What a journey. We left Cuenca early in the morning, but not before I had to talk to a family that we’d seen in a restaurant in Otavalo, our Hostel in Baños and then, our hostel in Cuenca. It was like they were following us. I get the whole Lonely Planet People thing, but that was extreme. He was traveling with his wife and daughter. He is a professor of Geology and she is a cartographer. Like Peter, the whole professor thing has enabled their predilection for travel. Though, I’m jealous of the fact that they got to hike to Machu Pichu 24 years ago. THAT was the time to do it. They were such seasoned travelers that I’m sort of impressed that they chose the same stuff we did. Maybe we’re doing this traveling thing mostly right after all.
Anyway, we left Cuenca on a bus bound for…. I can’t remember the name. Oh, wait, now I do. Loja. I think I’m trying to forget the name because it was so awful. We got there on Sunday and the whole damn town was closed, except for about 20 fried chicken places. There were so many places selling chicken, we now call the town “Polloville.” We have been chickened out so we could not bring ourselves to eat any of it. We found one place that was selling falafel and we were very grateful. We guessed that for some bizarre reason, this Egyptian guy moved to Loja and said “What the F—k is up with all this chicken? Damn, I need to open a falafel joint.” Because we had to wait 10 hours for the bus to Peru, we wandered around Loja, aimlessly. Extremely aimlessly actually. In the rain. Oh, and for some reason, there was a leetle miscommunication betwixt Peter and I when we checked our bags into day storage and he ended up having to carry the two dinosaur computers around the whole time. He was not happy. I don’t recall much of that day, though I’ll always remember Loja as wet, cold and chickenie. We hung out at the station for a few hours before our bus was to leave. We went into one of the numerous fried chicken places and ordered some greasy French fries and I surreptitiously cut some avocados in half and filed the centers with tuna from a can. It was way better then fried pollo.
We got on the overnight bus to Piura at 11 pm with an expected arrival time of 8 am. Before we were able to board, a cop patted all the men down and all the women’s bags were searched. Again with the security Kabuki theater. How hard is it to hand your woman your weapon and have her put it in her bra or pocket? Anyway, it was a full bus and lucky us, we were seated in front of two women with two niñas. These women proceeded to talk and talk and talk, adjust themselves, let the kids kick the back of my seat, talk with the guy they were traveling with, grabbing onto my seatback to maneuver their sizable bodies and usually, when they grabbed my seatback, they also got a wad of my hair. And this was all before the bus left the station! And their voices were terrible. Peter said that hearing them made him feel like his head was being pounded up against the wall. He thinks they were Peruvian white trash. Just as the bus was leaving the station, I guess they were trying to get my attention so I wouldn’t put my seatback down “because of the niñas” and I’m not sure if I was intentionally ignoring them, but the pulling of the hair really pissed me off and just as they were asking, “Por favor, las niñas!” Plomp! Back went my seat. Now, I am usually not that rude, and after I realized what I had done, normally, I would’ve felt bad. But they were so awful; I only have a teeny bit of remorse.
I managed to sleep a bit on the bus. There was of course the obligatory random starting and stopping to pick folks up. Also, though there was a functioning toilet on the bus but you had to ask the minion for the key so you can use it and you had better have your own toilette paper. Also, the minion sat outside the bathroom to let you out and to lock it up when you were done. It was just like prison. (Note to my readers: bringing your own toilette paper is key when you travel down here. Just FYI.) It’s been a long time since I peed on a bus, but I don’t remember it being as difficult as it was. I suppose the roads in the U.S. are smoother than the roads down here. We pulled into the border about 3 am while we were still asleep. It was very confusing because there was no announcement. Some people got off, others just stayed there. We weren’t all that sure it was the border because we got there earlier than we thought. We were both half asleep. We grabbed our passports and the bus started to move towards the Peruvian border. I was like “Oh my gawd!” Peter insisted on looking for his hat. Why, I have no idea. He was fixated on finding it. (Turns out, somebody took it. Who would take another man’s hat?) I had to point out to him that we had to get our passports stamped. He looked at me like I had just spoken Arabic; I think he was still asleep. We ran off the bus like a couple of dorks and ran back to the Ecuadorian border, passports in hand, to get our exit stamps. Then we walked to the Peruvian border and a bunch of us were standing there yelling and banging on the windows; the friggin’ border guard was asleep. He took forever to get his act together. He just had everyone fill out a form and he stamped everything, no questions asked. (I think he wanted to go back to sleep.) To observe the lackadaisical behavior of both the Ecuadorian and Peruvian border guards, it’s hard to believe that there was a war over this border just a few short years ago. In fact, the travel books tell you to not wander off in any direction because there are still land mines everywhere around the border.
