November 28, 2004
So, with hugs and kisses, parting ways with Al--who was a tremendous Cuzqueñan hostess, guide, and is an all around cullo-kickin´girl--I made for the 8 hour bus ride to Arequipa. And it´s worth mentioning that though the bus didn´t provide "bed"-like accomodations it had promised with the purchase of my ticket, it was probably the most plush ride I´ve ever had in a developing nation. Not only were our seats comfy, and they did lean back a bit, but we watched Shrek 2 (dubbed in Spanish), were served little snacks of coffee cake, chocolate pieces and candy, and were reminded of our safety precautions. The service assistant, who was all of 22, indulged me in a conversation, entirely in Spanish, I proudly add, about books (he saw that I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran), politics, and inevitably, presidential profiles. At 2 a.m., I caught some z´s, waking only from the lack of heat on the bus and the eventual sunrise over the desert, pinkish mountains of the Arequipa region.
I´ve secured the nicest room I´ve yet enjoyed in all of Peru. It´s got hot water, and--get this-- a towel and toilet paper. I´m the only gringa staying in the place, which makes it all the more interesting. And it´s all of $10. Since I landed at the hostel at 6 a.m., I took a long nap, a (hooray, hot) shower, and found the golden treasure of breakfast foods waiting for me, for sale down the street. The tamale. With two sweet, hot tamales in my tummy, I was ready for action.
Since this morning, I´ve visited the beautiful, neo-classical (read: peach walls and vaulted ceilings) cathedral in the impressive Plaza de Armas, taken a cafecito in the square to watch the Sunday pro-Peru parade pass by, and visited the gorgeous Siena Santa Catalina Monasterio, through which I took a two-hour meditative self-tour. (The 16-c. monastery is built mainly out of a material called silla, which is white, volcanic rock. The silla walls are painted in natural pigments of burnt sienna, royal blue, and light yellow, and the place is dotted with brilliant begonias and other vivid, verdant, thriving plants, alongside fountains and frescoes. They had some sort of baroque, classical music piping through the place as I walked through, which lent to an incredibly moving and pensive atmosphere. This mellow stroll was only broken when I ran into the barbed wire scourges the nuns used for self-flagellation, proudly on display behind glass. Freaky.)
I´ve signed myself up for a personal salsa dancing class tonight, and am about to go peeking around for some rocotos rellenos (yummy, spicy stuffed peppers--an Arequipa specialty). Loving it here in the sunny, hot streets of Arequipa, and not at all wanting to leave tomorrow for the States! Signing off, at home everywhere in the world, your hot tamale, Monica.
November 27, 2004
We enjoyed a nice, long, warm sleep without the threat of being wakened at the crack of dawn for a day of physical extreme. And we enjoyed our "American" breakfasts along the touristy strip, lazily assembling our Peruvian coffees and enjoying the sunny morning. Soon it was time to take ourselves to the natural hot baths.
Except that I didn´t have a bathing suit.
At first, I thought I´d just go a´bathin´in the same soiled (read: expendable) clothes that I´d just spent four days in, but the thought of lugging home a bunch of wet stuff on a long train ride back to Cusco wasn´t appealing.
So I rented one. Yes, I rented a bathing suit. If this doesn´t skeev you out too badly, then read on. Personally, one more day of ick after a few days of camping didn´t bother me at all.
Along the aforementioned touristy thoroughfare to the baths, a number of kiosks--and homes--advertise bathing suit rentals. I procured for myself a faded, stretched-out suit that was probably once red and had little in the way of support. But without a soul to impress, it was fine. I also got a chocolate-yogurt flavored lollypop to enjoy during my soak.
The locals believe that the waters at Aguas Calientes are medicinal; there are brightly colored murals on the concrete wall opposite the baths depicting Pachamama´s (the Incan Mother Nature) contribution to the town in the form of the hot springs. There was a group of mildly handicapped folks from a hospital in Cuzco, holding hands and singing in one of the pools, while their (also handicapped) nurses and fellow patients, who were more severely limited, looked on.
