Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 21: 6/25/11....Sunset on the Andes

      Well, if you look at the post date of this one, you'll see it took me almost a month to wrap up this blog. It's 'cause I'm now traversing the USA and rarely in one place long enough to post. But here goes!
     The last day of the trip (other than the flight home which was completely uneventful.) The day was pretty much a perfect cap of the whole trip. Not boring, but not hectic - just mellow and yet full of Peru-ness.
     Good old Mario. He's the main driver for the hotel, and dropped me off and picked me up from town every day of my stay in Cuzco. My plan for this last day was to drive (be driven) through the Sacred Valley, which is a set of towns and ruins from Cuzco to Macchu Pichu. The hotel guys told me that a personal driver was the way to go for this. Very alien to me. But it turned out Mario was available, so I felt really good about it, because he's really cool. We couldn't communicate hardly at all, but it worked out fine. He was amused by me saying "beautiful" all the time, so he started saying it, too.
     The first stop was not expected by me, but I guess Mario knew I'd like it somehow. It was an animal rescue. It didn't sound all that interesting at first, but they had a lot of uniquely South American critters. My favorite of all was a very ugly dog that was held sacred by the Incas. He looked like a nuclear mutant but he was just as sweet as any other dog. I stayed at the shelter too long, but I ended up getting a bunch of souvenirs to bring home as well as for myself. They were extremely grateful about the amount of money I spent there, even though it wasn't much to me. They appreciated that I did all my shopping there because the profits would go to the hideous dog. Awww.... ain't I a great guy? Yes, I am.
      We stopped here and there for some more ruins - some that were very cool and would have excited me more if I hadn't seen so many that week already - but what I enjoyed much more was just seeing the small towns and the daily life of people.
     We grabbed lunch in a small restaurant in one of the larger, more touristy towns. I remember a whole lot of flies. But also a "beautiful" ceiling of orange flowers on the back porch where we ate. One thing was odd: when Mario was talking to the waitress / hostess, he suddenly turned into a much more serious and macho person, treating her very imperiously. Odd.
     Afterwards, there was an uncomfortable moment when it came to paying for lunch. I was like, "Well, I hired him for the day - but to drive. Does that mean lunch is included? Or is he going to pay for himself? What sort of Peruvian protocol is involved here?" I ended up paying, and in the end I realized I was worrying over like 5 bucks.
      Soon after I started seeing The Mountain. It was just a snow capped Andes mountain that stood out because of it's interesting shape. I don't think there was much more significance to it than that, but I found my attention being drawn to it over and over. I think I was just eager to see more of the Andes than I had. Really I hadn't seen much at all. I would have seen more if I'd gone to El Calafate, and I guess I was slightly let down that I hadn't seen all the craggy snowy mountains I'd imagined. Cuzco is high in elevation, but for some reason the area has now snow on the mountains. Just dry, I guess.
     Early in the visit, I had been cynically positive that all the native Peruvian dress was strictly for the Gringos. But towards the end of this last day, driving in the boonies, I definitely saw that it was legit. People do dress that way on a daily basis - which is very cool to me. There was a moment when a herd of sheep and llamas was being driven along the road and parted in front of our stopped car, surrounding us from all sides, driven by a shepherd in traditional dress. It was one of those foreignly exoticky moments that really made the day special for me.
    There were a couple final stops on the ruin tour. One was a site that I thought was the salt mine we were going to see, but turned out not to be. I'm still not sure what it was, but it looked cool. And then there was the actual salt mine. It was very cool, but it was too late in the day to explore it in detail. That was all right, because it looked great from the top of the mine valley, but probably not as interesting from down in the midst of it.
    "Cuzco?" "Cuzco". We were ready to go "home". As we went, my eyes said their final goodbyes to The Mountain. The Mountain disappearing over the edge of the Sacred Valley was a bittersweet but perfect way to say farewell to South America. (For now!) The rest was all footnote. That Mountain fading away is what I consider to be the end.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Day 20: 6/24/11...Macchu Macchu Ma-an

    I'm not going to try to describe seeing Macchu Pichu, because it's one of those things that would take a gifted poet to try to transcribe it into words. It was another of those feelings of being confronted with something way beyond the context of your normal experiences. So I'll just stick to the usual script.

