June 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
Day 1, 6:00AM.
Landed in the Lima airport.
Bus packed with people, all the way to the front — and our bus, running alongside, only 15% full, I have an aisle to myself. The other bus has La Molina written on the side.
A man drives by (there’s heavy traffic) and is dry shaving, quickly.
“That’s part of the danger.”
The cars come so close… it’s always a bit shocking at first.
There’s a long mural with various hands holding, in the background there are international landmarks ranging from the Australian Opera House to the Taj Mahal. In the bus next to us I can see a Michael-Saenz-esque studying an anatomy handout, at first I thought “porn” but then saw the marks of a highlighter. A mix of Spanish and English Coca-Cola ads, everywhere. There’s a gas station called “VIP USA.” Our tour guide informs us that the fermented corn drink, Chicha, is good for cholesterol and cleaning the prostate.
My life is so far. Distant. Lucky, born for no reason.
Less graffiti than Prague but still a lot. A young man picks at his face. The guinea pig is special here? Especially in June.
Day 1, 4:00PM
We took the bus to one of Lima’s two downtowns, we’re no on “recess” at a fountain in the main square near the president’s house. We took a tour of a 16th century monastery. We weren’t permitted to take pictures inside, but interior images do exist so maybe I can blog them later. Loads of beautiful Spanish tile work* and intricate woodwork. Though 4 major earthquakes have occurred, the monastery remains largely intact, which is an architectural significance. We also descended into the catacombs beneath the monastery (only the 18th century ones have been excavated thus far) and saw loads of human femurs and skulls. I snitched a rock. Only white-skinned people were ever buried in the catacombs.
There was also a very beautiful biblioteca (library) with 25,000 books. It was one of my favorite parts. The sun is setting here and I know I don’t have the right photography skills to truly capture it, which is a shame because it’s quite nice, especially as the light cascades through the square’s central fountain and onto the President’s governance building. It’s a bit chilly, and there are piles of pigeons in select areas. I’ve never understood why people hate on pigeons – they’re actually rather beautiful.
*We were told a story of a prisoner who killed in an act of passion, because he was catholic he had the right to confess – a priest from the monastery nearby (the one we visited) came and witnessed his confessions. The prisoner confessed to have been a mason previously, and one who’d worked with Spanish tiles. Such tiles had been sitting for 20 years in the monastery unused because no one in Lima had been trained with the specific skill-set to adhere the tiles.
I’ve noticed that there are many female (“serenazgo”?) city police who direct traffic and maintain order. Their presence is remarkable.
For memory’s sake: for breakfast I ate papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon, eggs, potato and a bit of biscuit. I’m starving now… I skipped the lunch because I couldn’t sleep well on the plane, a 1AM flight. Pretty sure it’s because I ate some chocolate cake that came with the airline’s meal. So when we landed around 5AM, and after breakfast, I slept. There is construction in many areas so I slept with earplugs and dreamt of zombies.
Day 2 –
After getting back from the monastery tour yesterday, we sought out a chicha restaurant, a supposed Chinese/South American fusion type of food that grew out of a high Chinese and Japanese population in Lima. I ordered fried noodles with veggies, it was pretty par with mediocre Chinese food in the U.S.. Except Robert’s* dish came with a bit of yucca and my mom’s with a small indiscriminate boiled egg.
*We’re traveling with Robert and Keith who we met on our trip to Kenya.
We drank ‘Inca Kola’ which tastes like cream soda and is very popular. After dinner I wanted to locate a local-ish bar with less expensive drinks, so I consulted the hotel bartenders who directed me to La Quin…? Keith and I tried it out so we could taste our first Pisco Sours, a traditional Peruvian drink. It basically tasted like a margarita but with no ice and a foamy (almost latte like) top layer, resulting from a shaken egg white. The bar’s capacity was small, 26. Sort of techno-ish muzak and red neon glows. Keith and I had a good conversation about El Paso and his work there, managing 300 people. I learned 8 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan have died this year from that El Paso base. The government employees are also getting a 20-40% pay cut on July 8th. Keith told me 20% of government employees are on food stamps.
After that, I sat at the hotel bar to try Cusquena, the regional beer. I drank two of those whilst snacking on salted banana chips, watching the Heat crush the Pacers. The finals will be the Spurs v. Heat. The bartenders and I talked about Lebron James and how we both liked James Harden. We quizzed each other on the Dream Team and talked about tattoos. He showed me a lion on his leg, and explained his friends do the tattooing so it only costs $12-25.
