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The Peru Chronicles: Day 1 and 2

July 31, 2012
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I’ve wanted to visit the rainforest since I was a little girl, enchanted by descriptions of lush foliage and endangered animals that can be seen nowhere else. Although I haven’t focused on “saving the rainforest” in my activism since I was about 10, the idea has floated in the back of my head the entire time. With adult responsibilities starting to weigh us down and not having traveled in a long time, Chris and I decided to travel to fulfill my childhood dream. That’s why I was out-of-pocket for two weeks, having just returned from Peru this past Saturday. Having seen so many amazing things, I’ll be chronicling my trip for the next few weeks.

Our journey began at 3:50 PM from Dulles National Airport, where our first flight of three that day took off. After a surprisingly comfortable 5 hours – we lucked out with the emergency exit aisle – we arrived at the San Salvador airport, which has surprisingly narrow hallways and a plethora of duty-free shops. At our next stop of Lima, we were pleasantly surprised to see how many stores and restaurants were open at 1 AM, which slightly softened the blow of needing to hang out there for another 4 hours between flights. After managing to squeeze in another hour or so of sleep, we finally took off for Cusco, Peru, our end destination.

At the bizarrely unheated airport, we had the fun experience of being met by someone holding a sign with our names on it. Driving through Cusco, and the next day, driving out, I noticed a few things about the city. The thing I found most striking was the level of poverty, or lack thereof. Most areas didn’t seem to be that much worse than the poorest areas of D.C. The one road we drove down reminded me of D.C.’s Georgia Ave, with its mix of small convenience stores selling random food (a surprising number of Chinese places) and decrepit abandoned buildings. Further out, the housing stock declined more, with a lot of cement block, brick, or stucco buildings with corrugated tin roofs, but they were still houses. But we didn’t see the devastating poverty with rows of cardboard shanties that I had heard about in other South American countries. Similarly, the vehicles we saw weren’t all that old. While there were a few old Beetles, we saw a lot of relatively new cars, especially Toyota Venzas. Even the public infrastructure seemed to reflect a much higher functioning government than other developing countries. The roads were in good shape, with speedbumps, a sign that the government considers the safety of its citizens. The bus stations were fairly well-marked and there was even a newish-looking pedestrian bridge over the road to the train station.

The one particularly odd thing was that there were a number of half-finished buildings, with rebar sticking out of the top. It looked like the owner either decided the top floor wasn’t necessary. According to our guide later on, Peru’s improving economic situation meant that people would save up a little bit of money, build a story or two onto their house, and run out of money. Then they’d save up money for a few more years and finish it off!

Arriving at our B&B, our lovely host served us coca tea, which supposedly prevents altitude sickness. While the air starts getting thinner at 8,000 feet, Cusco itself is at 11,000 feet, making altitude sickness a real concern. The coca tea is made from coca leaves, which can also be processed into cocaine. However, just steeped in water, it’s a pretty mild stimulant. The tea also helped cut the chill, as the hotel was a set of rooms organized around an open courtyard. Even the rooms themselves didn’t have central heating, instead being equipped with electric heaters and five layers of blankets on the bed.

The view from our hotel room.

Also on the “unexpected social norms” front, we quickly found out that even urban Peruvian plumbing is rather different from the U.S. While everything looked the same, signs informed you that you had to throw your toilet paper in the garbage can rather than the toilet. I’m not sure if the individual plumbing actually is that delicate or if the entire sewage system isn’t suited for that level of solid waste. Then, when you went to wash your hands, you quickly realized that there was no hot water in the sink. Brrr.

At the hotel, I also realized how large the language gap Chris and I had. We bought Rosetta Stone software to learn Spanish about three years ago, when Chris worked for a company where everyone except him and the sous chef had Spanish as a first language. He made it much further than I had on the software and learned quite a bit through work. While I was helpless, he could actually comprehend and communicate quite a bit, so long as the person he was speaking went slow and used fairly simple words. As a result, Chris did most of the talking, a unique phenomena in our relationship. It felt odd to be completely reliant on him for communication. On the other hand, I was proud of how well he was doing.

