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!