I slept pretty well — our wake-up call was 5AM. We boarded the but at 6:30AM and made our way to the airport for a domestic flight to Cusco. The bell boys or guide company fudged on collecting Robert and Keith’s bags, so they had to take a later flight. The immediate bathroom off the flight was notable in that the toilet paper was outside the stalls. After getting off of the plane we were immediately offered a handful of dried green coco leaves to chew on to mitigate altitude sickness.
Day 2, 4:00PM
After gathering our bags and getting onto the bus, Marcos (our guide) made the bus back-up so he could pop out and nab two huge, circular loaves of a local bread made from corn and honey, it was soft and sweet. The bus was quickly obsessed with it. We then trekked…
Day 3, 9:00AM
We’d trekked to Chinchero where we were served a delicious meal: quinoa soup, sweet potato, amazing stuffed peppers, fava beans, a curry of sorts, tabhouli-like quinoa salad, cheese, and most importantly: guinea pig. I tried the guinea pig (it’s a special dish they only eat in June) and honestly I thought it tasted a lot like chicken, though others disagreed (and to be fair it’s been a while since I’ve had chicken). After, we were served tea and sat around a wonderful demonstration of how sheep and alpaca wools are cleaned (with a root, grated and soaped up gorgeously, which also supposedly prevents gray hair [and since even the elderly women here have long black braids perhaps it works]), spun, and dyed with various naturally harvested seeds, flowers, and so on.
Sidebar: We’d finished the meal with a shot of some clear drink that tasted just like Jager – it’s meant to facilitate digestion and mom kept one of the glasses.
The dye techniques were fascinating, and the young woman demonstrating each step was (intentionally) hilarious. Further, we witnessed a weaving demonstration and were invited to “shop till we dropped” — later, I’d realize the items for sale were twice the cost of other markets, but were genuine and certainly made on-site. I bought a woven backpack and two small bags. Robert and Keith had caught up to us there, at the Chinchera, and we all made our way to the next hotel deep in the Sacred Valley.
On the way down you can observe many remnants (and active) terraces scaling the valley’s mountains… knowing they’ve been utilized for hundreds of years (since the 14th century) is, of course, humbling and astonishing. Atop most of the meager homes there is a cross and bulls, signaling both faith and fertility. These adornments are provided by the godfather of the home. Most families also own a pair of dogs, one male, one female. After dropping some folk off, we went to the town’s center and scaled a tall, steep set of stone stairs that reach temple ruins. I ascended much more quickly than the others and therefore explored further than I probably should have.
I gathered some earth and stones from various temple grounds and poured them into an empty water bottle. The views from the top were stunning — the clouds seem persistent and low, though bright. Across the valley you can spot additional stone terraces and housing structures, neighboring a crude Incan rendering of God’s face in the mountainside.
As I descended I came across a group of individuals inserting their heads into a series of cutouts in a wall, then humming in unison. I asked to join and they let me, the sound reverberates loudly — worth butting in for.
Once we returned to the hotel I took a good hot bath before dinner. We rode the bus to a nearby restaurant that had been closed to the public. There, I tried Alpaca meat — tasted much like a gamey red meat, not bad. The collective meals have been enjoyable. Following dinner, I fell asleep quickly and woke to mi madre scuffling urgently around the room – she’d apparently panicked that she’d mis-scheduled horse riding on Friday. Of course she hadn’t and all was well.*
*Later we’d realize she had mis-scheduled.
Breakfast at 8:00AM (much easier than 6AM the day prior), consisting of yogurt, granola, curried potatoes, and plenty of fruit, coffee. Mi madre chose to stay back and plan her own activities, but I joined the bus.
First, we stopped in the valley village’s weekly Wednesday market. Pigs, sheep, ducks, rabbits, chickens, kittens, a box of puppies and lots of guinea pigs being bought and sold. Mostly the locals seemed indifferent to our presence and incessant photo-taking. I purchased a few wooden spoons from a semi-grumpy older woman who hardly bartered. Perhaps most interesting was an old man perched on a box – surrounded by other men of varying ages. I spotted them from afar and snuck into the voyeur crowd, then seeing that he was selling medicinal remedies like bottles of tapeworms. He held each bottle up and seemed to espouse its value, then pointing to a corresponding pamphlet on the blanket in front of him. One such ‘pamphlet’ was a laminated photo of a man’s open ass with tapeworms piling out of his asshole. I took photos.
I got a few good shots of pig bartering; they force the pig’s mouth open with a stick so the prospective buyer can inspect its tongue for health. Pigs squealing endlessly, really an awful sound.
