Notes from Peru: #4

Don’t worry, my sister got out of the hospital fine. She was released after thirty hours, when they finally took her off the IV, replacing the drip with nine days of pills and a laundry list of foods to avoid. The affair was first scary, then aggravating, and luckily—finally—over.

She was released on the 23rd, and the 24th is Inti Raymi, the annual Inca festival of the sun. My sister remarked that we Americans don’t get nearly as excited for our annual holidays as the Cusqueños seemed to be for Inti Raymi, and I tried to explain the discrepancy by arguing that we have New Year’s, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and how many religious holidays, so we split our holiday excitement over half a dozen days throughout the year. Inca-loyal Peruvians, on the other hand, have one major event. I was happy to share my expert wisdom on the differing importance and nature of public celebration across cultures. My mathematical answer showed how little either of us knew about the phenomenon occurring around us.

The music, parades, and dancing, I learned from a cab driver, last the entire week before the festival. I never learned, however, if the there are other major Inca holidays, or why Cusqueños devote a week of celebration to the sun festival. I thought Inti Raymi might fill the knowledge gaps I didn’t bother to fill myself.

We were told the festival had three parts, and we would need a guide to take us to each. We paid $35 each for the cheapest guide we were offered. Other deals went up to $150 a person for, I imagine, better food and (actually important) bleacher seats near the main event in the mountain outside Lima. We didn’t pay for the seats, so we knew we would sit on the hills with locals and other cheap tourists. But we had no idea what else to expect, not even what would be in our “boklonch.”

It was good we didn’t pay more, because, as it we did it, we only paid $70 to have no idea what was going on. After waiting over an hour in the morning for something to happen, we saw the first event: thousands parading in traditional Inca clothes, which we got to watch from the immediate sideline. The parade was, like the rest of Cusco this week, colorful and musical and fun. After a bus ride up into the mountains outside the city, we waited again, watching an empty stage from afar. The “stage” was a roped-in field about the size of a baseball infield, and we were probably a third of a mile away, tucked into the hills around the field’s small valley. In our line of sight were thousands of Peruvians. They had come equipped with food, drink, candy, and lots of running kids. We couldn’t see the stage when we sat, and public pressure was sufficient to keep us from standing. Not that it mattered, since nothing happened for hours. Then a show began. We heard spectators make noise. We saw the paraders now march down through a pass in the mountain, into the stage. And then something happened for the next two hours. Sometimes a man spoke in Quechua over the loudspeakers. At times some people danced. And mostly a lot of people stood around in costume. This was the big festival everyone was waiting for? We were clearly missing something. More likely, we were missing everything. And we no longer cared. By the late afternoon, my sister and I bet on how much longer we would be there. We left earlier than I expected, so she got to decide where we ate dinner. Neither of us was disappointed there was no third event.

The next morning we left Cusco for Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes, the fake town set up next to Machu Picchu to accommodate tourists, is a four- to five-day hike or a four-hour train ride from Cusco. Alternatively, you can do what we did. We had only narrowly managed to buy train tickets to the site, since we were going during the busy season and hadn’t planned ahead. But the only tickets to Aguas Calientes we could get were from Ollantataymbo, a speck of a town fifty miles from Cusco. We took a poorly negotiated cab all the way and still only paid 40 soles—$13—for the hour-and-a-half ride. (I’m still trying to figure out how cab rides even cover the gas costs. Gas is as expensive in Peru as it is in the U.S. The math doesn’t seem to work.) The train went smoothly, and we got to Aguas Calientes in the afternoon.

We thought we’d visit the ruins two days in a row, seeing both sunset and sunrise there, but $40 tickets per person per day convinced us to wait a day and only enter once. We got food, used expensive and slow internet, and, with nothing else to do in town, tried to fall asleep as the sun went down, in preparation for our pre-dawn rise the next morning.

We didn’t get up early enough to see the ruins before the sun rose, but we watched the sky brighten as we were shuttled up the mountain to the site. Verbal descriptions don’t serve Machu Picchu well, so I’ll give myself a break and post a couple photos instead.