We got back on the bus and tried to sleep. Most of the way, I kept having these semi-lucid dreams of the bus speeding along and taking such hard and fast turns that it tilted onto two wheels. That was unsettling. The bus got to Piura, Peru at about 6 am which was about two hours earlier than we had guessed it would be. (Maybe that bus driver really was speeding and maybe we really were tipping onto two wheels.)
Piura was our first major dose of culture shock.
The bus station was way way out on the edge of town. It was a flat, dusty, and desert like. Peter had to go out and find an ATM and when he came back, his eyes were wide open and he was shaking his head like he couldn’t believe what he just saw. We found a cab and after he opened his trunk that was held closed by a coat hanger, we were off to the airport. The traffic was appalling and the vehicles were small, old and a many of them were what I can only describe as a sort of Peruvian rickshaw. What they had was a motorcycle front with two wheels in the back, a seat for passengers and a covered top. There were bazillions of these things sharing the road with a bazillion cars and a bazillion trucks on what looked like approximately an eight-lane road with no lane lines. There were no established driving rules that I could tell and it seemed that the their method of driving entailed not hitting each other, going as fast as possible and getting out of the way of vehicles that were traveling faster than they were. Also, to make a left turn, the driver just sort of went, oncoming traffic be damned.
There was also an open-air mercado that was setting up and those little food stands were everywhere. There were just throngs of people, choking dust was everywhere, there were people in the streets trying to cross the crazy traffic. Even small school children were crossing the crazy streets by themselves. There were no street signs or lights at most big intersections. I have no idea how anybody, driver or pedestrian, navigated that traffic without getting killed. What was that old video game? Donkey Kong? Something like that, that’s what it was like.
We somehow got to the airport in one piece and we bought our tickets to Cusco. Now, we knew that if we went to an internet café, we could’ve purchased the tickets for a lot less than we paid for them, but the town was so awful and confusing, and we were so exhausted, we couldn’t envision ourselves finding a ‘cabina’ then purchasing the tickets online, then finding one of the bodega vendors to pay for the tickets with cash (because they won’t take a foreign credit card online) then get back to the airport in time for any flights that would’ve gotten us to Cusco before nightfall. We sucked it up and paid the tourist prices. Peter was upset because in hindsight, it always looks like you could’ve made it work, but the reality is that for the extra few hundred bucks, it was worth not making ourselves crazy.
The flights were uneventful and almost pleasant. We flew Peruvian Airlines, which is kind of new, and we had to fly in through Lima. Lima is ugly and their airport looks like JFK. I’m sorry if this fact offends Limans, but seriously, it’s flat and ugly. The flight to Cusco however was the loveliest I’d ever been on. We took pictures, but they don’t do it justice. We flew over the Andes and past snow-peaked mountains. The sun was stark and sharp; it almost didn’t look real. As we made our approach into Cusco’s airport, we saw the whole city and we couldn’t believe how pretty it was. When we got there, we were stunned. It is just as pretty as Guanajuato in Mexico (I’m so not spelling that right.) We were also pretty tired. Peter was feeling emboldened and perhaps trying to reassert his ability to travel without getting ripped off, we opted for the collectivo option into the old town. It was pretty painless and only cost about 25 cents. (The money here is Sols and it’s almost three Sols per dollar.) We were a little worried that we wouldn’t find a place so we picked one that was high up on a hill, which meant we had to drag our stuff up a hill in really high altitude. It’s over 11,000 feet here. Though we’d spent a month in Quito, Cusco is quite a bit higher and we felt it. The place we found was 75 Sols/night and had a wonderful view of a good portion of Cusco. Also, every hotel here has free coca tea and I’ll tell you, it really does help with the altitude symptoms. Of course, if either one of us needed to take a piss test when we got home, we’d fail it and big.