I’ve noticed frequent public breastfeeding, entirely calm and unremarkable – AS IT SHOULD BE. Afterwards we visited our first school, taught by a single young woman. Once finished with her own education and training, teachers are required to teach for free in a location determined by the government for one year. Her class only had 6 students on this day because most everyone else was/is at the Wednesday market. The classroom sign read “WELLCOME FRIENDS” and the kids sang us a song about spiders. The visit was brief.
We visited a second school, and because apparently it was an Earth Day of sorts, the students were all lined up outside dressed as flowers, alpacas, pigs, cows and the like. They cheered and held up poster-signs about saving the planet. I took photos of as many as I could and hope to translate them later. One student gave a very heartfelt, fist-in-the-air, protest-like speech as the mic squeaked and shrieked. We dropped off clothes and supplies at each school. We then visited an archeological site – the moras? – I opted out of hiking down since I’m behind in tracking our activities.
Day 7?, 9:00AM
Following visiting the Moras we had bagged lunches in a small village square where I finally found cheap beer. So I bought 3. Those beers were well-timed, as I found myself becoming irritable. An adorable nina came by each of our benches (placed circularly around a fountain and statue I’ve come to recognize as standard, a woman with a large water pot on her back and a man accompanying her with a donkey for farming) and saying, very sweetly, “Hola!” and seeking a candy bar or crackers in payment, she made off with riches.
We then visited the Salt Mines. The mines are a series of cascading pools, mostly square or rectangular in shape and shallow. 1-8 mine plots are owned per family, they’re all locally owned and allocated. I bought 5 small packages of salt, a pair of earrings, and took pictures of figurines with huge penises. I didn’t go down very far into the patchwork of mines, but did run a finger along the edge of one plot to taste the salt – perfectly salty.
I was exhausted after the salt mines, but we were set to attend a dinner with a local Peruvian family. Not very many of us attended, making the experience more intimate. The family consisted of four – the matriarch and father, a 20 year old perfect-smiled handsome son (he knew it too), and a 9 year old daughter. We were served on a beautiful tablecloth in a humble room indicating lower-middle-class status. A dog interrupted our meal, the chickens in the room behind us slept soundly, and all of the food we were provided came from the family’s farmed land.
Probably for the only time in my life.
So how should I take in this moment?
I can hear the rapids of the river far below.
Birds chirping and the murmur of international conversations.
I’ve put my camera away so that I might be more present.
Doing my 4th grade report on the Incas,
I don’t think I ever would’ve guessed that I’d be here now.
It’s such a privilege.
For no reason at all – I’m here.
For no reason at all – others aren’t.
And for some reason not our own, this place exists.
It’s romantic, dramatic, human-made, but natural.
Who lives here and who will never know this space?
It’s steep. Not… unscary.
The labor it took to construct this is difficult to conceptualize.
But it’s worth conceptualizing.
Why must this be monetarily territorialized?
Why don’t, how can’t, people care?
And when in the presence of ancient behavior, how can we dismiss intergenerational equity?
And what would these people say if there weren’t any photos allowed?
And if only 1,000 people could come here – who’d deserve to come?
Those heeding global perspective, or those with none?
That even the clouds cannot scale these heights is a testament to the depths of our planet.
I’m so grateful to be here and must assume that such an experience imbues my life with responsibility.
I hope I can be righteously thoughtful about what that responsibility entails.
All I can do it my best.
These people tried.
Are these compartments, or rooms?
Were they prisons — was love the same?
I left two notes* – one likely to be found and the other not at all.
I wonder what it signals about humanity that we do seem to treasure this place? What does it signify when we don’t?
Does my father know or understand what these moments mean to me?
How can we experience these feelings when we’re somewhere quite different?
Are these feelings complex or simple?
When will this be gone, and what will we have left in its stead?
Why do I not weep?
Is this place a moral?
How can I transform my thinking into an action, or series of actions, for the benefit of others (or to undo harm)?
If not, is this enough?
Just might be so — as I feel now.
I’m sorry that Jim cannot be here.
Maybe in some way he is.
A large cloud drifts down,
we’re not so far apart.
Its brevity is our own.
What could do justice to the arbitrary nature of my travels?
Who must I help, love, trust, and end with?
And when my mother is gone,
what will I regret when I think back to now and
all that she has given to me?
Through her giving – who else has she changed
(not just in and of herself but through me)?
Here – I choose to let go of self-doubt.
I choose to embrace myself so that I might do right.
I’m scared of my best,
but that’s not a reason.
Gratitude – thank you.
Only once in my life.
I can’t understand it.
* (1) “There is no greater gift than the experience of our planet – and to have shared it with others.” (2) “Everything is going to be okay.”
