Notes from Peru: #3

I’ve always loved my city, but I’ve felt for years that I love cities in general. Urban life is continually exciting, even after years or decades. A walk down any busy street is a new experience, no matter how many times you’ve walked that street before. And big cities are great because they have a lot of streets.

I chose to spend most of my summer in Lima because it’s a big city: with around eight million residents, Lima is as large as New York.

The city has boomed in recent decades because of terrorism in the Peruvian countryside that drove a mass migration to the capital during the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1980 and 2000, the city tripled in size.

Really, though, I chose Lima because it met four criteria. I wanted to go to South America, and to a Spanish-speaking country. I decided I wanted to be in a large, capital city, where there would be lots of people and cultural offerings—new things to do for two months. I wanted to go somewhere safe. And, this being summer vacation, I wanted someplace warm enough to remind me that it is summer, at least at home. I began with a list of half a dozen cities: the capitals and other large cities of Spanish-speaking countries in South America. Those in the north were eliminated because of security concerns, and those in the south were cut because of weather. Lima was left, and to Lima I went.

As I wrote earlier, the trip didn’t begin with a lot of excitement. And though I was able to calm early concerns, I never managed to break out of all the habits I wished to break. Over two weeks in Lima, I spent most of my time in only a few places, and I had more than passing interactions with only a handful of people. The Spanish classes I began in my second week got me out of the apartment all morning and were worthwhile enough. The increased comfort with the language I felt after only one day of class stuck with me, even though I didn’t learn anything more the rest of the week. I enjoyed my teachers and the other students, but I was happy to be done after a week.

Each afternoon I toured the city on my own or retreated to pass the time privately. I saw some sights, including a couple beautiful churches, but otherwise I read a lot, wrote some emails, and worked out a plan for my upcoming travel. I returned to the apartment by mid-afternoon or dinnertime, and I spent evenings with my computer. Google Reader prevented me from missing any national news from back home, and friends kept me updated on local and personal developments. And I waited for my sister to arrive so we could head off together. Over two weeks in Lima, I didn’t experience much because I didn’t let myself. I found it difficult to go out socially on my own, and without an occupation during the daytime, it was easy for me to pass days without doing a lot. I looked forward to the next stage of my trip, since it would be two weeks of company, travel, and new experiences.

My sister and I left Lima seven days ago. Since then we’ve spent time in five towns and cities and, simply by being tourists, we’ve seen many of the wonders of Peru. After a day together in Lima, we left for Pisco, about four hours down the coast. Pisco is a small town that lends its name to the national drink and which serves primarily as a stopping point for tourists heading to the Islas Ballestas and the Paracas National Reserve. The town would be almost nothing without the money that comes in from abroad, and today, it is literally almost nothing. A massive earthquake last August reduced much of the town to rubble. Ten months later, many streets are still torn up and nearly half the buildings near the center of town are still visibly damaged. The physical destruction clearly devastated the town, but it didn’t seem like a sad place when we visited. Remarkably, people went about regular activities as they stepped over wreckage, walking down streets that cars can no longer travel. I don’t know anything about Pisco, but I imagine that few towns could recover so well from such a tragedy. Tourism dollars keep Pisco running, and the earthquake did little to stop the flow of revenue. We met a young British couple as we got off the bus at Pisco, and we followed them to the hostel where they were staying. Though they left the hostel (too many mosquitoes in their room), we stayed and spent the night there after walking through the town some, grabbing dinner at a “restaurant” on an empty lot near the main square, and picking up a delicious desert of bread and pastries. We watched Bill Richardson give an interview on Spanish TV and we watcher a bunch of Pirates of the Caribbean—in Spanish, of course.

The next day we toured the local attractions. The Islas Ballestas (sorry, no English link) are several islands a few miles off the coast where thousands of birds and at least a few sea lions entertain tourists. The birds serve another important function: over thousands of years, they have left astonishing amounts of guano, which Peru has harvested for decades to use as natural fertilizer. The smell wasn’t too bad, the animals were fun, and somewhere beyond our sight the ocean and sky met seamlessly. More remarkable than the ocean meeting the sky, however, is the ocean meeting the desert, as it does in the Paracas National Reserve. I would never have believed such a phenomenon was possible, but along much of the Peruvian coast a thin desert reaches literally to the water’s edge. We especially enjoyed the day because we shared it with another American, a rising senior at Michigan who’s taking three months this summer to backpack through six or seven countries in South America. Braver than us, he was also very funny and seemed to appreciate the company after so much time on his own. We exchanged email addresses and parted ways as we continued down the coast to different destinations.