We didn’t do much but shower (yet another frightening on-demand gizmo) and eat and then pass out. The big thing they eat here is alpaca meat. It’s supposed to be just like beef only without the fat. I don’t think I’ll eat any since they’re adorable AND they’re just too similar to the honorable horse. They also eat guinea pig (cuy), but ever since the rats being substituted for cuy story, I could never even think of eating it. Also, I vaguely remember being really fond of a neighbor’s pet guinea pig named MeekMeek. (As my sister just read that, I suppose she just went “Oh my gawd, I forgot all about MeekMeek.) I will say that the food is way better here than in Ecuador. Apparently, the Peruvian government does not micromanage the food industry here like they do in Ecuador. Also, there are a lot of tourists and they have to please them or else.
The hotel was quiet and there was no heat. Remember, it’s winter here. It gets down to like 30 degrees at night. We slept under a five-inch thick pile of blankets that felt bulletproof. I kept my socks on and I don’t think either one of us moved very much because when I woke up, the blankets were exactly the way they were when we climbed into bed.
We spent the whole next day looking for more affordable accommodations. We had a lead on a three-bedroom apartment but there are just too many people in Cusco in July. This is peak season so every apartment about which we inquired was occupied. We found a cheap hostel ($10/night) with questionable hot water (I just heard Peter’s friend Patrick say, with his thick Brooklyn accent, “That’s all the hot watah? That’s bahbaric! I piss hottah than that!”)
Yeah. Patrick. He’s a character. He got here Wednesday morning with his fiancé Marcy. The altitude hit him pretty hard. We warned him. I think he was shocked at how his body was handling it. (He’s in this cheap little hostel with us in a room down the hall.) While they napped, we found the mercado. The mercado is a bit more of a mish mosh here. The Ecuadorian mercado seem, to us, to be very organized. This one here is a little bit of this, a little bit of that and it spills out onto the street and down all sorts of alleyways. The weirdest thing we saw them sell was unpasteurized milk. It’s weird to us because in the States, unpasteurized milk is treated like a controlled substance. They’ll arrest the freakin’ Amish for selling unpasteurized milk. (It has to be bad karma for the guy who puts the cuffs on an Amish guy.) They also sell goat heads (with their little mouths in a teeth-baring grimace) and goat hooves and all sorts of pieces of pig and don’t forget the frogs, oh and cow snout, and I must’ve seen at least a dozen different types of corn for sale. They also have weird fungus things that look like little white volcanic rocks that I think are that unpronounceable corn fungus and we saw cats cleaning themselves and napping next to exposed cuts of meat. And we tried the corn beer! Well, I had just a teeny weeny sip. Peter drank like a cupful of it. It was really quite tasty. It was sweeter than I thought it would be with just a hint of corn flavor and a little fermented zotz. When Peter went to pay the girl, she just waved him away. I think they were extremely amused that A) a couple of gringos dared to drink the stuff and B) a couple of gringos actually liked the stuff. You can’t really buy it anywhere because, well, the fermentation process is started with someone chewing the corn and then spitting into a barrel of corn juice. So, yes, we basically drank somebody else’s spit. But hey, like I said, it was tasty.