Day 7? 8?
It’s been a few days since I’ve really been able to journal… I opted out of the tomb tours in Puno today so I could meander by myself and soak up our last real full day. Since I wrote last, I spent a day riding a purebred Peruvian Paso back in the Sacred Valley. The driver, Christian, picked me up at 9AM from our gothic, dark, entirely stone, and totally cool, hotel. After an hour in the car I realized we were driving all the way back to the Sacred Valley. Listening to music and not speaking during that long drive was a welcomed experience.
At the ranch I met Adriana, a trainer/rider only 30 years old and impressively fluent (neurons!) in English. Meeting her and spending the day conversing was in and of itself a wonderful time. She warmed to me after watching me ride – as did the other ranch owner, Pablo. Once I’d made a few rounds in the arena he came out to take photos of me riding and interrupted Adriana often to give me an impromptu lesson. All of the ranch-hands watched as well. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt proud that they were impressed and interested in watching me ride.
Riding a well-trained, traditionally-trained, purebred Peruvian Paso is difficult. I loved the challenge. It’s not often that I have to work so hard to earn a horse’s respect. They put me on their best horse, which felt like a true privilege. He was a gorgeous bay gelding, 8 years old, from Lima (as apparently all the best-blooded Pasos are). All purebred Pasos are naturally gifted with their unique gait, though to refine it (extend, collect, dance, not unlike advanced dressage) takes years of precise training. Adriana instructed me to discover the horse’s “air” (“airrrrreee”), meaning to find that sweet spot of connection by which your body is fully immersed in the rhythm of the horse’s unique gait and flow. I was only able to hit that connection a few times but it was Love. I had to force myself to relax my whole body, suggest direction with my weight more in the heel than the hip, and “arm” the horse. Arming the horse basically means to have them on the bit and rounded. Beautiful to watch.
Adriana and I shared how we’d each been inexplicably born with a need/passion for horses, and she paid me the ultimate compliment of being a natural rider. I learned how to tack traditional Peruvian tack (aperro?), requiring two people. She rode a 17 year old sorrel stallion who I’d have guessed to be 8-12. Their horses live to be 50! I stayed on the bay gelding and we took a brief trail ride through the Sacred Valley, framed by mountains and crossing several active streams. I asked if she always thinks of it as beautiful and she quickly, assuredly, responded yes. We drank beer over lunch and spoke of what it was like for her to raise her daughter (10 years old and also a rider) alone in a machismo society. I learned that women are excluded from the equestrian world, most Pasos are owned by the ultra-rich (finest bloodlines calling for $500,000) congressmen, soccer players, and so on; primarily serving as a demonstration of wealth. Professional riders are hired, called Chincheros. When women do ride, they are the wives of the owners (never the Chincheros) and are thoroughly decorated, perched atop an Armed Paso, and paraded.
Adriana is taking CD courses on therapeutic riding and training, sent to her by her brother in Spain, as there are no university courses related to those studies here in Peru. We discussed feminism and systemic issues of class and social immobility. She taught me the difference between two types of llamas and two types of alpacas, even suffering being spat upon by a wide-eyed alpaca. We hugged a good, sincere goodbye, and I am grateful.
I returned around 5PM to the hotel and gave my mother a full report – sharing video Pablo had taken of my ride. I think/hope it made her happy. We went to a large farewell-Cusco dinner and danced with people from Israel, France, all over. Our guide gave me extra red wine and I gorged on tres leches cake.
The next morning we rode the bus for 5 hours to the intensely elevated (~12,500 feet above sea level) city of Puno. On the way we stopped at a ruins site and I bought a chess set (Incas v. Spaniards) and an old bronze piece. The drive was gorgeous and we sang songs as a group (‘Yesterday’, ‘Favorite Things’, ‘Johnny Berbeck’) before delving into silence. I plugged my ears, read, wrote, slept.
The elevation got to a few people in the group – they sucked on an oxygen tank that the hotel provides in the lobby. I’ve since seen others recovering there too. I’ve felt a bit nauseous here and there but overall alright, bearable. Robert, Keith and mamabear joined me for dinner at a pizza place – there are tons here – and I enjoyed the evening’s conversation thoroughly. Listening to the 9/11 experiences of two career-military men was fascinating. Robert described visiting West and East Berlin prior to the wall’s fall. Beer, pizza, and good company – in Peru… is this real life? I couldn’t sleep, my mind has reeled on issues not worth mentioning. Sleepless nights – but that’s not unusual.
Today we traversed Lake Titicaca and visited the floating islands – but more on that later. For now I think I’ll enjoy the rain and my beer.