I leaned against a wall, luxuriating in the heat surrounding my muscles, staring at an enormous mountain beyond, watching the clouds settle and roll around it. I even did half an underwater yogic pose to get at the root of the ache in my hips. I breathed deeply, loving the cool breezes that swirled by. I thanked Pachamama.
And then, I noticed something not so right with the water in front of me. In the water, already discolored for it´s elemental composition--which was something like rust-- there floated by a lump of dark hair. And a small piece of tissue. And a blob I couldn´t quite recognize. It was time to get out of the healing waters.
I got dressed, returned to the hot bath and cautiously dipped a leg in, taking up my meditation with the mountain where we´d left off, and sucking on my lolly. After some pleasant conversations with fellow tourists (one of whom convinced me to visit Arequipa, which I will do tonight) and an "American" lunch (during which we three fed an army of biting flies), it was time to catch the train back to Cuzco.
Upon arriving, though, Mark and Al and I weren´t ready to part ways. I was ready to go salsa dancing; Mark and Al were too tired. We settled on a time to meet up for a nightcap. That´s not at all what happened.
For there we were, at a club called Mythology, toasting our Cuba Libres to new friends, shaking our moneymakers and gettin´ jiggy wit it, gettin´down and boogy-oogy-oogy-ing (even visiting another popular hotspot, Mama Afrika), before calling it quits. Who´d have known we´d be bumpin´ behinds to Beyonce, Counting Crows, and the Beastie Boys in this small town in Peru--and after a 28 mile hike, at that? I am somewhere between proud and ashamed to admit that when we left the second club, the sun had risen.
So off I go tonight, an 8 hour, overnight ride to Arequipa. When my legs start getting ancey, I´ll sing a Beastie´s song to myself and hope that muscle memory is more than a myth.
November 25, 2004
Suffice it to say that the Inca Trail was the most difficult and gorgeous hike I have ever undertaken. Of course, reaching Machu Picchu at the end of it made all the agony worthwhile, but you´ll have to wait for the pictures to see for yourself how incredible the place really is.
Here are the stats:
In a nutshell, we began our hiking at meter 82, which rests at 3300 meters (around 10,000 ft.). We only hiked for five hours on the first day, and it wasn't difficult at all. Day two I shall have to explain below, but technically speaking, we climbed to 4200 meters (almost 12,500 ft.), and only started a descent at the place called Wariwañusca, or "Dead Woman's Pass." On day three, we were up and down for seven hours. Finally, we woke on day four at 4 a.m., and after two more strenuous hours' hike, we reached Machu Picchu.
The following is not an exhaustive list, but these helped me survive and enjoy the Incan Trail:
Being in relatively good physical shape is a major plus. On the dramatic ascent to Dead Woman´s Pass, named so for a woman who died there (no lie), the climb literally became a matter of placing one foot in front of the other and breathing rhythmically in between. At that altitude, my muscles were in sore need of oxegen and burned with every movement. (As I made it up the last ten steps, though, Allison was waving and smiling, and a bunch of Brits cheered me on, which totally made the whole ordeal feel like a total triumph. Kind of like Rocky on the steps of the Philly museum with the kids all over him, but much higher, and in Peru.)
I carried a small pack that consisted mainly of two pairs of pants, some tops, rain gear, unmentionables, and mosquito repellent. Luckily, the medical kit wasn´t necessary since our guide carried one (including an oxegen tank) for us. The sleeping bag I borrowed from a friend in Cuzco and the ridge rest that rested on my pack weighed little and were totally manageable. A macho, gabby young man, the lesser half of a 20-year-old Argentine couple who joined us, tried to carry both his own and his wife´s stuff on his back, and he nearly died. The porters wound up carrying his stuff for him, and I think he was a bit emasculated by it. (His wife was too out of shape to try it herself.)
New insoles in my 11-year-old LLBean hiking boots, which luckily I bothered to waterproof before I came down here. Those insoles absorbed the shock of over 4000 steep, vertical steps downward on heavy, tired feet; had I not replaced them, I´m sure I´d have some sort of numbing foot trauma by now. (The boots, however, may have suffered their last hike, and I´m thinking of having them bronzed.)
