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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hold on to me as we go down this unfamilliar road...

I woke feeling some altitude sickness again. It reminded me sharply of morning sickness, the same nausea and annoyingly helpless sensation of being waylaid by forces completely beyond our control.
Which was lousy. The Quinua staff soon knocked on the door to lay out breakfast for us in our room. A beautiful private breakfast, and I could barely look at it.

waiting in the morning light

I forced myself to drink two cups of Coca tea, averted my face from Mike's usual breakfast. of coffee. The eggs, thinly sliced hams, abundant cascades of fruit, basket of fresh, warm bread, yogurts and cereals went unloved. Mike drank several glasses of freshly squeezed juice to make up for me.
It is a tenant of travel, however, that even if you feel lousy, heck, you're still on vacation and there are things to do and places to see, or is that the other way around. Regardless, you must move your tuchas out of bed.  And it felt better to be out in the clean air of morning, picking our way over the cobblestones, sunshine streaming down from the terraces into the central square below us.
The sky was blue, blue, blue, the blue you can only experience in the mountains where the air thins and heaven is closer. If there is one thing I will remember about Cusco, it is the sapphire blue of the sky, echoed in the paint on shutters and balconies and doors throughout the city.
We were headed for the San Pedro Market, needing gifts to take home, alpaca sweaters and scarves, leather goods and the like. Nora had told us that this was a place to see regardless, and that most tourists never make it there.
Ah, those magic words.
We found the the San Pedro Market  spread out within a spacious, open sort of warehouse, tumbling out the sides, a place where you can get a meal, sort through tables and tables of produce, look over endless varieties of potatoes heaped onto colorful blankets on the cement,
 bring home your daily bread. Enormous rounds of bread. I was tempted to buy one just to see how they were packaged for transport. This was no slim baguette to be slipped into a tote bag along with Hemingway's Movable Feast and some leeks.
Nor was this a sterile supermarket. Mike and I we have always enjoyed going food shopping to see, well, what the locals are actually eating, which gives us a much clearer idea of what a place is really like. Here were fresh foods, and meats as well, lots of meat; every part was for sale and there was none of the coy disguising of more recognisable bits. Nicely, there wasn't too much of an odor accompanying the graphic displays, which made me wonder; however did they have fresh seafood to offer? Cusco is nowhere near the ocean.

There was a Shaman booth, buckets of live frogs (apparently to eat, not for magical or medicinal purposes, but what do I know?) and plenty of things that we simply couldn't identify. Which is part of the fun of travel, now, isn't it?

The finest discovery, however, was a new nominee for "Worst Bathrooms Ever."

Now, you all know that we've been in some interesting excuses for toilets. And that, frankly, we're none too picky. But the public toilets at the San Pedro Markets were truly outstanding in the YE-GODS-did-I-just-catch-a-disease?! department.

We'd hunted them down, those baños, and coughed up our soles for the privilege. The fellow at the door tried to trick me into paying extra, but I politely demurred, having already observed how much the locals paid to enter the facilities. It stank, and the floor was wet, at least an inch deep in places. My already unsettled and mostly empty stomach lurched a little.

There was one big room for all, a channel drain down the center, stalls behind thin wooden doors on either side. Opening a random door revealed a hole in the tiled floor large enough  to do what needed to be done. A sort of bathroom attendant gestured us to free stalls, and flushed the toilets for us first.

Wait, you say, there weren't any toilets.


You are quite correct. The bano attendant fellow "flushed" out the holes by splashing a plastic container of water into them with a flourish, which sloshed some of the contents down. The rest surged out straight at us, down the slant down to the drain, when it pooled and foamed menacingly.

Holy crap! Why had I worn soft leather shoes with openings?! What the hell was I thinking? This is South America for cripe's sake.

Fast footwork saved us, partially, but my feet were soaked. Mike fared a little better in his sneakers.

I was going to burn those shoes, not to mention the socks, as soon as I could get out of them, and disinfect my feet with alcohol. Or bleach. Maybe formaldehyde. That might do it.


Copious amounts of hand sanitizer later we were squelching back to pick up our bags at the hotel and be driven to our plane.

For our final act in Cusco, we forgot to turn in our hotel key to those nice people, resulting in a frantic and apologetic call from us at the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, which is smaller than it's name implies. We left the key, with more apologies, at the mostrador de información. The two manning the desk looked confused as all get-out. We hoped the hotel driver would show up shortly and explain what the turistas had done this time. Then they could all have a good laugh, no real harm done.

Just enough time for a bracing coffee before we borded, thank God.

Except that our flight wasn't listed at any of the gates. What on Earth....?

Monday, September 10, 2012

There is a star in the sky, guiding my way with its light...

Back to Cusco

Up, up the valley, the jungle and river out the tiny hired bus' windows, toward the mountains, a cheerful strawberry air freshener swinging back an forth from the rear-view mirror, fringes dancing happily from a skirted valance across the inside of the windshield, and a varied group of nine passengers swaying back and forth like cattle in a transport van. In the very back a mother had laid her little girl on the floor to sleep on a bright blanket. That made ten.

We weren't more than an hour out when the driver pulled over and parked by a roadside stand. He jumped out and opened the back, and here came uniformed men. Everyone seemed calm about this.


