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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Seems like everywhere I go, the more I see, the less I know...

love the little guy in his rainbow pants and enormous hat

Up, way up, staring menacingly down over the crowds in the Plaza de Armas, masked demons in rainbow costume perched in the Spanish architecture of the Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús like living gargoyles.

They gestured and swayed and generally looked as frightening as possible. There was no mistaking that. Over a loudspeaker, a story was being read, the Spanish...or was it the Quichua language?...echoing off ancient stones.

 All necks were craned skyward to watch the obviously malevolent spirits as the tale that we, at least, couldn't understand wove around us. When it ended, the last bit of sound booming, then dissolving into nothingness, the masked dancers disappeared all at once.


I dumped Mike off to get a massage. The plan was, he'd get work tiredness rubbed out of his muscles and I'd go exploring and take some more photographs.

Answering some primal call drummed up by the evil spirit performance, I went carb hunting, and found candy apples. Excellent! A childlike treat to drive away the creepies, like whistling in the dark.

At least I thought so, carefully counting out close to the correct soles for  the young proprietor. He just as carefully gave me the correct change and I selected an apple. Which was a lot heavier than I had anticipated.

Closer inspection revealed: they were candy apples. As in, apples beneath a thick, jawbreaker-hard encapsulating layer of tooth-achingly sweet hard candy.  Not a smidge of caramel to be seen.

This was street food? Crunch.

Hmm. Messy. I wandered, scattering bright pink bits of hard candy over the ground whenever I risked my dental work with another bite.

Great. I was breaking my teeth, courting adult-onset diabetes and littering.

I watched spinners and weavers of alpaca wool, kids drowning their matchbox cars in a fountain, people standing in line at the employment office, (many with babes on hips), tourists with big cameras, and carefully read both t-shirts and an assortment of pictures and banners decrying the tourism racket -my Spanish may be lousy, but even a gringa like me can understand a sign like this-

the cow is tourism, which the Quechua are holding on a rope,
but the airlines and railroad and hotels and even church
are sucking away the milk that belongs to the Quechua people. 

-huh. Freedom of speech. Guess that's good. At least it wasn't against the tourists...

It seems that Take Your Children to Work Day is every day in Peru, at least when they're small. This guy, for instance, was a boy with some serious 'tude, swinging his mother's wares (sugarcane, in this case) at passers-by

Do you think that's good or bad for business? I'm not sure.

Then there was this dear little man stealing a kiss from his baby sibling while his mother and grandmother sold homemade sweets along the sidewalk :

Kids who were obviously loved and being cared for, but that evening, at a restaurant, it was hard to ignore the sparsely dressed boy child in the cold outside our window. He persistently waggled knitted and very cute finger puppets on his outstretched hands.

It's hard to let go of the thought that children shouldn't work, but while we in the West are enlightened (read: rich) enough for our children enjoy their childhoods to the fullest, with ample nutrition, education, and opportunity, that's not the case everywhere.

Looking out at that boy and the beautiful plaza of light and shadow, I was eating an alpaca steak. Yes, a fuzzy cute alpaca. Add that to my list of  "been there, ate that" -it was very lean and not terribly flavorful, in case you want to know. 

Alpaca, post-cuteness.

I told myself, if you buy something from that child, you communicate that having kids sell things in the cold and dark works and they'll keep doing it.

But the little guy was out there for an hour and didn't sell a single puppet. My heart ached for him. What if he got in trouble for not selling anything? Here I was, cozy warm, having drinks and eating a critter who'd never done any harm to anyone, simply for the novelty of it. Who was I to say that what someone from another culture should do?

So of course I caved, dashed outside, and bought several, (and at a reasonable price) between the dinner and dessert course. I was rewarded with a big, big smile. so I felt good about buying those little puppets, despite twinges to my morals.

Also, I felt better about that than I had about an earlier encounter I'd had with some locals. Two women carrying babies and alpacas were walking in the opposite direction and I'd snapped what I'd hoped was a sly photo.

In the Middle East, the one lousy time I got busted attempting to take a photo, there was a lot of shrieking and running away by the women I'd wanted to photograph. Which scarred me, slightly.