A fantastic guide named Maria, who is the cutest, most intelligent Peruvian woman ever. She indulged us in the variety of flora through every different climate we walked though, jungle to near-arctic; she shared with us the secrets of the ruins we encountered both on the hike and at Machu Picchu. She taught me some words in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Incans. She laughed with us well into the night, when, after dinner, we weren´t yet ready to go to bed. She encouraged us up and down mountains. I hope to keep in touch with her.
Amazing porters, of which we had six--some were cooks, others had jobs like tent-readying so that when we arrived at our campsite, too weary to move, not only would our tents be set up, but there´d be a snack and hot coffee, coca tea, and cocoa waiting for us. These guys were amazing: they loaded five times the amount of stuff any of us had on our own backs, and passed us, practically running, on the trail. They made three incredible meals a day, including pancake, omelet, and muesli breakfasts, craftily-assembled chicken and rice dishes for lunch, and amazing three-entree dinners. Lunch and dinner was always preceded by a hot yummy soup, for which we were always thankful.
Sarcasm, humor, and wit. They weigh nothing but come in really handy when trying to stay warm in a tent and it´s something like 40 degrees outside, but thank Panchamamma (the Incan name for Mother Earth) that the funniest gal I know was with me on this trip. We laughed our asses off.
So there we three were, in Aguas Calientes, finally having pulled ourselves away from the beer table and moseyed over to a restaurant for a much-needed dinner. We wound up at a down-home, family-run, tiny restaurant where we ordered enough pizza to choke a small llama. As we ate, we naturally started to talk about what we´d been thankful for on our hike. Soon, a large group of people came in, occupying practically the remaining seats in the place. A woman stood to make a speech, which I couldn´t totally understand, and then, a man stood to speak. In a matter of words, he explained to the group how thankful he was, on his birthday, that while he couldn´t be with his family, the people surrounding him now were like family to him, and he was proud and happy to be with them.
I felt exactly the same way. With Allison and Mark at the table, recalling our fondest and not-so-fondest memories of our four days together, I counted myself among the blessed. Kay ñanmin ima sumac puni teqse muyuntumanta: this was the most beautiful hike in the world.
November 21, 2004
Cuzco weather is crazy. One day it´s cold and rainy, the next it´s hot and sunny--and there´s just no way to tell how the afternoon is going to turn out. I am starting to master the art of layering.
Yesterday was cold and rainy. Chilled to our bones, Al and I tromped around town to visit all sorts of Cuzqueña museums, including a folk art museum, the history museum, and a museum dedicated to the Cuzco School, a group of indigeous painters commissioned (or rather, enslaved) by the Spanish conquistadores to paint their religious iconography. The Incan artists were sly enough to subtle images and shapes into the paintings, and either the Spaniards didn´t notice or didn´t care. It´s kind of a hidden language in the art, and it´s fun to look for.
Our afternoon included a miserable but amusing attempt to make brownies for a Allison´s friend´s birthday party last night. You cannot make brownies in a toaster oven, not even at this elevation. Do not try it. We wound up taking the brownie mix, an egg, and some vegetable oil to her as a sorry gift.
The party was a blast; held at Irene´s host family´s apartment, about fifteen of us salsa-ed, toasted, and laughed until about midnight. That´s when dinner--aji de gallina (a strangely yellow chicken dish), rice, and potatoes--was heaped on to enormous plates and doled out as if we´d just returned from an Incan Trial. After a last toast and some lemon pie, a few of us headed out to a totally authentic Peruvian club.
When I say authentic, I mean that Allison, Irene (who is Dutch) and I were the only non-South-American folks in the joint. Imagine a big dive bar with a stage, disco lights, and wall-to-wall people. While the live band (comprised of two singers, a keyboard, and a leggy, scantily-clad dancer) sang and played, I couldn´t help but notice that every single man in the place was dancing. Amazing! Go to any club in Boston and the white guys are standing around, stealing themselves up with drinks, before daring to ask someone to dance. Before I knew it, I was shaking my shoulders and sashaying my hips to the ritmo with a young man from Brazil (who may be on our hike tomorrow). At 2:30, it was time to go--the wine in our heads had spoken.
