Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Saddest Pleasure

This entry heading is borrowed from the title of one of Moritz Thomsen`s books, he in turn had borrowed it from Paul Theroux, the famous travel writer and novelist who, in the novel “Picture Palace” has one of his protagonists state “travel is the saddest of the pleasures”. Naturalist Peter Matthiessen, in the introduction to his book “The Cloud Forest” captures the sentiment to a degree when he writes “. . . I traveled through South America alone, but the solitude was broken . . . by the kindness and hospitality of many people” And of course there lies one of the major pleasures of traveling alone – the opportunity to meet and talk with a stranger, for 5 minutes while waiting for a bus, for an hour sharing a table at dinner, or for a night or even longer if fate should so determine. The sadness comes in the leaving; and travelers are forever leaving, always with a giddness and a foreboding that makes the day of departure one of extreme emotions, emotions that usually even out in favor of the road after the first few hours back on it.

I traveled quite a bit after my Peace Corps service ended in April 2009, much of that time I was not alone but rather lucky enough to be alongside my middle child, my daughter Tatiana. Tia, who was 23 at the time, has a bit of the wanderlust in her own soul, and she had recently been traveling alone for several months in Brazil and Chile. In Brazil she parked for a month in Rio de Janeiro and worked with children in the favelas, and as well began her learning of Portuguese. Even at her tender age, Tia is a veteran of South and Central America, having lived one year in Costa Rica and another in Chile. Her Spanish is excellent, much better than mine, in fact, and she is a great traveling companion. We were to meet April 21 in Cuzco, Peru. I would be coming south from Ecuador, she in turn would be traveling north from Santiago de Chile. For me, or for any father, I should think, it was a wonderful opportunity.

I wrapped up my Peace Corps paperwork in Quito on Monday morning, the 20th of April, and by noon I was a free agent. At 2PM I was on a LanEcuador jet for the short flight to Guayaquil, and later that same evening I flew into Lima, Peru. I had a 05:30 flight the next morning to Cusco, so it seemed to make sense to simply stay overnight in the Lima airport. Some 30-40 people had the same idea, and many were slumped over chairs or tables, others snug in sleeping bags in busy hallways or tucked away in corners. Couples traded shifts, one sleeping while the other kept an eye on the luggage. I spent several hours wandering around the airport, which was very active, and greatly enjoyed one of my favorite activities, people watching. Later I dozed off for a short time while sitting in a chair and later still I found a cozy spot to stretch out in and caught a few good hours of sleep. I was surprised to see that the airport was a beehive all through the night. Flights arriving and departing in the wee hours, restaurants (among them - Starbucks , Papa John`s and Dunkin Donuts) and internet cafes open all through the night, people strolling, talking, eating and drinking , creating an effect that was very much one of a small town with a very transient population.


Lima, the capital of Peru, is a huge city of 14 or 15 million people (more than the total population of Ecuador) located very near the Pacific Coast. Nearly 300 miles southeast as the crow flies Cusco lies nestled in the Andes at about 11,000 feet. Traveling from sea level to the high Andes by bus is a torturous affair of steep switchbacks and deep valleys, and the trip from Lima to Cusco can take anywhere between 22 to 30 hours. Meanwhile, flights are of a very short duration, usually just over an hour. Hence I arrived in Cusco very early, following a lovely hour of flying over snowcapped mountains, cobalt blue lakes and hidden villages. It was a beautiful morning and I had nothing in particular to do, so I decided to walk the several miles from the airport into the center city. The outskirts of Cusco are much like any South American city – bustling, litter filled streets; air grimy with diesel fumes, foul odors of rotting garbage and animal waste, intermingled with the savory smells of roasting meat and baking bread. The air is filled with sound, children singing on their way to school, the insistent honking of traffic, the barking of dogs, and of course the omnipresent blaring of radios and loudspeakers. It is all at once crazy, ridiculous, and wonderful.