We did a short hike up Huayna Picchu, a mountain with a lookout over the ruins. Though we were spared altitude sickness our whole time in the Andes, climbing forty minutes at 11,000 feet wasn’t easy, even after a week in the mountains. The morning fog faded while we were on the hike, and the majestic mystery of the morning had melted away to brilliant sun when we returned to the ruins. We spent the rest of the morning walking around the site, then we returned to Aguas Calientes for another boring afternoon and early bedtime.

The only train we could get for the return left Aguas Calientes at 5:30, so again we got up before dawn. Catching the train was only the first challenge of the day. We had a flight back to Lima, from Cusco, at 12:50, and from Ollantaytambo again we would have to get a cab, so we needed each connection to go smoothly. Each did, and, from train to van to plane, we hit four towns and arrived without problem. That’s when transportation started to go wrong.

We got back to Lima on what I believed had to be the busiest tourist day of the year. Half a dozen hostels we visited or called had no room at all, and we finally settled on a place that gave us two bunk beds, making us share a room with others for the first time on the trip. (Previously, asking for una habitacion doble, rather than un matrimonio, gave us a way to explain we were brother and sister traveling together, starting the conversation in which we were told we spoke good Spanish; we protested, saying we didn’t; and we were asked what we liked best in Peru. “Es bonita. Nos gusta todo!” we offered. We were bad conversationalists.)

I left the hostel to pick up my extra suitcase, which I had left in the apartment where I stayed earlier. I saw my host again, met his 13-year-old son and his mom (who were visiting from Florida, where they live), and got into a cab to go back to the hostel. The driver didn’t know the place or the address, and so he had to ask several people for directions. I had flashbacks to miserable rickshaw rides in Delhi, when drivers asked dozens of fellow drivers for directions, betraying their pathetic knowledge of their (admittedly huge) city. This time, however, we were in Lima, which I had spent two weeks getting to know, so I was confident I could direct the driver decently, at least with the help of the Lonely Planet guidebook map. But he looked at the map several times and apparently learned nothing from it, since we became miserably lost. When I thought I knew were we were, as I did twice, I gave the driver emphatic directions, since I didn’t trust his judgment. Mine turned out to be just as poor. We remained very lost, and now I shared the blame. I stewed in the car as we wandered, planning the most effective way to express my discontent. (“If you need to ask tourists for directions, you should not be a taxi driver,” was as harsh as I dared to go, and as expressive as I can be in Spanish.) An hour after I got into the cab, the driver finally got close enough to the hostel that I recognized the neighborhood and realized I could walk back. The trip should have been fifteen minutes. I got out of the cab and grabbed my bag, determined to show my discontent by not paying much. We had agreed on six soles ($2) before the ride, but I realized that was no longer nearly a just fare. I figured I’d pay eight soles, fine with the fact that he would still lose money on the ride. It was his mistake, after all, not knowing the city well enough. But all I had was a twenty-sol bill, and all he handed back was a ten. I asked where the rest was, and he began to protest. Knowing that eight soles was a ridiculous fare, even if he was entirely to blame, I spun my back and walked away, foolishly lugging a rolling suitcase and walking with as much anger as I could manifest.

The hostel wasn’t much better when I got settled in. My sister and I were each in a bad mood, and though we rallied before going to dinner, we came back to an uncomfortable home. The place, Inkawasi, was a family-run business, with the family living in the house they owned. And though the house was nice and the rooms expensive, the owners never seemed to enjoy playing host. For the three days we spent there we were treated like relatives who had stayed too long: no one was rude or outright unfriendly to us, but we did not feel welcome in their home. We sucked up the poor treatment to enjoy the view of the ocean and the free wireless internet access, but our uneasiness seemed to be confirmed when I lost my new glasses somewhere in the house and no one at the hostel seemed interested in whether I recovered them. My sister left Peru on Sunday and I left the hostel on Monday.