     I really wanted to get up for the early buses so I could be up top before sunrise. I was pretty pleased with myself that I was able to wake up at 4 to get in line, which was already long by 430. I didn't need to be right up front, because the real rush was for people wanting to climb this other part of MP, which only allows the first 400 people per day. It involves very thin paths hugging the side of a cliff, so I wasn't worried about missing out. Uh, I mean, RATS! I REEAALLY wish I would have been one of the chosen 400! UGH! I can't BELIEVE I didn't get to do that. I totally would have. BUMMER.
     Having medically put my digestive system into pharmaceutical lockdown, I was ready for the bus ride up with little fear of jumping off the bus and violating Inca holy grounds. The ride up was pretty amazing. We started off in the dark, but as the bus grinded up the snaking road the light began to brighten by barely perceptible increments and the mountains materialized into view. When we reached the top, the sun was still down but it was just bright enough to see everything.

     Thankfully, the top is not Disneyland at all. There's a small lodge, a bathroom, a restaurant, snack area, and that's about it. That's all you see when you get there, so it's not like you see all that marring your view of MP; you don't actually see MP until you go through the ticket area and around a bend. Once inside there's no modern structures or anything. So the whole thing is preserved wonderfully. If not for all the other idiots, it's pristine.

     Before I got in, there was a really funny yet awkward event. First of all, thank Apollo that this woman was not American. WHEW. This woman - who I never even looked at in order to avoid any possible involvement - started YELLING as they started letting people in. I'll try to recall exactly what I heard. Keep in mind I only heard her voice and not any authorities.


     This lady was pretty upset about her spirit drum. Spirit drum?? Spirit drum. All I could think was: Ok, this sounds pretty hippy / new age-y. Isn't that all about, like, vibes, dude? Like, good, like, vibes, dude? I was wondering: How many bangs on the spirit drums would it take to negate all the bummer vibes she was disrupting our auras and silver threads with? Also: to what Tradition does her spirit drum belong? How does she know that the Incas would be mellow with her spirit drum? How would she like it if an Inca God barged into her Womyn's Earth Mother Tantric Yoga Drum Circle and started demanding still beating hearts out of respect for His belief system? "I WANT TO SEE THE RULE WHERE I CAN'T TEAR HEARTS OUT OF THESE WOMYN!"

    Sorry - I'm actually making fun of people who are annoying but not as annoying as other people who I haven't given equal time to. It's the drum lady's fault for making a fuss and earning a place in my memoirs here.  She wasn't the last irritating person I'd meet this day. But the sheer awesomeness of MP continually wiped such things away effortlessly. So vibes were reset to groovy.

    When it was my turn to get in a reasonable question was posed to me: Where's your ticket? Um. In the hand of the person I'm about to give money to? RRT. Wrong. You don't have a ticket? (Gate people display variations on disbelief, confusion, "it's going to be a long day" faces....)  Me: NNNNDDDUUUUH(breath)UUUUHHH?????
      Turns out you have to buy a ticket BEFORE the bus. What the hell? At DISNEYLAND they would make sure you had a ticket in addition to your bus ticket before they even LET you on the bus! There would be signs with helpful cartoon characters pointing. Wait. Why wouldn't they just lump the bus and MP ticket into one package? It's not like there's more than one stop on the bus. "Just a bus ticket please. No, no MP ticket. I'm just going up to see if there's an Old Navy up there or not."

     It's hard for me to believe that I'm the only one in recorded memory to have made this mistake, but they acted like I was. I was asked to step into an office that looked like any other office but in my state of mind looked vaguely police-ish. There was a guy who was friendly, which of course made me nervous. He acted like he was trying to solve a very difficult puzzle. He pointed to an empty desk and said the person would should be sitting there could help me. I'm, no joke, watching and listening very carefully for a cue that I should start some of that shadowy "bribing" stuff you hear about on TV. It sure felt like an elaborate setup for that. I was panicking - no so much about having to bribe, but about the etiquette. How does one bribe? What is the protocol?

     He seemed to find a solution. He asked for my passport and some cash. SURE. Is this how it goes? He came back and explained that he could give the money and my passport info to the person who wasn't sitting behind the desk later. I was waiting for the big *WINK* but in the end I got the feeling that everything was legit after all! Maybe after the drum lady they just didn't want any more hassle.

    If you've seen Willie Wonka (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp) and you remember the people all coming in and seeing the chocolate river and Oompa Loompas for the first time, set to the "Pure Imagination" song, then that will give you some idea of turning the corner to see Macchu Pichu. As I said, it's too impressive to relate 100%, but I'll bet the kids in the chocolate factory would understand.
     Sunrise was outstanding. I just sat there watching the colors and light transform the mountains and MP. I was able to get some pictures before people got into every nook and cranny. I was glad there were no spirit drums going off. I bet she would have chanted, too.