I walked for about an hour before realizing that I really had no idea where I was going, so I flagged down a “taxi” which seemed to be operating on only one or two of its 4 cylinders, which was probably a good thing, for by the grating sound of metal on metal each time the driver applied the brakes I don`t think we could have stopped if operating at full power. 20 minutes later we limped into the center of Cusco, and I paid the fare of 3 soles, slightly less than one dollar.

Somehow, that broken down taxi had taken me out of one world, and into another.

Old town Cusco, with its vernacular Spanish architecture built atop Incan ruins, was crisp and clean. There were more Europeans and Americans in the Plaza de Armas and on the streets than Peruvians. There was no blaring music, only a few honking horns, and most of the hustle and bustle focused on the tour busses taking on passengers. I bought a cup of very strong and very sweet coffee along with an empanada from a street vendor and sat on the stairs of the Cathedral to watch. As the minutes passed I noticed more and more the locals moving in and out of the shadows and among the throngs of gringos. Offering tours, jewelry, watches, women and drugs, (you want a pretty girl, meester?; hey jefe, smoke reefer?) they moved quickly and avoided the groups of police chatting here and there amongst themselves. As the morning wore on, there were less gringos, most having departed with their tour groups or else on their way to Macchu Picchu. By mid-morning the majority of people in the square were locals; smartly dressed businessmen or government officials on their way from one office to another, groups of mothers breastfeeding their children, the occasional beggar, and colorfully dressed Indians walking purposefully to who knows where. Besides myself, there were only a handful of extranjeros left on the square and it was almost impossible to believe that just a bit earlier there had been so many. I reluctantly got up and began looking for the nearby Hostal Suecia, where I was to meet Tia in a few hours.

The hostal was easy to find; finding Tia, however, was somewhat more difficult. She was traveling by bus, a horrible 30 hour trip through the desert of North Chile and then the grueling mountains of Peru. She had reckoned her bus would be in Cusco by noon or 1PM. We had no means of contact, so I spent the afternoon wandering around town, and I made sure to pass by the Hostal Suecia II, to ask them if my daughter was there. She was not, of course, and they said that they would point her in the right direction if she happened to show up. Around 6 that evening I still had no word, so I called my ex-wife in the states to see if she had heard from Tia - they were normally in fairly regular contact with one another. She had not heard anything, so I decided just to be patient and head back to the hostal to read a little and wait for her. As I walked in the door of the hostal the elderly dueña greeted me with a big smile and said “señor! Su hija – ella esta aqui!” She had made it – and I found her in our room, sleeping soundly. A little later we went for a long walk through town, it was a beautiful night, chilly and clear, and we found many back alleys and quiet streets to explore while looking for just the right place to have a reunion dinner.

Since we were leaving for Ollantaytambo later the next day, we spent just the one night in Cusco, and took in very few of the customary sights. We did wander through some of the barrios just outside the city center, and there we had our first encounters with the incredible and delicious array of street foods to be found in Peru. Especially good were the rocoto rellenos and the papa rellenos (stuffed peppers, stuffed potatoes). I was surprised to find that the cost of eating in Peru was even cheaper than in Ecuador, and we frequently found lunch or dinner for under one dollar during our 3 week stay. For countries that are thought to be agriculturally backward both Peru and Ecuador have astonishing amounts of food, raw or ready to eat, available almost 24 hours a day, every day. It is usually cheap to very cheap, and it is astonishing to me that there may be a segment of these populations that is going hungry. During my 2 years in Ecuador I did see bad nutrition, and a lot of it, but I never saw anyone who looked to be starving. Likewise for the short 3 weeks we were in Peru. In both countries, however, the soda and candy consumption is truly appalling.
We found the provincial bus terminal and later that afternoon were on our way to Ollantaytambo. There is a large well preserved Incan fortress here, one of the few places where Pizarro and his conquistadores were forced to retreat (but not for long) during the dismantling of the Incan Empire. The town is located in a beautiful valley formed by the Rio Patacancha, and high in the surrounding mountains are the remnants of Incan granaries, lookouts, and storehouses. The town itself is laid out in a very orderly grid pattern, said to be almost identical to the original Incan design. It`s a charming little town, and since we were only staying one night before catching the train to Aguas Calientes we looked forward to our return several days later. That night we wandered off onto some side streets and found a little hole in the wall restaurant where we had a decent meal and a couple of beers, but mostly were entertained by the small monkey and furry little dog who seemed to rule the premises. We hung around the small village square for a little while, then returned to our hostal. The next day we had a train to catch.