Ah. Policia.

Quite normal, Laura informed us. They were checking to make sure no one was trying to smuggle large amounts of coca leaves. For the manufacturing of cocaine.

I decided to keep my purse and camera with me, and Mike stayed near the bus. It wouldn't do to have to realise a hundred miles down the road that something we care about had gone missing.

The little stand sold water and dried fruits an candy bars and the like. I wondered if they gave a kickback to the policia for having the pull-over site at their business. It would make sense.

Away from the stand, papered with bright Fanta labels, was the baño. Well, papered on the outside, anyway. This was a rugged sort of outhouse, but any port in a storm. The man who reached it just before me opened one of the doors, looked in, made a disgusted noise and waved his hands in front of his face before turning his back and, like the other men, urinated on the ground a few feet away. 

I suppose it was nice that they all turned their backs. Ugh, the ground was wet and squishy. Best not to think about it.

Personally, I thought the inside of the latrines wasn't that bad. A few deep breaths and my nostrils were pretty numb to it, and fresh air was just out the door, after all. I'll bet in summertime it was another experience, but now there weren't even that many flies to bumble up against bare backsides at that most vulnerable moment.

I swear they do that on purpose. Bastardos.

The policia poked around in the luggage a little, obviously weren't all that worried about us, and sent us on our way again.

Laura had recovered from her flu, and continued to be the vivacious, informative guide we had quickly learned to adore. Between entertaining stories and local tidbits, she suggested we exchange emails so we could send each other photos. Great idea, right? So she wrote down the contact information for a Nora Kloppenberg.

Nora. Not Laura. Ach, sheiße! We'd been calling her by the wrong name this entire time.

So we felt like idiots. Not that that was anything new. I just keep hoping we'll get beyond that, grow out of it, or something like that. Then I spent a few miles wondering if our accents are so overwhelming that the difference between the N sound L sounds aren't even noticeable.

Nora didn't even seem to give it a second thought. Which was awfully nice of her.

The little bus continued its yawing winding ascent into the mountains, as trucks thundered down, generally on the other side of the road. The skies got bluer and the air thinner. It became apparent: gradually and mercilessly I wasn't feeling so good.

Headache, nausea, the shakes. Our old friend, altitude sickness. Not pleasant. Not pleasant at all.

We hadn't been able to maintain the doctor-recommended minimum intake of 100 ounces of water daily,  not with little bottles being the only source for safe water. Coffee and beer, well, they really counted against the total, now, didn't the? Should have loaded up on juice, I moaned quietly to myself and put my head between my knees. Felt like a wuss. A rather sick wuss.

Mike and Nora were looking at me with such concern that I waved them away, put on some earphones, cranked up my favorite tunes and concentrated on the music, breathing deeply and well,  going all Zen.

Hey, it worked during childbirth, and it worked here as well. The shaking went away, leaving me queasy and my eyes feeling like they were too big for my skull. This was an improvement.

Now the little bus was zipping along downhill, descending from the mountains, bit by bit. The city of Cusco is still at 10,800 feet, and the altitude ickies ended up staying with me until we flew back to Lima at sea level, but no one hurled this trip, including me.

...and the crowd goes wild.

Long hours later, we pulled up and disembarked into the nighttime of  Cusco. Mike and I had gone back and forth as to what would be an appropriate tip for Nora-formerly-known-as-Laura after taking such good care of us. Far beyond our expectations she continued to play tour guide, telling us stories and pointing out such things as a colony of basket weaver birds in a giant tree alongside the road -I know, I thought they were only in Africa and Asia too, but that turns out not to be true; we saw them with our own eyes.

Her best story was of catching a taxi in Cusco, and the driver, sizing her up, tried to charge her triple the usual amount when they reached her destination. "C'mon, man, " she had said to him in her local Spanish, "I'm no tourist, you know the rate is about such-and-such." Called out on his game, the driver became very angry, spitting insults and shaking his fist, finally getting out and locking her in his taxi. He refused to let her out until, terrified, she gave him all the money.

Nice. This girl, we fervently believe, deserves to be spoiled. So instead of trying to come up with some sort of dollar amount to thank her, we invited her out to dinner. And as she is the local, we asked her to choose someplace special. So, after dealing with a surly taxi driver for us, helping us find our hotel, and offering to pick us up in an hour, we eventually ended up at Cicciolina, a highly atmospheric, romantic sort of restaurant, packed with patrons, and after things like beautiful wine and creamy risotto and some truly impeccable service, we thought we'd still gotten the better part of the deal to be in Nora's lovely company.

Oh, and dessert and tiny cups of espresso. However would we go back to real life?
Nora even took us on a rather-needed after-dinner walk, giving us even more stories about the area, showing us the "mustn't miss" spots, marking up our map for us so we'd know where to find the best local crafts to take home for gifts. We decided that it might be best to adopt her.
Sadly, travel is full of good-byes, and this was simply another one of them. A little choked up, we went back to our hotel, feeling the elevation, our lungs working hard to pull in the dark air, the lights of Cusco below and the stars above, an alley cat streaking through the narrow passageway to our place, faint music from somewhere down in the streets.