I moved into a more central place that I hoped would be cheaper, or at least more hospitable. This hostel, one of three Flying Dog hostels around one park, where I’ve now spent four nights, is a young gringo affair, with residents who all want to party as much as I don’t want to. I’m in a room with six beds, and on my first day I met roommates from Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and London. It’s been a mostly fine place to stay, especially since the rate includes good breakfast at a nearby café. But it’s been trying. I’m fine falling asleep next in the room next to the bar, from which techno and hip hop blast until the early morning, but I don’t appreciate when other travelers leave the door open and the light on as I’m trying to sleep, as they have done repeatedly. I must be  missing part of the hostel etiquette, since that seems totally acceptable here. I’m looking forward to (miraculously) being the only own in the room tonight. (Relatedly, I’ve felt bad about not trying to meet people here, especially the people I would have the easiest time interacting with: other young tourists. But Europeans in South America just to party with other Europeans are not people I came here to meet. I’ll hold off judgment, but theirs isn’t fun worth losing sleep for.)

To avoid the din of the hostel, and to take advantage of free wireless internet, I’ve been hanging out at a local café, which I’m ashamed to admit might be owned by an American coffee shop chain with a recognizable green logo and which recently announced it’s closing 600 American shops. And you know you’re spending too much time in Starbucks when you’ve heard Riders on the Storm (and every other song on Best of the Doors!) five times in three days. Thank god I had a reason to stay away today. And a great reason.

The seeds for today’s fun were planted when my sister and I first arrived back in Lima. To get to our new (and soon to be disappointing) hostel, we took a cab with an especially friendly driver, who chatted us up about—what else?—being American, speaking Spanish (well, he said; not well, we said), and enjoying Peru. But the guy seemed genuine and kind, so I took a stab at something I had wanted to do since I arrived. I knew I would need a guide if I was going to see most of the city. I can walk through the rich and beautiful parts on my own, but tourist-safe parts are the distinct minority of the city, and not all that interesting. I don’t mean to say I know I will be mugged if I try to interact with normal Limeños, but I’m not comfortable walking around with camera equipment—and I’m much less comfortable actually snapping pictures—as I wander neighborhoods with fewer tourists and a much smaller police presence. So I had to get a guide. And Jose Julio Rivas Ramirez might just be the one to help me. At the end of the cab ride I told him my objective (“soy fotografo,” I exaggerated), and that I would need someone to show me around. He lit up and promised he would help with anything I needed. I took his phone number and told him I would call. Several days later I did, and yesterday we arranged to meet this morning for my first real tour of Lima.

I forgot that when we said ten o’clock we meant ten o’clock Peruvian time, so he met me shortly before eleven. And we began to drive, even before I gave him more explanation of my hopes for the day. But, when I explained, he understood perfectly that I wanted to see poor and maybe even dangerous parts of Lima while remaining safe. No problem, he told me—he’d take care of me and make sure I saw what I wanted to see. Over the next seven hours we drove through five or six of Lima’s poorest districts, and I was able to see and take pictures of what I had wanted to see since arriving. But, safe as I felt driving through the districts, a new and expected discomfort emerged. I’m very new to all this photography business, and I have not yet begun to figure out the etiquette and ethics of dropping into situations of poverty, turning people’s lives into snapshots, and leaving. It’s a subject for much more thought, but today I did what I could without feeling I was acting unethically. What that meant was largely avoiding pictures of people—because of my fellowship, my photographs need to focus on architecture, and keeping people mostly out of my shots let me avoid feeling guilty about objectifying real-life poverty that I wasn’t even getting out of the car to experience. Nonetheless, after looking at them briefly, I’m very happy with the photos. Shacks on mountainsides speak for themselves. Even so, was it right to drift through such sights in a car, thinking primarily about the shots I could get out a window? Maybe I’ll get my answer another day.