There are several ways for travelers to get to Macchu Picchu. Tia and I had considered our options via frequent e-mails and occasional phone calls and ultimately we decided on the train from Ollantaytambo. Neither one of us wanted to expend the time (4 days) nor the effort (30 miles, gaining over one mile in altitude during the first two days) to hike the Inca Trail, although of course it is known to be one of the premier hiking experiences in the world. It was not so many years ago that the trail could be hiked catch as catch can, but due to the incredible numbers of users, in 2001 the Peruvian authorities enacted new policies which restrict the daily number of hikers and require the use of certified guides, which has in turn skyrocketed the price of hiking the trail. Nonetheless, many friends from Peace Corps made the hike, and there was no end to the praise they bestowed upon the experience. I have heard of other trails that will reach Macchu Pichhu, free from fees and regulations, and surely they exist among the myriad footpaths of the region, but these made no difference to us. We knew we would get in plenty of hiking elsewhere during our trip and besides we wanted to ride on the train.
Many who choose to go to Macchu Picchu by train leave from Cusco, and often return the same day. Somewhat fewer visitors will do as we did and leave from Ollantaytambo. We had decided to spend 2 nights in Aguas Calientes, also known as Macchu Picchu Village. The advantage with this plan was clear – we would be able to get to the ruins very early on the day of our visit, and stay very late, way beyond the time most others have left to catch the train back to Cusco. The disadvantage of this plan became clear soon enough – we had to spend two nights in Aguas Calientes.

If you are hiking the Inca Trail, you enter Macchu Picchu through Intipunku, the Sun Gate, a just reward for 4 days of arduous hiking. If you come in by train, you enter through Aguas Calientes, a true nightmare if you happen to be a city planner or are otherwise concerned about safety in the form of fire codes or natural disaster planning. From one end to the other this conglomeration was filled with hastily built hotels, restaurants and gift shops to accommodate the crush of tourists coming to Macchu Picchu. Even though it appeared that every square inch of the place had been occupied, the construction continued unabated, upward. Older buildings that surely once upon a time had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains now sat in the shadows of new construction. Hawkers hounded us (and all the rest of the tourists) every step we took – “pizza meester!! 22 soles!!”; “pizza meester, y dos pisco sours, 20 soles!!” If you were to hang around long enough, these guys would offer the sun the moon and the stars just to get you inside their particular establishment.

Nevertheless . . . the trip up from Ollanta had been lovely; we hugged the banks of the Rio Urubamba and passed through small villages, ancient agricultural terraces and the occasional ruin before pulling into Aguas Calientes. The train was almost entirely comprised of gringos, and as they all disembarked and streamed off in one direction Tia and I looked at each other and immediately set off in the opposite direction. We followed some arrows painted on sides of buildings that pointed uphill and said “emergencia” and we happened upon a small hostal that had beds available and looked perfectly acceptable. Thinking that the arrows indicated escape routes in case of fire burning the entire town to the ground I asked the proprietor of the hostal to explain. It turns out that frequently enough there are flash floods on the Rio Urubamba, and the arrows indicate the way to safety. We found them all over town as we later wandered around. We ate an early dinner (pizza, and 4 pisco sours, 20 soles) and we turned in early as well. In the morning we would take the first bus at 05:30 to Macchu Picchu and we planned to spend all day there.