     Once again, I just wanted to experience the place rather than take the guided tour and find out facts. So that's what I did. I tried to avoid crowds, but there was a section at the top that I had to check out. This was the location where the Inca astronomers would mark the solstices with a sort of sundial. It was too bad that this was just 3 days after the actual solstice. But when I thought about it, it must have been a freak show with a whole bus load of drum ladies. Maybe that would have been entertaining in itself, though.

     I'm going to have to compartmentalize the thoughts that came next into another post, because it's going to be a sizable rant. For now, let's just say I became enraged by the people sharing this place with me. First was the wacky photo posing, then the mouth breathing lardasses waddling up to snap a lovely cell phone photo for their Facebook page. But then (ringtone) no. (ringtone) NO. (ringtone) "Hello?" NOYOUDONOTTALKONYOURGODDAMNFUCKINGCELLPHONEONMACCHUPICHUYOUSTUPIDFUCK!!!!

     MP is a great place to "accidentally" knock someone over a cliff. I was very, very, tempted. I had to go and take a time out in a less popular part of this once sacred place. It took me a while to recover from that episode. You see why I hate people?

     Thank Odin there were llamas. After some further explorations, I found llamas! I'm not exactly sure why they were there or under whose authority. They were tagged, so they belonged to someone. But they were free to roam on the grassy terraces and munch away. Like cows, they had no interest in anything but eating, so I was able to get really close for pictures and groping. People were impressed with my bravery, but I was willing to suffer spit and poop for the sake of experience.

    After that the plan was lunch and rest. I had arrived at first light, and I intended to stay until closing. So I wanted to sit out the sunniest part of the day - especially in light of (hah) my sun poisoning.

    Since I had chosen to blindly follow paths and passages rather than follow a guide, I really didn't know what I was getting into when I got back on my feet and started walking in an interesting direction. Soon, though, I saw that I was on a path that led to some sort of lookout above MP. I kept going.

    Pretty soon I realized that the path I was on was not that less scary than the one I had passed on early in the morning. It was: cliff / 4 foot wide path / whoknowshowfar drop. I was WAY out of my comfort zone. I was hugging the wall and fighting a losing battle against looking down. It went on and on for well over an hour, going higher, higher, higher. Finally I reached the top and I felt like I had slain a dragon. I couldn't believe that I had made it up such a frightening (for me, anyway) path.

    So I had struggled against a mighty fear of heights, lack of depth perception in my eyes, altitude sickness, etc., to reach this exalted goal. But then at the top there was this adventure group whipping out champagne. The guide was this "dude" type who seemed to be living in a Travel Channel episode. "I know this moment must seem awesome after what we've all been through for the last 4 days, dudes! Ya DID it! WWOOOO!!!" Me: yaay. i rode a bus.

     On the way back down, which was not that much easier or less terrifying, I met a very tired dog. Another hiker guide nearby told me he had seen her in the area a lot recently. Hikers would feed her and she would just jog up and down the trail looking for handouts. I sat down and pet her for a little bit and promised if she went back to MP with me I'd get her a hamburger. She actually did follow me most of the way down, but I don't know where she went towards the end. I was kinda glad because the hamburger stand was closed. If it wasn't for all the travel obstacles I really think I would have taken her home. It felt like fate was trying to make something happen there.

      It was time to go, the last bus was heading out. Despite spending a whole day there, I would have liked a little more time. But it was a really great experience which I'll never forget.

      Down went the buses, choo choo went the train, back in the seat to head back towards Cusco. Before the train pulled away, though, another fracas. A woman's voice, but hard to pick up what she was saying. All I remember is "YOU DO NOT FUCK WITH PEOPLE LIKE THIS!" and the word "TRAIN!"

     On the ride back I spoke with a woman from Prague who was very nice. She didn't know who Jan Svankmajer is. (He's a surrealist animator from Prague.) We talked politics, and she let me know, asking politely for my pardon, that most people in the Czech Republic think Americans are, well, kind of stupid. Hey! Only 95%!