Heading out into Cusco itself, we found a city with narrow, winding streets, dignified stone buildings older than anything in North America, and an eclectic array of businesses. The streets reminded both of us of Barcelona, except that the cars in Cusco go down anything that doesn’t have steps. Drivers thoroughly ignored the ubiquitous “no honking” signs to let pedestrians know “Get the hell out of the way!” There were sidewalks, but most were very narrow, barely enough for one person. There were plenty of cheesy tourist traps, but there were also shops selling beautiful alpaca wool sweaters, artisans selling modern paintings, and sneaker stores that could be found in super-trendy NYC neighborhoods.

There were a number of quirky restaurants and cafes, many of them offering a fusion of Asian, European, and South American food that reflects modern Peruvian culture in some ways more than a place that served strictly traditional fare. The one restaurant we went to had both a full English breakfast on the menu with sausages as well as taquinos filled with quinoa. Both Chinese-Peruvian and Italian-Peruvian are common combinations. We even happened upon a traditional market, with piles upon piles of fresh fruit and veggies – some of which I didn’t recognize – next to hanging chunks of red meat. Judging from the menus around, I’d say that there was probably both lamb and cuy (guinea pig) represented.

The other major characteristic I noticed on the street were the large number of wandering dogs. Unlike typical street dogs, they all appeared to be well-fed and groomed, albeit as dirty as you would imagine dogs would get hanging out in the street. From both my observation and accounts from others, almost all of them have a home to return to. Most of them also seemed to be friendly, with none growling or bearing teeth at people wandering by. A number of times they wandered into restaurants or cafes with waitstaff or patrons shooing them out. They seemed to be adorably street-smart in a way modern dogs in America aren’t, and reminded me of Oliver and Company or Dave Eggers’ “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,”.

We wandered down to the main plaza, where they appeared to be having a celebration. Things hadn’t kicked off quite yet, so we slipped into the Cathedral to catch the end of Mass. Because it was full of tourists, they didn’t hand out the full Eucharist, and instead blessed everyone with holy water. Outside, the celebration was picking up, with a number of military folks out in uniforms, along with a set of girls and boys in specialized outfits holding flags. Six members of what seemed like the city council, including a nun, did a flag raising ceremony for both the Peruvian flag and Quechua flag, which represents the native people descended from the Incas and other indigenous groups. Decorated in stripes to represent the Inca’s reference for the rainbow, it has a surprising similarity to the gay pride flag, but has one additional blue stripe.

Unfortunately, while wandering around, I started to feel quite nauseous. By the time we got to a restaurant, my stomach was turning inside out. I tried drinking more coca tea, but it soon became apparent that my stomach had decided it was going to stop processing liquids. After unpleasantness at the restaurant, I barely made my way back to the hotel. Apparently my body had decided to teach me a lesson after I claimed earlier in the day that altitude sickness clearly wasn’t anything to worry about. I was violently ill for much of the night and wracked with chills, like an awful bout of the flu. I stayed in bed and watched Monsters Inc. in Spanish, while Chris went out and got me medication. Although I hadn’t wanted to take the medication, which is probably illegal in the U.S., I was sort of willing to try anything that would 1) make me feel better and 2) not ruin our entire trip. The only real solution for altitude sickness is to descend down, but as Cusco is on top of a plateau. Relieving my symptoms temporarily while my body adjusted was close enough for me.

While he was out, Chris watched probably the most spectacular and dangerous fireworks display he’s ever seen. Peru apparently isn’t really into “safety laws.” The locals gathered up a huge thatch of wooden poles, constructed towers out of them in the square near our hotel, and then proceeded to attach heavy-duty spinning sparklers to those towers. Upon being lit, the fireworks shot off cascades of sparks in every direction. They weren’t exactly careful about the placement of the towers either – sparks were landing on building roofs, cars, and the square itself.

Cusco Fireworks

The party continued into the night, despite us trying to sleep. The band played loudly in the square, accompanied every five to ten minutes or so by a very loud firework. As Chris said, “Welcome to Beirut.” Every time a firework went off, the dogs all started barking, with some of them in time with the music! Thankfully, I was so tired that I finally fell asleep to the sounds of chaos.

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