Now, I must admit that I was fully prepared to be totally underwhelmed by the ruins at Macchu Picchu, having seen hundreds of photos and having read various accounts by other visitors. I was treating this journey as one of those obligatory things that “one must do” while in South America. So, imagine my surprise, as we climbed past the entry gates and entered the ruins through the agricultural sector, when my breath was taken away –immediately- by what lay before us. The effect was heightened by the early morning fog and mist, which lifted from time to time to reveal both the stunning 360 degree landscape as well as the ruins themselves. I could try here to describe it, but I would rather turn again to Peter Matthiessen, again from “The Cloud Forest”.

----- “The ruins at Macchu Picchu have been described in detail, ineffectually, by any number of writers, including myself . . . one must see the place to comprehend it, and that is that. Like all the rest, I find it a formidable spectacle, unforgettable . . .” ----

We did spend all day there, and we must have walked at least 25 kilometers as we climbed up and down paths and wandered to the Sun Gate, the Incan Bridge and anywhere else we chose to go. It was wonderful to have such easy and free access to any nook and cranny we thought looked interesting. In the morning there were tourists everywhere, yet the place is large enough to accommodate them all, and it was easy enough to stay away from the large groups and their guides. By 2PM the ruins were all but empty, and the few of us who lingered enjoyed several hours of peace and solitude until well into late afternoon when the closing signals sounded. It is interesting to me that no none truly knows the story of Macchu Picchu – why was it built, who lived there and when, and for how long, and why was it abandoned? There are many theories, of course, but it`s great to know there are still mysteries in this world.

As we headed down the hill in the fading light to the last bus of the day we wished we had our sleeping bags so we could stay overnight (prohibited of course) and do it all over again tomorrow. But maybe that would have been gilding the lily, too much of a good thing. We agreed that it had been a wonderful, and likely once in a lifetime, experience, and left it at that.

There was one other mystery, very minor, at Macchu Picchu that we will never know the true answer to. Around mid-morning, while we were alone up in the ruins, a small dog had wandered up to us, literally coming out of nowhere. Someone (?) had painted his face, circles around the eyes, etc. He was quite unlike other South American dogs I have met, in that he was neither bravo nor timid – just a nice little dog with a normal amount of curiosity and friendliness. We gushed over him, played a little, and tried to figure out where he had come from or if he belonged to someone. No luck, there was no one else around. We eventually left him, perched on a rock high above the Rio Urubamba. Later that same night, miles and miles away back in Aguas Calientes, there he was again, on the square, and without a care in the world. It would be appropriate to the place to believe that he was an ancient spirit, wandering through his territory; and I suppose, just this once, that I can go with that.

We returned by train the next morning to Ollantaytambo. We stayed for a few hours and once again we were charmed, but we wanted to see more of the sacred valley and decided to move on. We jumped on a bus bound to the town of Urubamba, and then had a moto-taxi take us from the bus station into town. Neither one of us was particularly smitten with Urubamba, not to mention that every hostal we looked into was giving us the “full gringo” which was our term for ridiculously inflated prices. We meandered through town for an hour or two, and on our way back to the bus station we came across a remarkable market – mounds and mounds of all kinds of fruits and vegetables, dozens of vendors, and several food stalls with some pretty great looking chow – the only thing missing were clients. There was almost no one shopping here, despite the activity out on the streets. Most markets I have seen are packed, jam packed, all day long. I do not have any idea why this one was so empty. I thought to ask, but the vendors appeared to be so bored and forlorn that I did not want to say anything that would cause them to think even more about their mala suerte. We bought a few snacks to take on the bus with us, including some very delicious pastries, and we headed off to Pisac.