Today was sunny and gorgeous. Alli and I woke up late and ventured to Pisaq, home to Inca and Pre-Incan ruins as well as a funky, enormous market. If I thought tromping uphill in Cuzco with a water bottle was tough, the Pisaq ruins were a precursor to tomorrow´s adventure. Every ten feet or so, I had to stop (Al darted along, but I think she´s part mountain goat). But it was worth it: the high stone structures just seem impossible. Up, down, and around the hills we went, finding cool structures with each turn. Andenes (terraces), a sun dial, storage spaces for various grains and the like, people´s homes. What really impressed me was the ancients´ allotment for seismic quakes, which happen with some frequency in Peru. Most of their portals and windows are shaped in trapezoids to allow for weight compensation should the earth decide to move. Amazing. And no pun intended here: totally breathtaking.
Just when I thought my legs had had it, there we were at the end of the trail, and aha! The market. We have shopped ourselves silly, but I can´t tell the difference between woollen and alpaca sweaters. There is, after all, a little language barrier here.
So we just spend three hours getting ready for our trip tomorrow, and we´re too knackered to even eat dinner. (I hope this doesn´t bite us back on the trek.) So adios, amigos, until the next installment, post-hike. Cross your fingers and send your good vibes to the Andes Mountains!
November 20, 2004
In Philip Roth´s Goodbye Columbus, he describes perfectly the feeling of breathlessness: Ï was sucking air,¨he says. Ör rather, it was sucking me.¨ This came right back to me the minute I landed in Cuzco, Peru.
For a few moments, it´s funny. You really cannot breathe. You try through your nose and mouth, and then just your mouth, but it´s really no different.
After a joyous reunion with my Peruvian Potato Princess, Allison, who I hadn´t seen since her departure from Boston in August, we got to our hostel and plunked down. I was puffing like an octogenarian. It didn´t help that I hadn´t yet acclimated, was carrying a pack uphill, and hadn´t gone running in a few weeks.
By nightfall, it wasn´t much better. We found ourselves in an Irish bar, of all places, where I tried a local drink called Pisco (Sour), which is a bit like a Peruvian margarita--and I wasn´t sure if someone was actually pressing the sides of my head together while simultaneously trying to crush my lungs, but that´s what it felt like. And I was nauseated.
So this is what oxegen depletion is like!
Today is much better. we just toured some small towns in the Sacred Valley which house Incan and Pre-Incan ruins, which are amazing. All day, I had trouble believing that humans actually made these geometrically-perfect, complex structures entirely out of six ton rocks. The formations are enormous. And uphill. And in mountainsides. Did I mention the lack of oxegen up here?
Luckily, I´ve been introduced to a kind of tea that aides breathing. Apparently, the leaves have calcium and all kinds of vitamins, too, and calories, so this could be my new best friend.
Tonight, we´re celebrating some birthdays with Allison´s friends from her language school. Sorry to be brief, but I´m still kind of out of it. Will write with more verve, hopefully, in the next blog. Hasta la papa!
November 17, 2004
I´ve forgotten my Spanish-English dictionary.
Immediately, I´m scouring the travel section, but it´s void of any translation aides. All I´ve got is my Let´s Go Peru, equipped with a quick phrase locator in its index and my education, which halted three college credits shy of a minor in Spanish. Slinking towards my departure gate, my mind teems with elusive Spanish words, the English translations of which I´m not certain. Is enseñar synonymous with aprender, or am I making that up?
Se me olvido las palabras. (Meaning: I have--literally here--forgotten the words. Rather, as the Spanish passive voice indicates, they were forgotten. It just so happens that they were forgotten by me, and are probably collecting dust in a box in the basement of my parents´new house.)
I´m trying to overhear people´s conversations in an attempt to resurrect the language in my head. Maybe something will spark. But all anyone seems to be saying to their impatient children, who are running around the gate, is the universal ¡No! The gate attendant translates her boarding calls, but she´s virtually unintelligable in both languages due to the static over the loudspeaker.