     After the train, there was another hair-whitening taxi ride, and I was dropped off at the main plaza in Cusco. Amazingly, I was able to see the tail end of some of the Inti Raymi festival! This is the Inca festival for the Winter solstice. What I got to see was this strange sort of musical / vocal / dance event where several groups, all with their own costumes and banners, would try to outplay each other. They had their own theme, and it was sort of a mix between a battle of the bands and an endurance contest. I couldn't tell who the referees were to decide the winner. But gradually the "defeated" groups would leave the square until there was only one standing. I didn't agree with the outcome.

    I saw some suspicious looking characters in the crowd and realized what a perfect pick pocket occasion this was. So I moved along. There was even a guy who collapsed. I don't know if it was a pick pocket diversion technique, but I hope not.

    Well, that pretty much sums up an amazing day!   

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 19: 6/23/11...Let's Talk Poo

   Ugh. What was it? Altitude sickness? Nasty pizza eaten by the fist full? Sun poisoning? Dehydration? New Peru Doo-doo Flu? I don't know. Any of those, or any combination, or an Inca curse for disturbing their outpost. I was unwell.
   Regardless, this was a day to recover from the previous one. I did have to move on if I wanted to see Machu Picchu the next day, so sucking it up was called for.

   A bus ride was my first adventure. Driving in Peru is really insane and chaotic. But it's a little fun, too. It's entertaining to see the risks the drivers take - as long as you ignore the fact that your life is at stake. There are a lot of speed bumps in the roads around Cusco, and I was compelled to sit in the very back, where the bumps were way more severe.

    The bus ride ended in Ollantaytambo, which was a quaint touristy town. I really liked it a lot, and sort of wished I had chosen to stay the night there in my original plans. If I go back, then I will. There were a lot of adventure travel types there for rafting and other activities. But the main attraction is the fact that the train leaves from there to Machu Picchu.

    I had lots of time to kill before the train, but I was so ill and tired that I couldn't bring myself to climb into the ruins. I figured I'd have to choose between these ruins, which did look pretty cool, and Machu Picchu. I just didn't have the strength left to do both. So I just relaxed, unless I had to use a bano, which was very frequently.

    Peru is a bad place to have a troubled digestive system. One thing that I feel totally grossed out by here (and sometimes in Argentina, too) is that you're expected to put your poo-ey paper in a trash can instead of flushing it. Ick. Do I really want to open a trash can that quite a few people have deposited their..... No, I do not. Also, you normally have to pay for this privilege. So my difficulties were further complicated by all this.

   After dark it was train time. I searched anxiously for a rest room on the train as it pulled in and prepared to take us on board. Thankfully there was one, and I called dibs on that seat. (Not really, because I don't know Spanish for "dibs".

   The train was uneventful. After we disembarked, I found the guy who was sent to take me to the hotel. He pointed at Machu Picchu, which I didn't see at first. But then I could see a barely visible outline high above me, along with a few light spots. I just said "whoa". I was seriously in awe, even though I had only caught a preview.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Day 18: 6/22/11...seck-see WOO-mahn?

     Prepare for the most epic day of the trip. So much to remember. To start with, this is the day where I was at the highest altitude of my life (with my feet on the ground). 12,800 feet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be at that height again.

     Cusco is surrounded by Inca Ruins. There are a set of 4 connected by a road that goes right up one of the mountains that surround the city. So that was the plan for the day – to get dropped off at the top and walk down past each of them. It’s about a 45 minute drive up, and the taxi cost me all of 5 bucks!

     The top ruin, Tambomachay, seemed to be pretty interesting, but small. It was in a nice location with running streams and amazing views. There were some paths leading away from the paved areas. Some of them said “Don’t Enter” (I supposed) but some didn’t. None of the paths looked official, but the fact that some were marked as forbidden and some weren’t made me curious. So I started off on one.
     Let me say – usually I follow laws and rules pretty obediently. I also don’t really consider myself a risk taker at all. But something about a path – especially one that appears to not be well-traveled, drags me forward and around the bend. It’s a vice that I’m not sorry I have. But if someone wanted to kill me, a mysterious path and a trap would be all that it takes.
     Over the first hill, after looking back to see if anyone was pointing and about to say “Hey!”, I saw an Inca ruin built into the cliff wall in the distance. Now it was a done deal, and I set out.

     I kept telling myself that if there’s a path, someone must walk on it regularly, and there’s no sign saying not to take it, then it’s all cool. But really I knew I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.

     For the most part the path stayed pretty easy to follow. It was only about a foot wide or so, and hugged some steep sections of the hillside. There was tons of llama poop – so I started to wonder – is this path used and or created by people? Or just a track that llamas like to follow? But every once in a while I’d see a human shoe print in the dust to keep me confident enough.