Pisac turned out to be just what we were looking for, and we stayed 2 nights there. A small town, not quite “quaint”, but real close. The road in from Urubamba had provided spectacular scenery, lush agriculture, and for Tia a great opportunity to nap. As she slept I remembered to years back when my kids were younger and how, when we would travel, I would always nag them to “look!! Look out the window!! Look at that field of (corn; melons; cows; sheep; etc.)!! Look at the (moon; setting sun; stone house; lake; etc.), isn`t it pretty?” and on and on and on. This time I resisted the overwhelming temptation to wake her – it was not the first spectacular scenery we had seen in Peru and it would not be the last.
In Pisac we did almost nothing for 2 days, and it was great. We had found a great little hostal up the hill from the town plaza, just enough away from the hub-bub of the market that seems to go on day after day after day. Jewelry, ceramics, clothing, shoes, more jewelry – it boggles my mind as to where all this stuff comes from. We asked some vendors about it and we were told that ALL of it is made “by hand” by “local artisans”. With a little probing we learned that what “by hand” meant was a little like opening a frozen pie crust and a couple of tins of cherry pie filling, baking it, and then saying you had made it “from scratch”. “Local artisans” seemed to include every man, woman and child who spent every spare moment working piecemeal putting together jewelry, stringing beads, spinning yarn or knitting mittens. I am still skeptical, however. The sheer volume of these goods to be found in Peru, in Ecuador, and elsewhere leads me to think that there must be factories somewhere pumping this stuff off assembly lines by the tens of thousands. I hoped I was wrong as I bought knick-knacks and jewelry to take back to friends and relations in the states.

Pisac was surrounded by colorful fields of amaranth and quinoa, small seeded grains known for their high nutritional value. I wandered through some of the fields trying to attract the attention of a farmer who might be able to tell me how it was marketed and processed, but succeeded only in gathering a string of beautiful and dirty children who wanted me to speak English – “como se dice `Klever` (a boy`s name) en ingles?” “como se dice bicicleta en ingles?” or they would shout out “whan! du! dhree! forr! – khat! dohg! hiello!” I encouraged them to keep practicing, taught them how to say “see you later” and walked back to town.
Much of Pisac was closed off to car and truck traffic, which kept the air free of diesel fumes and made walking a pleasure. Although there was no “spectacular” architecture to be found, here and there were casitas carefully built of mud and straw, embellished with embossed designs of agricultural implements, human hands or faces, and astrological symbols. The streets were mostly built of stone pavers, carefully laid out in attractive designs and many had narrow channels of stone running through the centerline which carried water in order to clean the streets. At the head of some of the channels were elaborate representations of serpents or jaguars opening their mouths to receive the water. As in Ollantaytambo, we were charmed by Pisac, and it is one of the many towns we encountered throughout Peru that we could easily imagine spending many weeks, months, or years in.
Alas, this time around we had only a few days, and all too soon we were on our way back to Cusco, or more specifically the main bus terminal, where we were hoping to catch a bus to Puno, 7 hours away on the edge of Lago Titicaca. Normally, it can be somewhat overwhelming to enter an unknown bus station in any country, especially if the moment you enter you are surrounded by dozens of aggressive men shouting out possible destinations – “Lima, Lima, Lima, venga señor!” or, Arequipa!! Venga, mi reina (addressed to Tia), venga, amor!” On this particular day, though, we could not have been luckier, for as we were walking through the gates from the street, a big beautiful bus was just leaving, and we got a shout of “Puno!! Puno!!” We quickly negotiated a price and hopped on. After more than two years of overcrowded and uncomfortable busses in Ecuador I thought I had died and gone to heaven; we were in one of Peru`s famous “bus camas”, a mammoth double decker with normal bus seating upstairs and spacious “VIP” type reclining seats in the lower section, and two of those beauties were ours. We got comfortable and settled in for the relatively short trip to Puno, reluctantly leaving the sacred valley of the Incans and headed for the altiplano.

I have posted a very disorganized bunch of photos of this part of our trip at this site:

(Next entry – more of Peru)


Anonymous said...

Wow...you need to write a book!

Anonymous said...

Either write the book or try out out for the travel channel and get paid for it! How about a traveliing agriculurual show, eh? Brian S.