This time it was the opposite. The two women told me to take a photo. Having already gotten a heads-up from the guidebook, I knew they would expect to be paid. Which was fine; if you're going to doll up not only yourself but also your babies and your llama or alpaca so I can get a photo to make a living, all good.

So I asked how much. I didn't fall off a turnip truck, after all, and these were obviously pros. "You decide, you decide!" they insisted, "take a photo, photo, yes!"

And they posed. I made sure my valuables were secure (again, turnip truck: I'd read that if you were going to be a victim of crime in Peru, outside of Lima, Cusco is the most likely place for something to happen) and took a quick, informal photo:

 Very nice, right? I put my camera back into my purse, opened my wallet, pulled out an American dollar aaaaaand...there were four of them in front of me with their hands out.

Wait, what? Quatro? Permisso?

I had a USD $1, a USD $20, and several 20 ($7.50) Peruvian soles bills. I offered the $1 to the ringleader, which resulted in the immediate shaking of heads and pursed lips and chorusing of "no no noooooooo!" The argument that ensued was along the lines of "there are four of us and we have babies, families to feed, yadda yadda., pleeeease, lady."

Yeah, well, darn it, they said I choose and I thought $1 was a perfectly fine amount for a photograph, especially in Peru! I hesitated for the most infinitesimal second, always a mistake. One of the women was within inches of being into my wallet; scoping out the contents she said 20 soles, OK.

20 soles not OK. Getting near my wallet was also not OK. I could buy two alpaca knitted hats for 20 soles! A meal! Possibly two! NOT OK.

I plopped the dollar dismissively into the nearest hand and strode away; having much longer legs and not being weighed down by alpacas or babies helped me out, here.

OK, we both know what I'm really saying is that I ran away. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

There was a  burst of outrage as they tried to scuttle after me, but I was out of there, me and my lousy photo. The noise and pursuit were extremely short-lived, but I didn't look back. Eeyagh.

I felt like a heel.

We were tired, that night, and glad that we'd found a place away from the partiers and traffic, and went back to our peaceful hotel to sleep as well as one can when awaiting an early wake-up call. We had a train to catch, our very favorite form of travel, and would be leaving before dawn...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Across the ocean blue, me and you, we're dancing in the street

Yes, of course we went there.
By some great bit of good luck we had, inadvertantly but so fortuitously, arrived in Cusco in the month in which, exactly 100 years ago, Hiram Bingham rediscovered the the pride of Peru, the lost city of Machu Picchu. May I assume you know what Machu Picchu is?

Far and away Machu Picchu is the reason nearly 2 million people come each year from all over the world to Cusco. It is the closest city to the ruins, and, I must say, as a cultural gem of a city and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the western hemisphere, a destination in itself. But Machu Picchu is the real draw.
So they were throwing a Hundred Years Party.

I had never been to Cusco before, had, embarassingly, never even heard of it until I started planning our trip. Cusco was the capital of the Incan World, known to them as the naval of the Earth. I'll tell you more about that later, for now, I think it may be safe to say that the Hundred Years party was not terribly unlike a hundred year flood. What. a. sight.

Many of the streets were blocked off from cars, swelling instead with dancers and musicians and more dancers and people, ever so many people.

The costumes were elaborate and bright, masked performers telling through dance stories that we didn't know but with which the crowd was obviously familiar. Some gruesome or grotesquely sinister, others beautiful. I wished we had someone to explain it all to us.

I was quietly stroking out at the photo ops...everywhere I looked there was color swirling, the sights and smells and sounds, and all of it new and exciting. In fact, I'm going to stop writing and let you enjoy the photos without any more commentary from the likes of me. Do enjoy.

We did.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Looking at the world over the rim of his teacup...

We'd pared our belongings down to hiking clothes, sturdy shoes, a few toiletries, camera, and the all-important bug repellent. The rest stayed with Royce and April. Traveling even lighter? Yes, please!

Now, with just our backpacks and passports, we headed out into a morning of wet streets with bits of garbage blowing around. Apparently it is par for the course to have to hail several taxis until you can find one willing to take you to your destination. We found this surprising, since we were going to the airport. What kind of taxis won't take a nice fare to the airport? Apparently they have zone licensing issues.
While waiting for our flight, we introduced ourselves to the somewhat grassy, slightly bitter Coca tea, as per my doctor's instructions. The instructions were important because otherwise we might have hesitated to drink it. Coca tea is made from the leaves of the Coca plant -as in, cocaine.