     There were squared-off sections of land but nothing planted in them. But it didn’t take me long to see that the ruins I wanted to get to were on the opposite side of a valley and stream. So I started to look, in vain, for a path that would head down to the stream and hopefully a bridge.

     I started hitting some dead ends, and some paths that faded off, as well as those that seemed to go up instead of down. During one of these retracing of my steps, I heard: “baa-aa-aa”. I looked ahead and saw a shepherd dressed in Inca clothing with a herd of sheep, on this thin path about half a mile away and heading towards me.

     A terrible spectrum of dooms opened up before my mind: I would soon be dodging gun shots after being mistaken for a poacher. / The guy would go get the cops. / The llamas would drive me off the mountain. / I would drive the llamas off the mountain and I’d owe him a llama herd. / It was his land and I was trespassing and I’d have to marry his ugliest daughter. I looked despondently at the still distant ruins and turned tail, crouching as I double-timed it back down the path.

     I just couldn’t give it up, though. There had to be some way across the stream to the ruin which was now on my way back but tantalizingly across the stream. I saw something similar to a bridge but couldn’t see how to get down to the path below that went to it and across to the other side. So I decided to head cross country to it.

     There was just some grassy slope to go down. No big deal. Except SLIP. Didn’t realize it was wet. Some mud is just “Eww, my shoe’s dirty” and some mud is “Here we go down the mountain in brown butter!” This was the 2nd kind. I was just hurtling down on my ass with no hope of stopping until I just did. Well, I was closer to the stream, but now not fit to be seen in public. And also covered in evidence of my unsanctioned explorations.

     There was nothing to do but sludge ahead. I was on the other side, though, and closing in on my goal. The shepherd behind was nowhere to be seen, so I supposed that I was OK. But then I see llamas coming from the other direction! It was like a special force of livestock was tightening up a perimeter around me in a cruel game of cat and mouse.

     I decided I would try to lay low, holding my tripod which – it suddenly occurred to me – might look like a gun from a distance. But very quickly there was a pissed off border collie flying up the hill right at me, barking and yapping and growling at me. It stopped a few yards away and looked down the hill, still barking as he did. I followed his gaze, and he was looking down at his masters, who were on the opposite hill and taking no apparent notice of me.

     The dog was basically keeping between me and the livestock – so I believed that as long as I stood still, and the shepherds didn’t sic the dog on me, I would be OK. He was a pretty well trained dog after all! Once the herd passed, he rejoined them, and I moved cautiously on. But after a couple minutes, I realized I’d left my tripod back there. I went back to get it and the dog started after me again. But the herd was far enough away that he didn’t feel the need to come back the whole way, I guess.

     Finally, covered in mud from the waist down, my secret mission exposed by a border collie, I came upon the Inca hideout. There wasn’t a whole lot to it at all. But it was ancient, and I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was. So I felt pretty good about the whole thing. Mostly because I was the only foreigner in sight. No other tourists had dared to embark on this quest – comfortable on their air conditioned buses and having brochures read to them by guides – brochures which probably didn’t include my private Inca fort. My muddy butt was a badge of honor!

     It was pretty simple to get back to the “official” part of the ruin site. Luckily, the way I came back allowed me to skip past the guard station in the front, so I didn’t have to catch any hassle from The Man. Another good thing about it was that I got to see the main ruin from a different angle, and I could see the jealous faces of the bus riders. “Hey! Howcum HE gets to be on that side?”

     I also was able to walk through a regular-people village. It was a little impoverished but not really that bad. They seemed to find me a little out of place.

     I sat down to have some water and granola bars, and was visited by a timid and hungry dog. I shared my granola bars with him and we had a good chat.

     Along came a Swedish or German woman who appeared to have her own personal Peruvian guy. I couldn’t tell if he was her guide or just someone she hired to carry her stuff around. She was the first of many to ask about my pants and to have a laugh about it. She had pants worth discussing as well, but the man/mule might have also been hired to repel unwanted attention.

     Right down the street was the second ruin site, called Pukapukara. I really am usually curious about the history of these sites, but the fact that I couldn’t read the signs and wouldn’t get any info without a guide sort of freed me up to use my imagination. I could pretend I was an explorer who stumbled upon these ruins with no previous knowledge available to explain them.

Some of the young girls had some questions for me:

“My pants? Yes. Slipped in the mud. Slid down the hill. Yup, it’s pretty funny.”