The indigenous here look different than the Ecuadorian indigenous. They’re darker, squarer, maybe a bit shorter, but way more colorful AND their hats are truly fabulous. Some of the women are wearing hats that are the daintiest, most petite little stove-top hats that rest precariously upon their heads. Others wear a more indigenous looking hat that has stitching all over it. All of the women wear beautifully colored wraps. A few of them walk around holding little lambs or they may have a llama so you can take a picture, for a price of course. (And I have to say, the llamas or alpacas or whatever they are have the cutest little Foghorn Leghorn feet you ever saw. They’re also silent on the stone streets. It sounds like they’re wearing slippers.) There are way more indigenous women than men in this part of the city. The few men I’ve seen wear hats that are more like tall bowlers and their pants stop at just below their knees. They’re so small that they look like little boys sometimes.
As far as the stuff to buy, it’s way better down here than in Ecuador. It’s more colorful and there’s a lot more of it. There are these colorful suede boots with woven patches of fabric that I love love love. They’re also ridiculously expensive. I found a pair of knockoffs for about $50. I figure I don’t really need the real thing since really, how many occasions will I have to wear red suede mid-calf boots? The cost per wear will be fine on these. There are also these crazy alpaca fur hats that I’m tempted to get because they’re so ridiculous looking but I can’t make myself purchase because bottom line, they’re fur hats. One was so soft and beautiful and I asked how much it was and she said it was baby alpaca fur for 35 Soles. I was all “Oh no, baby?” and she said, “Oh, they only die in an accident. We don’t kill them.” Yeah, right.
Today, Thursday, was also some sort of festival. Part of the festival seems to have included the detonation of several sticks of dynamite at about 7 am in the Plaza outside our hostel. Our room is windowless but the reverberations on the plain, undecorated walls were awesome. Later, we walked down to the Plaza de Armas and found that it was loaded with little kids, ages four to six, all dressed up in various costumes, most of which were so colorful as to be nearly blinding. They were trying to do a little sway dance/walk thing to the band music. It was so freakin’ adorable I nearly lost my mind. Marcy and I just stood there like a couple of idiots. Peter and Patrick stood off to the side, wondering what the hell we thought was so interesting.
Overall, I have to say I like the culture of Peru way more than the culture of Ecuador. Something happened to Ecuador, I don’t know what. They don’t really seem to have all that much going on, culture wise. They seem stifled somehow. But Peru, well, Peru practically compares to Mexico. Maybe it’s the whole Inca thing, the colors, the incredibly and unbelievably corrupt government, I can’t really put my finger on it but I like it here way better than Ecuador.
We’ve begun to investigate getting to Machu Picchu and it’s a little complicated. There’s an 11-hour route by bus that’s way more scenic, but requires a 2-hour walk at the end of it to a hotel room. There’s a more expensive four-hour bus then train to a hotel room. Either way, we’ll have to stay in a horrible tourist trap of town for one night before we can take an early morning bus ride to the top or we can take a 90-minute hike. Either way, we should be there by Monday or Tuesday morning. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about it when it happens. Right now, I’m just anticipating how complicated it will be. Machu Picchu is at a lower elevation than Cusco (which by the way, I just found out means “navel” or “belly button” in Quecha because it was the center of a bunch of cities) so we should have little trouble with the elevation there. We may even be a little perkier since we’re now totally loaded with red blood cells. Zippitydoo!
I’m sure I’m forgetting some stuff. It’s been a crazy four or five days. It’s also harder for me to take the time to write here. I don’t have my comfortable little set up that I had in Ecuador. I pretty much sit in the hotel room with my laptop on my lap. Also, wandering around this town takes time, lots of time because there are lots of hills. The city is amazing in that it’s pretty much as the conquistadores found it. It’s as Incan as you’re going to get. It’s been a functioning city forever and the narrow roads and a lot of the stonework is original, outside of whatever was destroyed in the random earthquake here and there. It’s truly awesome. It reminds me of that line in “Motorcycle Diaries” where Che is looking at Machu Picchu and he says, “How can the people who built this be conquered by the people who built Lima?”
Well, the reason can be summed up in one word: Technology.
Whoever has the best weapon wins the fight.
Now, one more picture of those adorable children.