No, really.

But, as it turns out, while you might not pass a drug test 48 hours after ingesting the tea, (hmm, might as well have a poppy seed muffin while you're at it and flunk the initial opiates screen as well,) the leaf itself has very, very minimal amounts of the alkaloid used to make cocaine. It's neither narcotic nor addictive, and, most importantly, is thought to be effective in preventing altitude sickness.

Count me in.

We were hydrating and drinking the Coca tea to prepare for a change in altitude, from sea level in Lima down to southwest Peru and the city of Cusco at 10,800 feet. Having gotten a taste of altitude sickness already, I wasn't interested in trying it on again. What my doctor had said was to drink a minimum of 100 ounces of water a day and to try out the Coca tea as well. 100 ounces, it turns out, is a lot of water to drink, and we had chosen to stick with bottled, what with it being South America and all.

Many plastic bottles.

Bottled water has yet to steer me wrong: I even brush my teeth with it when we're travelling in areas where it's recommended. You also have to be careful of the refilled bottled water scam, where the bottle has been refilled with tap water and the seller "politely" opens it for you...to disguise that it was never sealed in the first place. If it's shady, I would advise you to just go thirsty, as lousy as that is...or really regret it later.

We demonstrated what really great world travelers we are by getting into the wrong line for our plane. It took a lot of Spanish and hand gesturing for us to get it, but eventually we boarded the correct plane (from the tarmac -I love that!) and were soon soaring over the staggeringly beautiful Andes

and thinking about that movie, Alive, with Ethan Hawke. You remember? Based on a true story from 1972, a rugby team's plane crashes into the Andes. The survivors end up having to eat some of the deceased to have the energy to hike out of there and get help for the others.

I cannot imagine. I mean, I snarfed down that cuy, but eating cold dead person...I'm not claiming I wouldn't, but I'd have to be awfully hungry, is all I'm saying. But it was a good movie, survival and human perseverance and the like. Looking down on those peaks, I was glad we were flying, not walking.

Our plane was much better behaved, thank you, and within a scant hour we were circling to land.

In the airport I managed to inadvertently attack another passenger with my once-again pressurized hand sanitizer, which shot out an impressive amount all over her sleeve. She yelped, I apologised. In Spanish and English. No idea if she spoke either language.

There were dancers and musicians, throwing on their costumes, then rushing out to welcome us in a whirl of sound and color. Even better was the nice fellow from our hotel holding up a sign with (inevitably misspelled but very welcome) our name written in block letters. Man, I really love that.

It makes me feel special. Welcome. And, most importantly, not lost.

Outside of the airport, we took in deep breaths of the air of Cusco, the ancient capitol of the Incan world.  It smelled like dust and exhaust and yet much...cleaner than that of Lima. Also thinner.

We plopped ourselves into a nondescript, less than luxury model of a car as indicated by our friend the sign holder who drove us past the policia with their machine guns and riot shields stationed at the entrance to the airport parking lot. They seemed bored; more interested in texting and smoking than in us.

We were staying more to the edge of Cusco, that great, once-walled city, at a place that was #1 on Tripadvisor.com. We put a lot of faith into those ratings, as they have yet to lead us astray. This place was desribed as clean, laid back, beyond-expectations helpful, and most importantly, quiet.

Also, they had the corniest website I have ever seen in my entire life, with photos of each of their staff, each captioned with sayings like Mario: "Obviously I am the best!" and Arturo: "I am what I am, I know everything and I am prepared to help you." If reserving a hotel room makes me laugh, they get points from me.
We were given the most thorough greeting and informational session I have ever had, after which we dumped our gear in the slightly frilly, but not too froufy room while admiring the security measures in place out our window...embedded broken glass and electric fences. South America, don't forget.

Starving and eager to see where we had landed, we were dropped off in front of Gato's Market on the Plaza de Armas, the historical center of the city...and -who knew?- one heck of a party.

A bit headachy, ready for more tea, we set out over cobblestones beneath streaming rainbow banners.