Friday, August 14, 2009

I don't quite know how to write about Peru. We saw and did so much in 16 days. Perhaps I'll start at the beginning, yes?

We had five hours in Miami before flying to Lima. Though I've never had any desire to go to Florida, I can now say I've been there, and not only in the airport - we were outside of the airport. I actually rather enjoyed our stay there. We sat outside in the sauna-like heat under the palm trees, eating our supper and being watched by a stray airport cat that clearly wanted Lesley to share her burger. We were also asked by a dreaded man if we had any 'papers', adding that he thought we might because we looked liked 'family'. I find it amusing how people assume that because a person has dreads, they must also smoke pot. That's not the first time I've been asked, either.
Flying out of Lima, the sky was thick with low-hanging gray clouds. We quickly broke through them and found ourselves in the sunshine, with lovely brown mountains protruding above the clouds. The clouds looked like snow gathered around the mountains, and they appeared to not be going anywhere any time soon, which is why it is perpetually 18 and overcast in Lima this time of year. (And they were still there when we returned 9 days later, though we did get some sun on our last day in the city, which was nice.)

Our first hostel in Cusco was lovely. It had a couple open courtyards with gardens in the center surrounded by two levels of rooms with a balcony acting as an outdoor hallway. Our beds each had about four heavy warm alpaca wool blankets on them. It was so cozy. We cooked packaged noodles for supper, and a fellow traveller shared with us his leftover chicken.
Cusco is a beautiful old city, and it's unfortunate that it's also such a tourist trap (but I can't complain really, because we ourselves were tourists). The Incas built their cities and villages in the shapes of animals, and Cusco (the 'navel of the world' and the center of the Inca empire) was shaped like a Puma, though it has since expanded and no longer holds it's shape. It's set in the valley, surrounded by mountains. The streets are stone and the buildings are white plaster and the roofs are terracotta. I love the way the streets become steps (and undriveable) when they climb the sides of the mountains.
There were women dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothing wanting you to take a picture with their llamas. They wear leg warmers with sandals (the women, not the llamas), and it's amazing how they carry everything, from small children, to branches and boxes of chickens, tied to their backs with bright woven blankets. The air contained noticeably less oxygen, and it was easy to become out of breath, especially when carrying a rather large backpack. I love the way the outdoors become confused with the indoors, and our second hostel contained ridiculous amounts of steps and outdoor patios that were all still somehow inside the hostel.

One time we ordered wine with our meal because it was cheap, and Les laughed at me because my dinner was waffles. I don't pretend to be a wine connoisseur. We ended up going back to that cafe a couple times because we liked it so much. They played good music and had purple benches, and the walls were all lime green and kraft dinner orange, and they serve everything in prettily painted handmade pottery.
In the evening, we sat out on the patio. The view of the city at night was amazing. We could see most of Cusco, and the lights and the stars were so beautiful. I think I could have sat out there all night.It gets bright in the morning and dark at night very quickly. Like within 15 minutes. It's light, and then it's not.

The night before leaving for the trek, Les had cuy at the restaurant. She wanted to try it, if only for the 'bragging rights'. I ordered chicken. I just wasn't feeling up to eating a guinea pig. But I did try a bit of hers. They say it tastes similar to rabbit. I wouldn't know - I've never eaten rabbit. The bit I had was quite tough. It came complete with a head and feet with tiny guinea pig claws. When I was a kid, our neighbour had pet guinea pigs that we would play with. Their names were Buttons, Fudge and Ringo. Lesley didn't like me talking about it while she was eating, but I thought it was funny.I loved the two hour bus ride to Km 82, the starting point of the Inca Trail. It was so beautiful (though I'm pretty sure the beauty was even greater all along the trail itself). We drove up and out of Cusco, through the gently rounded mountains towards the more jagged snow-capped peaks shrouded with clouds. Out the window was full of redbrown dirt and yellowgreen fields and darker green trees. The mud brick houses were the same redbrown. It was overcast. Thick clouds and rain splattering the windshield. Rain. In the dry season. After all the lovely weather we'd had in Cusco. I didn't bring a rain poncho.