My sister and I took a bus that evening to Nazca, which we found to be even more tourist-driven than Pisco. Nazca, once the home of a pre-Inca civilization, exists today only because of a relic the Nazca people left behind. Since the Nazca Lines were discovered about seventy years ago, they have drawn tens of thousands of tourists a year to the town and into the air above it. We set out to join the others. A four-person Cessna took us for a half-hour ride that beat any rollercoaster in excitement and nausea. As we passed the huge shapes in the sand, the pilot turned the plane onto its side for better views, turning first to one side, then to the other. As we twisted, turned, and bumped through the air, my body nearly exploded as I tried to keep down the previous night’s dinner. I held a plastic bag, even as I also held my camera, and I found myself sweating through much of the ride. But despite my sickness and the hefty price tag, the ride was worthwhile. The lines are intriguing and the views from the sky were our first glimpses of the magical mountains that we’ve since seen around other Peruvian towns. We spent the rest of the day in the town of Nazca, which is equal parts Inca and Disney, and which lacks the charm of either one. Apparently the twenty-two hours we spent in Nazca are more than most tourists give the town as they pass through. 

We left in the evening, taking an overnight bus south to Arequipa. An overnight trip, we thought, would be a good way to pass nine hours on a bus. And it wasn’t a bad idea, except for two problems. We sat in the front row of the upper floor of the bus, and the panoramic view became a problem as soon as the sun came up. But tougher to sleep through were the movies that played both at night and in the morning. The speakers blasted Spanish audio to American movies until midnight, and then cartoons beginning at about 6:00, timed nicely with the rising sun. When we got into Arequipa, we picked a hostel but switched to another when our taxi driver told us that the one we chose was surrounded by “the red light district, drugs, prostitutes, thieves, criminals.” At our new, more expensive, and supposedly safer hostel, we slept all morning and well into the afternoon. We went out that evening to get food and see the city some, but then crashed early. The overnight bus ride had destroyed us.

We saw Arequipa more the second day we were there. I need to learn much more about the city, because I’m still baffled that an Andean city can seem so European. Balcony cafes surround the main square, and the city’s distinctly un-Quechuan architecture reminded me more of smaller cities I’ve seen in Europe than anything I’ve seen in Peru, or anywhere in the Americas. Arequipa is the second-largest city in Peru and has a strong local identity. (An Arequipan passport that residents once used to try to assert some independence from Lima and the country remains today as a novelty.) We enjoyed a trek to a nearby suburb and a lookout over the city, and we spent an hour in the Santa Catalina Monastery, a huge convent with a libertine history that is one of the city’s main tourist attractions now that nuns occupy only one wing. And that night we met up with a college friend of mine who is also in Peru for the summer. We heard about his adventures in Tacna, where he was stuck for a week due to mining protests that blocked the only road north from the city. Over drinks we watched the sun set beyond the gorgeous mountains visible just beyond the city.

To get to Cusco that night, we screwed up a second time by taking another overnight bus. Different seats helped with the light and quieter movies helped with the noise, but the ride was still painful. For the first time on the trip, we had a reservation at a hostel before we arrived, since we had feared we might not get a room when we arrived. Tuesday is the Inti Raymi festival—the festival of the sun—an annual event in and around Cusco that apparently attracts thousands of visitors to the town this week. But, thanks to a German we met in Nazca who now lives in Cusco, we were able to get a cheap room at a hostel near the center of town. We arrived at the hostel before 7:00, got our room quickly, and slept for the rest of the morning. When we got up again, we went out for lunch and walked around some. We stopped by the South American Explorers clubhouse here and bought tickets for trains to and from Machu Picchu (no Inca Trail this time—we don’t have the time or the courage for such a trek now). We both began feeling worse as the day went on, so we turned in early. But we couldn’t go to sleep for a while. All day there had been music playing, and at night the festivities grew louder. Music and singing floated from the main square, only three blocks from our hostel. And at around 10:30, fireworks began going off directly above us. With the rockets whistling and exploding loudly and ash blowing into the room, I felt as if we were under fire. But it was just a big party throughout the city. The music continued, and the singing and shouting grew louder. I stepped outside the room briefly (mountain nights are cold!) to watch the fireworks. Eventually we got to sleep, but when we woke up, the music had returned.