Once aboard the plane, I had the fortune of sitting next to a nice, middle-aged man who assured me that most people will understand my basic-level Spanish. ¨Relaaaax!¨ he says, waving his hand through the air. In a few minutes, I´m conversing with the people next to me, a family sitting behind me, and a few people a couple aisles over. I am affectionately referred to on this flight as ¨Monica de Nueva York.¨ It isn´t long before my head is swimming in Spanish, and phrases like ¨How long have you been living in America?¨flow easily back into my natural oeuvre.
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We landed at 11:45 p.m. In just over an hour, I was out of customs, out of the airport, and checked into the stunning Spanish-style mansion that is my hostel (there are Italian busts here and there, vaulted ceilings painted in impossible colors, a rooftop restaurant flanked by a garden, the ivy of which curls down a veranda that abutts my room). My driver, Miguel, who coincidentally is another 25-year old (as was my driver in Delhi) asked if I want to walk around the governmental center that is two blocks away. It is lit, guarded by soldiers on every corner, and the city is quiet. Not ready to sleep yet, I conceded.
We walked until 3 a.m. At that point, I was ready to turn in, and turn in I did. In a blink, though, it was 7 a.m.--and the parrots who reside here made sure that I knew it.
So I´ve enjoyed a full day of sightseeing, which began at the Church of San Francisco, around the corner from the hostel. Underneath the sanctuary are catacombs--not for the faint-hearted, let me tell you--into which the bones of hundreds upon hundreds of Franciscan monks have been separated into femurs and skulls, and artfully displayed for centuries to come. Ducking in and out of the caves, I couldn´t help but remember seeing something like this in Italy, when I was 19. The Cappucine monks there had also arranged the skeletons of their predecessors in a way that made me ponder death completely differently. And I´ll never forget the inscription, in Latin, aside the remains: Äs you are now, we once were. as we are now, you once will be.¨ What better reminder to get out and live. I started to get a little claustrophobic, and headed out.
Miguel took me all over Lima today. We went to the beaches, the funky parts of town, and to lunch, where I sampled an interesting beverage called chicha morada, which is made out of corn, and pollo salteado.
More enjoyable than any of this--and Sanjuro will be happy to hear it--I have sampled the local ice cream in a blissful reverie, strolling down a beautiful, bustling pedestrian mall, replete with arcades, restaurants, shops, and kiosks. And the strachiatella is good. Discovering people as new friends, discovering local flavor, and making my world a little smaller.
Tonight´s the big soccer game between Peru and Chile. People have been doing cartwheels in traffic all day, and selling paraphernalia for the game. I´ll be watching from a bar--or hopefully, from the stadium...
I leave for Cuzco tomorrow, where I´ll reunite with Allison. More from there. I am wishing you the best and hoping to hear from you!
November 15, 2004
You will begin by unpacking many items which you carried home with you: your clothes, some lightweight pieces newly bought in the madness of post-monsoon heat, some so worn out that they cannot even be donated; a scarf with Hindi writing; a vintage sari you've brought home for a seamstress-friend; ayurvedic pain balm you purchased, without speaking, at a busy roadside, outdoor pharmacy; socks into which the mud from various hikes have seeped permanently into the fabric; mirrored spinning tops and pens, for children, carefully wrapped in the personals section of a foreign newspaper; regionally-specific spices like cardamom and mustard seeds for your brother-in-law; your purple travel toothbrush; the extra plastic bags you never used as a makeshift wetbag because you forgot that you'd packed them; your sleepsack, for particularly uninviting hostel sheets.
All of these will smell faintly, still, of a country you cannot believe you recently visited. That country is very far away. Virtually no bodily evidence of your ever having been in an exotic climate--such as your tan, your bug bites, nor your heat rash--remains.
You smell these items and remember a rare, chilly night in a hilltown, where a pageant was being celebrated with firecrackers and sparklers in the streets. There was no electricity for a few minutes, and only the long bracelet of candles, sparklers, and women's bangles made for a self-imposed path of light, like diamonds, on the other side of the road. You remember eating dosas and a chick pea curry from an outdoor vendor that night. He teased you about your affluence. You went home feeling shameful and ridiculous that you didn't tip him for taking his snapshot.