I bought a rain poncho at one of our first stops along the trail after hiking for a while in the pouring rain. The girl said they had none left, but a few minutes later produced a crumpled red plastic thing, which I'm pretty sure was child-sized because I could barely squeeze it over my head, and it only fell to my knees, meaning my pants became soaked as soon as we hit the stairs on the second day and my poncho would drip all over my knees with each step. I grew to hate that frickin plastic poncho, and I was always so glad when the rain would stop and I could take it off.As an aside, to anyone considering doing the Inca Trail: I would recommend NOT going in the rainy season. Though there are less people and things may be greener, it's no fun hiking in the rain, and everything stays wet all the time, and with the clouds you can't see anything anyway. Also, the stones of the trail can be treacherous when wet and slippery. I heard stories of people hiking up steps in ankle-deep water in the rainy season. Doesn't sound like fun.

I think the worst part of the trek was in the mornings, when you'd wake up and have to get out of your cozywarm dry pajamas and put on your pants again, which were cold and still wet from yesterday.
The sights along the trail were amazing. Around each turn of the path lied another breathtaking view of the Andes (when it wasn't concealed by clouds), and I was continually amazed with each new vantage point. It was also interesting how diverse the landscape was that we walked through over the course of the four day trek. But then, we walked a total of 45km. We went from dry grassy mountains with cacti, to jungley forests. We also had all kinds of weather, from rain to foggy clouds, to freezing rain which turned into snow at Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point of the trail (4215m above sea level).
Which is where a couple in our group became engaged. At the top of the pass, in the cold and snow and raging wind. We had cake the next morning for breakfast to celebrate their brand new engagement.

Day two was the hardest, day three was the longest. So said Other Guide (funny we called him this, because he was actually the main guide who did all the talking. Julio mostly just followed along behind to make sure we didn't lose anyone. But Les and I had such trouble remembering Jair's name, and our attempts ranged from Gerrard to Jafar to Jihad and Javier. Sometimes we just called him Julio's Friend, or What'shisface. We had many laughs over all this, and I have no idea why his name was so hard for us to recall.). We climbed up for about five hours to reach Dead Woman's Pass, and much of this was steps, followed by a two hour descent to our camp for the night, also many steps. It was definitely challenging, but Les and I paced ourselves. We took it slowly, stopping frequently for short breaks. I'm glad I wasn't with someone who wanted to go way faster than me, or I would have been exhausted. At the end of day two, I felt pretty good. A little sore, but I didn't feel like it was unmanageable.
I actually found day three to be the most difficult. It was a long day, though we had a few stops at Inca ruins along the way to break it up. My legs were a bit sore from the day before, and after the final building we stopped at, it was all downhill again the entire rest of the way to the camp. I almost thought I couldn't make it. I'd probably never climbed so many steps in my life as I did during those four days. My calves and shins were burning, my knees and ankles screamed with every jolting step, my toes hurt from repeatedly slamming into the front of my shoes, and the balls of my feet grew sore as well. On top of all this, I badly had to pee. I'm not sure why I didn't think of going somewhere off the trail, but at this point I was just really focused on getting to camp. The last half hour or so was zigzags down the mountain, and around every corner I was wishing the camp to come into view, but it just didn't. Les suggested we stop and take a break, but it felt like if I were to stop, I would fall over and not be able to keep going again. It really felt like my legs might give out at any minute. By the time we finally reached the camp, it was close to 6, it had grown dark, and we had missed tea. Oh well. I was just so relieved to be done for the day. I totally felt like an 87 year old woman with arthritic joints. It was like I didn't know how to walk properly anymore. I was tired, sore and cranky, but Lesley made me do stretches with her in our tent upon arrival. She said if we didn't, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. So we did.After waking at 430 am and beginning day four's hike in the dark, we arrived at the sun gate to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. But of course it was cloudy, so we got no sunrise. It was still neat to finally see the lost city in real life, though I don't think we could fully appreciate it because we were pretty tired. When we actually arrived in the city, I was surprised by the size of it. I know the pictures are taken from pretty far away, but it's a lot bigger than I expected it to be. It's a beautiful place, laying there amongst the clouds, with the mountains falling away at the edges, the Urubamba River in the valley below. I can't imagine living there in so much beauty.
The Inca Trail is not the only way to get to Machu Picchu. You can also take the train there. We felt a little superior walking down into the city all tired and dirty and probably a bit smelly after hiking for four days, passing the day trippers who took a bus up the mountain just that morning.
Along the trail, and especially at Machu Picchu, we learned a lot about the rather amazing Inca civilization. They were a brilliant people who built some incredible things. Their stonework was so percise and exact, built to withstand earthquakes, and they used no mortar or iron tools. All travel was by foot, and the Inca Empire was very large, covering mountainous terrain. They were also very in tune with nature and astronomy, building windows in their temples that faced exactly the sunrise on June 21st, the summer solstice. It makes me sad, and a bit angry, to think of how the Spanish (all 170ish of them) came to Peru and wiped out about 7 million Incas. What right did they have? Why is it that the Europeans always felt that they were so superior in every way to every other people on Earth, that they felt justified in invading, colonizing and wiping out entire cultures and civilizations? It blows my mind.
Also mind blowing were the porters on the trek. And the guides. Other Guide does the trek once a week, and has been doing it for two years. Crazy. The porters carry ginormous packs, weighing up to 44lbs, on their backs. They have to go faster than all the rest of us, leaving after us in order to tear down camp, and arriving before us to set up camp and cook our food. And most of them do it all in leather sandals. And I felt as though it was all a bit exploitative. These men were doing this hard physical work just so that we, the rich tourists, could have this amazing experience. But on the other hand, they are treated and paid fairly, and they do this job because they can make a bit more money to support their families. I've read that before the government stepped in and made regulations, treking companies often treated their porters very poorly, sometimes not providing a tent for them to sleep in, or having them eat whatever was leftover after the trekkers were finished. Jair told us that in Cusco, there just aren't jobs available outside of the tourist industry.

