s aged in oak barrels.

Pisco is distilled from wine that has been fermented for 45 days. Whereas in the modern wineries where gas jets and refrigerant are used, the artisanal wineries still distill the old-fashioned way. A large wood fire is kept going under the enormous tank of wine; the resulting vapor is collected in a copper tube which spirals down through a vat of cool water, and the condensed liquid drips out into a clay pot. After all that work, only a percentage of the final product can be sold for consumption. There are three parts to the resulting liquid. The first part out of the distillery, or the “head”, is almost pure ethanol and is sold for industrial cleaning operations. The second part, or the “body” (and here’s where it takes an expert to tell when to change the tap), is sold as pisco for drinking. The third part, or the “tail” or “legs”, is again no good for imbibing, and is used for different industrial uses.

Chile is also known for it’s long tradition of pisco production, and there has been long-standing rivalry and disputes between the two countries over this issue.

After being given a tour at each winery comes the best part – the sampling! I found the different types of pisco to be pleasant, particularly when chilled. They also make a Bailey’s-type liquor from pisco, milk, sugar, and figs which is yummy. But the wine is not particularly agreeable to my palate – it’s all sweet or semi-sweet (owing to the grapes grown around here), and I prefer my wine on the dry side.

But the real reason I came down this way was to see Lake Huacachina, a magical and incongruous oasis surrounded on all sides by huge sand dunes. [If you’re in Peru, pull out a 50 Sole note and look on the back. That’s this place.] Total population: 115. I met an English woman who’s been living here for five years. Wow. With just a handful of restaurants and hotels grouped around the tiny oasis, it’s an ideal spot to relax for a few days. (Or a few years, I guess.) Sunset walks on the dunes.. sunbathing by the pool.. or adventure sports! A number of operators offer inexpensive dune buggy tours combined with sandboarding at sunset. Good fun.

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Written by in: Peru | Tags: , ,

Pensive thoughts

A pensive post today.. forgive me if it’s depressing, but I feel that the blog should accurately reflect what I’m going through on the road…

I must admit that one of the reasons I’ve viewed Lima in a negative light is that I’ve been in a funk the last couple of weeks. I think it’s a combination of things – leaving Kathy, concerned about money, questioning what I’m really doing here at all…

I’m having a classic ex-pat existentialist moment. I left my country for specific reasons and don’t want to return (other than to visit you family and friends!), yet I clearly don’t fit in here either. So where is my home? Where are my people? I trust that when I finally do land, I will find (or form) that group; but in the meantime I’m struggling.

Allowing negativity to get the best of me, I’m constantly annoyed by the smallest things – employees that follow me around stores like I’m about to shoplift; the fact that one can buy 20 kinds of potato chips yet not a single bag of corn chips. I know, it sounds ridiculous.. and is clearly a manifestation of larger issues.
I’ve become jaded to things that used to excite me, and the amount of things that continue to grab my interest is waning. I blindly follow the guidebook suggestions without really knowing why, and just end up seeing the hundredth church / ruin / mountain.

I’ve been holing up in my room aimlessly surfing the web instead of going out and interacting with people, which would probably be good for my spirits. But good god, how many times can I have the same introductory conversation? Where are you from, what do you do, where are you traveling, for how long, ad nauseum.

And then I get mad at myself for wasting time and money spinning my wheels like this and not pushing forward (physically – “you should be exercising every day! Yoga! Get moving South!” as well as mentally – “why aren’t you studying those Spanish books you’ve been toting around for the past year?!”). Clearly I need structure – a routine – and yet can’t seem to summon the discipline to provide it for myself. In the face of ultimate freedom, it turns out all I do is wander around aimlessly. I need direction and purpose.

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Written by in: Ruminations | Tags:

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