     After exploring a bit, it was time to walk down the mountain toward ruin 3, Sacsaywaman. I was soon joined by a really friendly local guy, and we tried to converse despite the language difference. The gist of it was this:

“My pants? Yes. Slipped in the mud. Slid down the hill. Yup, it’s pretty funny.”

     I stopped at the side of the road to get a water from a lady with a stand. After buying the bottle I said:

“My pants? Yes. Slipped in the mud. Slid down the hill. Yup, it’s pretty funny.”

     Finally I met someone who wasn’t quite as interested in my pants. Walking down the mountain, I pass this kid – about ten or eleven – lying in the grass and singing something. It was hard to tell if he was hiding behind a bush or just using it for shade. As I neared, he rolled up. I was just intending to say hi and move on, but he started talking to me. He gestured toward Cusco and said a word that sounded like Cusco, but I don’t think it was “Cusco”. But I said “Mm hm. Cusco”. He tried again. No comprende. No habla. Then he says, “You like seck-see WOO-mahn?” WHAT?

     Like I said, this kid is like ten or eleven, just lying in the grass by the side of the road near a farm house. I wasn’t prepared for a PIMP! He asked again and I said, no, gracias. Then he said “You want horse?” and gestured to some horses tied up nearby. Still surprised, I was thinking, “I hope he’s not suggesting…..” I just backed away slowly and kept on moving downhill.

     While I was still processing all that, I passed this teenage guy who was definitely hiding behind a bush, lying on his stomach. I turned to say “Hola”. He just kept on glaring off into space and didn’t say anything or look my way. I had a definite feeling that I had just escaped something being set up between the teen and the kid. For the next half mile I kept doing quick spin moves to catch anyone trying to follow me.

     With Tambomachay and Pukapukara being right next to each other, Sacsaywaman sure seemed like a long long way. I finally reached the sign for it and followed the road it pointed to. It didn’t seem like there was much traffic, and I found out soon enough that the road had collapsed from flooding or something a while back. So this particular route was closed to cars and tour buses and only open to horses and to cool guys hiking down the mountain.

     I was also able to get more of a feel of local Peruvian life by walking through the small neighborhood that the road cut through. I got to Sacsaywaman, which is one of the biggest Inca sites in the Cusco region. It was pretty darn impressive. When I paid to get in, a brief discussion with the guard resulted in:

“My pants? Yes. Slipped in the mud. Slid down the hill. Yup, it’s pretty funny.”

     I spent a long time at Sacsaywaman taking pictures and admiring the construction of the place. Again, not really knowing what the significance of anything was, I tried to guess at what grisly things went on there. I don’t believe in such things, but I did imagine I could feel a terrible energy coming from the place.

     It was around this point that I started to realize that I was getting sun burnt pretty bad. I also was dehydrated and exhausted. So I laid down in the shade of a wall and closed my eyes for a while. People thought it was weird, but at least they couldn’t comment on my pants.

     I explored the site more before it closed, and then started down towards Cusco. The main road continued the way I’d gone, but I came across a cobblestone walkway instead. Before getting there, though, I had to pass through a gauntlet of frenzied salesladies trying to nail their last sale. I’m pretty sure I could have haggled them down to: “Just take the piece of crap so I don’t have to haul the damn thing down the mountain and back up for the thousandth time.”

     Down the path was a little kid who spread his arms and signaled for me to take his picture. I said no but he insisted. Damn. I fell for that stupid trap. Some of the capitalists down here wait for you or lure you into taking their picture and then tell you that you have to pay them. The kid seemed to be alone so I didn’t think it would happen, but right away Mom appears with her hand out. Fortunately, I was totally out of money so she had to settle for a few pennies.

“My pants? Yes. Slipped in the mud. Slid down the hill. Yup, it’s pretty funny.”

     By the time I reached town it was dark enough so that people couldn’t see my pants quite as much. As I trudged down the thin cobblestone streets, I heard – for the 2nd time that day - “You like seck-see WOO-mahn?”

     No – not the same kid. A little older. But what the hell? Yes, I am in the market for a girlfriend – the free version, though.

     Back in the main square, commerce was still flourishing. I think I figured out a defense mechanism against aggressive trinket saleswomen. I’m going to bring a few trinkets of my own – like tiny statues of liberty – and offer to trade for whatever they’re selling. Then just make absurd requests for better trades. I also need some cheap art prints to offer to the many eager artists. Probably something that an artist should know but a con man wouldn’t – like Georgia O’Keefe, or someone.