When we arrived back in Cusco after the trek, we were supposed to be taken to our hotel. However, our driver claimed he didn't know where our hotel was, so he dropped us at the main square and we had to find it ourselves (after receiving help from Jair, who happened to be in the office when we went there). We were delighted to learn that our room in our new hotel was on the first floor, meaning no stairs, and that there was a TV in our room. All we wanted to do was eat junky food and watch TV. And so, after retrieving the rest of our stuff from our last hostel, we got take-out McDonald's and ate it in bed while watching movies on TV. It was wonderful.

On our last day in Cusco, we were laying on the grass in the Plaza reading books, but were interrupted by a woman in a uniform who blew her whistle at us and guestured us off the grass. Apparently you can't be on the lawn in the Square.
Sometimes I pretend to read my book, but secretly I'm watching people.

We discovered in the airport that backpacks are much cooler than suitcases.

We also discovered in the airport that we like to make fun of people who wear their money belt over top of their clothes. And we saw a number of them. A money belt is not a fanny pack. It is meant to be worn under your clothes. I'm pretty sure their money and passport would be safer just stuffed in their backpack. At least then it would be out of sight. "Please, mug me and steal my passport!"

Lima is very different from Cusco. At first, I was worried that we might regret staying for five days there. But I needn't have worried. Turns out Lima was also enjoyable, and we found lots to do while there.
Les went paragliding off the cliffs of Miraflores. I thought I might as well, but it turned out to cost twice as much as we had first thought, and I was running low on cash, partly due to those awesome boots I purchased that I just couldn't pass up. So I watched Lesley sign her life away and held her sandals while she jumped off the cliff. It looked like fun.We spent a couple afternoons at the beach watching the surfers. The ocean is a beautiful thing. Watching it is like watching fire, says Lesley. It's rather hypnotizing. The waves were huge. One rushes back out after crashing on the rocks while the next one fights to overcome it, plowing its way over the last one, only to deposit itself on the rocks as well, spent. The beach in Miraflores is rocky. The stones are not huge, but they are large enough to be awkward and uncomfortable to walk on. They are all worn smooth and round by the Pacific. They must be old rocks, and those waves must have been pouring themselves all over them for a long time.
I sat on the beach wondering why throwing rocks into the water is such a fun game. Skipping stones I can understand. But simply throwing them and watching them plop?

On our way to the airport, our taxi was pulled over by a police car, we think for honking at a garbage truck. We thought this was rather hilarious. Go figure, on our last cab ride in Lima. When we got the the airport, Lesley gave the driver 100 soles, which is all we had. The ride cost 50. After digging around for a while, pretending to have no change, he produced a 50 and we walked across the parking lot to the airport. Turns out the 50 he gave us was a fake, and an obvious one at that. Had it not been dark, and had we looked at it a little closer, even we could have seen it was clearly not real money. What a jerkface! I bet he had change all along, but just decided to see if he could rip off us two white girls. It was pretty annoying, but we were able to laugh about it and see it as a funny ending to our trip to Peru.

Oh man, this turned into a superlong post. Especially after I started adding pictures (which, by the way, was ridiculously time consuming)...