While you pile your washable items into the washing machine, you must choose: hot, warm, or cold water? Is the load large, medium, or small? Are your items delicate or durable?
There is no question that your choices now must be the most practical, economical--the most utilitarian. In the country you last visited, washing machines are rare. So is hot water, for most people. You remember watching women twist river water out of the clothes they washed, waist-deep in river water themselves, wringing and wringing every sorry drop from the material and then unforgivingly battering the clothes on rocks to slam every last particle of dirt out of them. You are certain that you witnessed a nearby coconut tree bend and shake with the rhythmic pounding of the clothes.
Notice that you've made four distinct piles of dirty laundry on your floor: darks, lights, whites, and towels. Your mother insists that each of these piles deserves their own cleansing treatment in the washing machine. You remember the sound of clothing being pounded on rock slabs.
You make two piles. Dark items and light items. You are guilty in taking pride in this; you are going to save some water.
In go the dark items. Cold wash. The silk sleepsack, unfurled, curls into the washing machine in a fetal position. You know that discovering the scent of fabric softener in the fibers of the silk, a week from now, in the hills of another foreign country, will give you comfort. Delicate cycle.
Meanwhile, your now empty pack awaits its own restuffing. More piles; these are on your bed. You've counted and recounted the gear. You've assembled lists of last minute items: moleskin, band-aids, travel toothpaste. Film. You always leave this off of the list, awaking at 2 or 3 a.m., the night before every trip abroad you've ever taken and add it, in capital letters, to the last-minute list you made only hours ago.
You see two pairs of dark socks and a few more dark items that could've joined their counterparts in the load that just finished washing. You move them from the bed to the floor. New laundry pile.
The wet, dark clothes go immediately into the dryer. The white items--now joined by lightly-colored and often-washed stuff-- follow into the washing machine. Cold cycle. Delicates. Medium load. The paper-thin, linen shirts you bargained for over two tongue-blistering cups of chai (offered to you while the vendor hoped you'd buy more), sink slowly downward into the basin underneath the soapy water.
Back to the bed. Each piece of gear gets rolled (not folded) into the pack for easy access later. You have room to spare.
Whirring noises from the laundry room assures you into thinking that you're doing everything possible in order to ready yourself for your trip.
Where have you put the copies of your passport? Your eye prescription? Your secret waist pouch? You ponder these items while you make your third cup of coffee in two hours.
While looking for an extra pair of contacts, you decide it's best to boil the bacteria off of your favorite (Hello Kitty) contact case. This is another remnant of home whose familiarity will provide you comfort when you are far away, trying to pry the small plastic lenses from your eyes in a dark tent, on a trail where the indigenous people, thousands of years before you--or plastic--came along, slept where you're sleeping. Without eyewear. Without a canvas tent. Without Japanimated characters to force a smile.
You fire up the burner and put the contact case, and why not, your old, purple travel toothbrush (the one of two you didn't drop on the urinated-upon, aluminium floor of the squat-toilet bathroom on your overnight train ride between cities). You consider the toothbrush your token of fortune. It is your talisman for hygenic luck on your next voyage.
The whirring noises come to an end. The third pile of formerly neglected items bounce into the washer. There is no continuity, save for their sentimental value, to this load: a green, polyester scarf with gold-embroidered patterns; the two pairs of black socks you should've washed earlier; the white t-shirt onto which you absentmindedly spilled your vegetable masala in a kind woman's home (you wore that same, stained shirt when you witnessed the bloodied sari of a traffic accident victim); pants, soiled by Deet around the cuffs. Cold wash. Definitely delicate.
As you fold the recently-cleaned items, which now smell as mountainy-fresh and dewy-clean as the labels promise, you find you've washed away the smells that embodied the most formidable and impalpable moments of your time in the country that is so far away now. How will you remember these moments without the smells there to remind you?
There is a fleece pullover on your bed. When you hold it to your nose, the bitter, sharp scent of oil lamps by which you watched a tabla and sithar concert, on straw mats, on a rainy, rainy night, dances back into your skin.
You roll it up, and place it directly into the pack. This, too, will give you relief when, a few days from now, you'll be another place, very, very far away from home.