     After returning to the hotel, I ordered some pizza. A box featuring Ron Jeremy’s face on it soon arrived and destroyed my digestive system.

     After eating, I started to have to deal with some serious sun poisoning. Chills along with fevery feeling, nausea along with thirst, etc. It really sucked. But it was such a good and adventurous day that I couldn’t let it end on a sour note.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 17: 6/21/11...Capitalism on Acid

    This was a pretty great day. Some minor irritants, but overall super duper.

    Morning was a delightful breakfast with many delicious items to eat and drink, all of which you can partake at your leisure whilst watching dogs fuck in the park outside. Seriously - the stray dogs - about a dozen - did lots of other interesting things, too. There were some serious political maneuverings around this one popular female. A big guy was frantically fending off rivals as I sipped my orange juice. I continued to ponder the whole dog thing. Is South America one pan-continental dog park?

     My plan was to just acclimate gradually to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness and wander around and hopefully visit a couple museums. I didn't make it to any museums, though, because the whole center of town was taken over by a parade that lasted all day and into the night!

    This was sensory overload to be sure. I think most people have seen the colorful Inca costumes in various books and shows and such. But being submerged in a mob of people with a wide variety of costumes - in every crazy color mixed in every crazy way - is an experience. In my mind's eye I just see a kaleidoscope. Whistles. Colors. Drums. Colors. Horns. Colors. Funny hats.

    All I did was walk, walk, walk, and take lots of pictures and videos. Man - Colonia wants to show off cobblestones? Cusco's got cobblestones BETWEEN cobblestones! I bet if you pried up a cobblestone, there would be MORE cobblestones underneath! Centuries of cobblestones laid upon cobblestones in great cobblestoney layers. Cobble cobble cobble.

     I don't know how I didn't get altitude sickness. I started out walking slow and breathing deep, but after a while just hit my stride. Cusco pretty much climbs the side of a mountain at roughly 35 degrees, so after climbing that most of the day my Peru-flag donut guilt was far behind.

    Cusco is overall really pretty - twisty (cobbled) narrow roads with great views, overall yellowy painted walls, those curvy brick tile roofs, and here and there highly saturated blue doors and windows. It seems pretty clean and is described as safe. And it seems like the roaming dogs are cuter here!

    The only blot on the day were all the people trying to sell me stuff. Lots of little old ladies in extremely colorful clothes trying to get me to buy extremely colorful whatevers. It seemed like one out of every ten people wanted me to buy something. And some were pretty aggressive. NO! I don't want to buy any of your rainbows!!

Day 16: 6/20/11...Inca Mosh Pit!!!

    Travel days suck. I'm always thinking, "I'll get there at x-o'clock, that'll give me plenty of time to do stuff!" But after rolling up out of a blissful airport slumber with world travelers shifting their eyes from the departure screen above you with a quick glance your way and then back, the day's probably not going to be all that productive.
    I did the zombie shuffle around the concourse and made my way to the ticket counter to check in and free myself of my suitcase-slash-pillow. Then I sort of broke my no-American-food rule by getting some Dunkin' Donuts. Although, as I explained to myself, technically an airport is some sort of non-national free zone, right? To make it more exotic and non-yankee, I got a donut that was colored patriotically like the Peruvian flag - red/white/red. If only every flag were so delicious - peace would flow through the Earth like creamy filling into my fat mouth!

    You know how on TV when people come out of a courthouse and the reporters swarm over and throw microphones in the people's faces and shout a bunch of questions? That's how it seemed when I arrived at the Cusco airport later that morning. taxi?taxi?train?macchupichu?taxi?macchupichu?taxi?taxi?... AAAAAHHH!!! I could not get my bearings at all. The gauntlet of "helpful folks" were pavlovianilly conditioned to have a confused face of a tourist trigger them into a mercantile frenzy. What made it worse was I didn't even know what I was looking for. I literally had no post-airplane plan, besides getting to the hotel in some vague way. So I kept wandering back and forth in baffled pirouettes trying to escape the swarm of unbeatable offers and to get a second to think.

     Eventually some lady exerted a psychic power that no one else had and drew me into her web. Of course she was extremely helpful. HELPFUL. Her goal was to get me to commit to her Macchu Pichu package travel deal. But she settled for me taking her business card and having me take a cab that her buddy drove. As I got in the cab, uncertain how I was going to get screwed precisely, I realized that I am a NOOB at traveling. I know how to ignore city bums, but the tourist piranha are a new adversary.