For what seemed like hours before I got out of bed yesterday morning, I heard music and shouting. I figured there were more activities in the square, and when we got up we headed over there. We arrived hours into a parade, and there were still thousands of spectators and participants filling the square. Group after group passed: schoolchildren in uniforms, dancers in traditional Inca clothes, and even a military squadron. We went to a restaurant overlooking the plaza and watched the parade as we ate. Unfortunately, just as we were going to begin exploring Cusco for real, minor tragedy struck. My sister is allergic to nuts, and she took one wrong bite of a piece of pie. Within seconds she said she was feeling a reaction and within minutes we were rushing out of the restaurant to find a doctor. We got the name of a clinic from our waiter and raced there in a cab. We dashed into the clinic, saying only, “Reacción alergico!” to the receptionist, and they took us in immediately. After a brief examination, they admitted her to the hospital, where nurses hooked her up to an IV. We spent the rest of the day at the hospital—or, rather, she did. I went out in the evening for dinner and to get some things from our hostel. As I walked to get dinner, I saw groups of young people dancing in a small plaza. There were maybe ten groups, each dancing in unison to drum music. I stopped briefly to watch and listen before returning to the hospital. I figured they were probably preparing for their parts in the festival in a couple days, but I didn’t know for sure. And, with music and festivities from morning to night, this is either the best week of the year in Cusco, or Cusco is the best city on earth. I’ve never felt so much constant energy and fun throughout a city. Meanwhile my sister remains in the hospital, still connected to the IV, in case bad stuff is still in her system. She’s supposed to be let out of the hospital this afternoon. I think she’s enjoying Cusco, too, though.

We’ve been traveling for a week now, and we have just under a week left together. We’ll see the festival on Tuesday, go to Machu Picchu on Wednesday, then return to Lima on Friday, before my sister flies home on Sunday. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I expect the rest of the trip to be a great time, too. I’ve enjoyed spending so much time with her, since we haven’t had this much time together in two years. And though we haven’t gotten along perfectly, we’re handling this trip as adults, an exciting new reality that wouldn’t have been possible even a year ago. And, though I didn’t see it before, getting out of Lima was necessary for me. Seeing more of Peru and traveling between cities and towns has given me a comfort here that I didn’t gain over two weeks in the capital. Traveling in South America, even on well-traveled tourist routes, is exciting and far from easy. I woke up one morning with four-dozen bites from a bed bug (no mosquito this one—the bites extended down my torso and to one leg). We’ve gone to sleep under five thick blankets the past few nights, since hostels in the Andes don’t have heated rooms. And seeing each tourist attraction involves a minor adventure, since there are few reliable tourist offices and many, many tour companies ready to sell every experience we’re looking for.

As for my grander thoughts about the summer, this week of traveling has been an unexpected blessing in other ways. I now understand why I had been warned about spending two months in Lima: though there’s nothing wrong with the city, the powerful and new experiences are to be had in the rest of the country. I’ll have to figure out how to manage July, but I now expect I’ll travel for several weeks. Was I wrong about cities? No, but I wasn’t thinking about everything I would want from this trip. Lima may not be New York, but it’s a lot closer to what I know than even the smaller, touristy cities I’ve seen recently. A cousin of mine (on my mom’s side, meaning the relation is questionable) is returning soon to Peru, where she spent time in the Peace Corps, and I may travel to the northern part of the country with her. And friends, or friends of friends, or new acquaintances are spread throughout the country, so I may use other people as excuses to see places I haven’t been, or to return to favorite spots. My traveling will be limited, however, by appointments I’ve made and would like to make in Lima, as well as my obligation to the fellowship that sent me here. While some modification of my project is acceptable, I need to mostly fulfill my project description or come up with something better.

And although I’ve been away, I’ve thought regularly about people back home. My parents may be made uncomfortable by the ease of twenty-first-century communication, but I am happy to be able to send and receive emails as often as I want. I’ve stayed in touch with friends and family, and I’ve been able to hear how friends’ summers are going. It’s been truly exciting to hear from people having their own adventures, either in countries around the world or in new jobs at home. I’ve appreciated that travel blogs that some have kept, and I’ve very much enjoyed the personal letters and email chains that dominate my correspondence during the school year and which have luckily continued through this summer. If you’ve written to me, thanks.

I had hoped to write this update earlier, but I’m allowing myself delays. I’ll try to have the next installment up within a week or so, but more important is that I have experiences worth writing about. When I do, I will.

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