(It’s worth writing a little more about Jose Rivas, since, even though the photos won’t show it, he was the central element of my experience today. I never got his age, but I’d guess he’s in his late 20s or early 30s. He has a three-year-old son, and I was able to see physical evidence that his wife is expecting another baby, a daughter, in September. His home, where he took me in the afternoon, is small and very simple, but pretty and clean. He showed me several empty rooms, which he told me repeatedly I could stay in whenever I wanted. Nevermind that there isn’t a bed–we could buy one cheaply nearby, he assured. When I raised the issue of payment in the morning, he told me we would work something out, and he primarily wanted me to have a good time and to make a friend in him, and to know a Peruvian I could trust. Throughout the day he returned to that theme. He told me he would introduce me as his padrino–godfather–to friends of his, and when I met his landlady he did introduce me as his familia. He told me about another American named Marcus who had been his padrino before, calling occasionally and sending gifts each year. I didn’t know how emphatically he was pushing this arrangement on me, but he wasn’t floating the idea idly. I was thrilled at how well we conversed in Spanish [he spoke no English, and joked by saying things like, “Gude marning”], but I conveniently hid behind the language barrier when he talked about me becoming part of the family, nodding and smiling without responding in words. Nevertheless, he was truly generous to me, showing me much of his life, from his family and home to his favorite restaurant, where we ate the best meal I’ve had in Peru. I paid him what I believe was a fair amount for his work, and at the least I gave him a day of conversation with an American instead of a day hustling for small fares. I hope that, even when he realizes I will not be his padrino, he is as glad for the experience as I am.)

Now I’m looking ahead. I’ve hit the halfway mark of my trip, and the next month should be great. Though I might not have time for it all, I’m hoping to travel up north with a distant cousin who was in the Peace Corps in Peru; visit friends in Ayacucho, in the southern highlands; go back to Cusco for a fuller and more true experience now that Inti Raymi is over; get back down to Pisco to spend more time photographing and reporting on the earthquake damage; and spend more time in Lima, enough to have more days like today and even a few like yesterday (internet, reading, relaxing). I have to be back in Lima in the middle of the month to make a couple appointments I’ve made, and I’m hoping to schedule several more with government officials and other big shots to work on a story I’d like to write. I won’t hit every goal, but even falling quite short will give me a month of experiences that together may be more exciting than any I’ve had in my life. And such excitement will go a long way to ease the one concern that has lingered with me this far into the trip.

I’ve gotten over feeling bad I don’t know more Spanish, and that I won’t be fluent when I return. I’ve had fun and varied experiences, as I was bound to do once I got out of Lima. Now I’ve made significant progress toward the photo work I had wanted to do here, and even the fellowship work I was afraid I might fail to complete satisfactorily. And, though I don’t yet have a great article written, I have a couple good ideas for articles I should be able to complete. But I haven’t yet hit a rhythm in which every day provides a new experience even better than that of the day before.

School life is unrelentingly exciting, even as it is repetitive. Through the most familiar weekly schedule, unexpected turns appear most days. With thousands of smart and energetic young people together, that’s bound to happen. And that’s what should happen when you go abroad for two months, right? Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought about what it would mean for my “professional” aspirations to head off on my own, without plans or contacts. Since the best experiences are rarely had alone, I’ve felt I’m missing opportunities by not having collaborators, superiors, or friends here. I’ve still (and still surprisingly) been spared any significant loneliness, but I do feel I’ve been in a “professional” rut, as I’ve struggled to find ways to do the work I’ve wanted to do. I have story ideas, but no way to find sources. Until today I had lots I wanted to see in Lima and no sure way to see any of it. And even today’s experience was thanks to the luck of getting in the right taxi several days ago. How do I find the next taxi driver to be my guide next time, or the person who will lead me to a great story I haven’t heard about? It probably won’t happen, and I have to resign myself to that frustration. I’m coming to accept that not every day here will be filled with great excitement. But just by looking through the photos I’ve already taken I can see I’ve had more than a month’s worth of fun and rewarding experiences. If, as I expect, July is better than June was, I have nothing to worry about.

2 thoughts on “Notes from Peru: #4

  1. First off, great photography. I really can’t get over Machu Picchu both as an artistic marvel and as an example of what people are capable of even without computers, communication, long distance travel, and all of the other things we take for granted in an era of abundant natural resources whenever we want them.

    I’m glad that you’ve really gotten to be a part of a different world. I had no idea that you’re going to be in Peru for another month. It sounds like you’re enjoying yourself, so keep it up.

    On another note, keep this stuff coming. I don’t know if I’m the only person who reads your blog, but it’s really interesting (right up there on my blog list with “The Oil Drum” and “Stuff white people like”)!

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