    Thankfully I got to the hotel fine without being extorted or worse. In hindsight I wondered - what if I was in a more dangerous country? It seemed so easy for that lady to shepherd me into her friend's cab. What if the goal was more than cab fare - like being taken hostage? That does happen in places, where they'll ransom you to your family. I don't think ever in Cusco - but it's something I need to consider carefully before visiting more sketchy places.

     The hotel is great - thank you again, Tripadvisor.com - and I pretty much said "Hola" and started snoring simultaneously, and slept most of the day.

      At night, I got up and decided to go get some dinner. One huge perk of this hotel (The Torre Dorada) is that they'll drive you to and from the town center any time you want. So they recommended a restaurant and off we went.

      The main square was closed to traffic because of some event that I still don't know what it was. But the car dropped me off along with this other guy who was going to lead me to the restaurant. This little old guy could move! I kept thinking that I was glad that he wasn't TRYING to lose me. He kept looking back to check that I was there. At one point he gestured to the middle of the square and said "This is where they fight." What? It was too loud and he was moving to fast for me to ask him to explain. I assumed he must mean a ceremonial fight as part of the mysterious event we were in the middle of. But?

     As we went, the crowd got thicker and thicker. It was dark out but everything was lit by the Mysterious Event. Fireworks were going off. People were cheering about something. All the crowd was looking somewhere off to my right but I couldn't follow their eyes without losing the little guy bobbing and weaving in front of me. Gradually we went from dodging people, to brushing against them, to pushing through them, to being completely engulfed in a crush of people.
     People were squished together and forces coming from all angles. Faces started to look worried. I definitely started to worry. There was a good possibility that a tragedy was about to happen, as I felt the crowd pushing me away from my legs. We had got caught in a log jam, where some people were trying to push into the center of the square toward the Mysterious Event, and others, like me and the little guy who I'd lost by now, were trying to cross that stream. There were a few surges where the tide was taking me way off course.

     I looked at all the faces crushing me and being crushed. Incas! I'm going to be trampled by Incas! (Sorry, that just sounded funny to me.) But really, I felt very lucky compared to everyone else that I was pretty tall. I was glad they were Incas and not Vikings.

     I think it was my relative height that allowed my guide to find me as we were spat out of the Inca soup. He got me to the restaurant and pointed to where we had started, across the square engorged by the Still Mysterious Event. "Pickup. Over there." And then he magically blended back into the mosh pit.

     Dinner was awesome, and when they called the hotel for me to arrange my rescue, cooler heads prevailed and they got me straight from the restaurant, away from the Mysterious Event I never knew anything about but almost paid for WITH MY LIFE. (dun dun dunnnnnn)

Day 15: 6/19/11...Sit Still, Woman!!!

     My final (partial) day in Buenos Aires.  My plan was to leave for the airport at 3.

     I took pictures of the hotel and me with my two most well-known Lolettes – Daniela and Laura. Then I blogged, and ended up being really late for packing. I pretty much slammed what I could in the suitcase and the rest ended up temporarily in a bunch of plastic bags.

     Pretty boring after that. Customs, security, etc. Sat next to an incredibly irritating woman. I’m prepared to feel bad, because she may have had some mental/neurological disturbance, but she also might have just been annoying. Basically she could not sit still for one full minute. Constantly fidgeting, moving her scarf on her left leg, grunting and moving it to her right leg, grunting and moving it back to her neck, etc. She kept tying and untying her hair and it was constantly brushing me. Her husband looked on in what look liked despondence.

     Thank Gilgamesh for anxiety pills. I used to be such a total wreck on planes, with no possibility of sleeping. But now I’m completely at ease. The turbulence was awful (I figured it would be because of the Andes) and despite that and Ms. Antsinpants I actually caught a z here and there.

     Which was good, because - and I planned on this - I didn't get a whole lot more sleep camping out in the Lima airport. After more customs, I got my suitcase and tried to check in to my morning flight to Cusco, but the airline counter was closed. The rest of the night/morning/? was a sort of blur. I found out where all the young'uns were crashing, and joined them.

     The thing about the Lima airport, though, is it's a 24 hour airport that doesn't really slow down at all. Most airports I've seen are done by 11pm. So my choice of sleeping spot - directly below a "departures" monitor, was not the most private location. But I was so zonked on Dramamine and anti-anxiety medicine that somehow I slept.

    First class all the way!