Internet station near Hotel Los Niños, Cuzco
current temperature: 13 C / 55 F
elevation: 3,248 m / 10,656 ft
This morning in Lima we had breakfast at our hotel with two older Dutch women, hardy travelers, one of them sharing my lifelong desire to see Machu Picchu. It was the first time we´ve said we´re from Canada! The hotel in Lima and the one in Cuzco are both run by Dutch people, by coincidence (I think). Breakfast was a good ¨continental¨ affair (although we´re on a different continent), but Peru is, surprisingly (to me) not a coffee-drinking country. Coffee is often a jar of instant, so we´re both drinking tea. They have lots of strong black tea - te puro - as well as herbal.
Another wild cab ride to the airport, then security confiscated my nail file, small scissors, corkscrew, and a knife more suited to spreading peanut butter than attacking anyone. I always travel with a nail file. It felt a bit like robbery.
The flight to Cuzco is an hour and ten minutes, over immense, stark mountains with winding rivers and no visible roads. Closer to Cuzco, the mountains are more green, and you can see tiny villages nestled in valleys. They must be so remote.
Immediately upon leaving the plane I was dizzy and lightheaded from the altitude. A friendly taxi driver pointed out sights on the way to the hotel, including a huge mountainside monument to the first Inca, Manco Capac, and a statue of a great Incan king, Pachacuti. At the hotel, we learned that our room had just been painted and smelled bad, and would we mind going to their second hotel? So back in a cab, accompanied by a young person who works at the hotel. The streets are cobblestone, steep and very narrow - one car wide - and the sidewalks are one-person wide. Sitting in a cab you feel like you take up the whole street.
The hotel where we´re staying was founded by a Dutch woman who, after visiting Peru, wanted to do something to help the many children she saw begging and selling things on the street. She rented a room and gave two children a place to live with her. From there, her involvement grew and she ended up adopting a dozen children. She thought starting a hotel would provide a steady source of income, plus a way to teach children some skills. Most of the hotel employees are former street kids, plus profits suport a foundation that cares for 500 children - food, medical and dental care, education and a sports team. Along with her two biological children and 12 adopted children, she and her husband support another 23 children living with Peruvian foster parents. Pretty neat, eh? This link has information about the hotel and her foundation.
The hotel is lovely - the colonial courtyard and balcony, brightly painted, flowers everywhere. Checking in, I told the host I was having trouble with the altitude, and she made us cups of coca de mate, a hot drink made of coca leaves, which Andean people believes lessens that. I don´t know if it´s true, but the drink is nice. Although it doesn´t get you high. In the room I had an uncontrollable laughing fit, as the air itself is getting me high. Unfortunately the rest of the symptoms weren´t as much fun - pounding headache, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, gasping for air while walking up Cuzoco´s steep streets.
We walked to the main plaza, a beautiful square full of flowers and perfectly maintained plantings, lined with the cathedral, another large Spanish church and dozens of hotels and tourist shops. It´s also full of kids and teenagers begging and selling postcards and souvenirs, or trying to shine your shoes, in spite of everyone wearing sneakers. The kids are bold and determined and not easily put off. They ask where you´re from, and when we said Canada, they replied, "Capital is Ottawa!" Engaging any of them brings othes over in a small swarm.
While we were looking at the cathedral (just outside so far), a very small, bold and dirty child became our tour guide. He pointed out (accurately) Inca stones in the walls, a craft market, a mural, a store we might need, and seemingly would not detach from us. I was struggling to converse with him and then translate for Allan, wondering how we would get him to leave, when I took his picture and gave him some coins - then felt like an idiot for not realizing I could have done that sooner. I also felt bad for using so much of his time, but hopefully I compensated him alright.
We did see large groups of children in uniforms, who must have been coming home for lunch - but that is obviously not universal. If your family doesn´t have money for school uniforms, or can´t spare the income you bring in, you don´t go to school. It´s very sad.
We walked around some more, on narrow, steep streets, many pedestrian-only, full of steps, often with amazing views of the town´s red roofs and the surrounding mountains. Also children and elderly women begging and selling things, some dogs, dozens of tourist shops, but also the life of the city itself.
There are many people here who look exactly like the faces of Incan statues. (I saw this in Lima, too, although obviously more here in the Andes.) They are short, with jet-black hair, and large features, especially a very prominent and distinctively-shaped nose. I find it amazing that people in the world today have retained such a strong genetic imprint of their ancient ancestors. I love it. I also think that if I were them I would hate the Spanish and their descendant ruling class. Perhaps I wouldn´t, but I think I would.
We climbed some very steep streets to find a quinta, a type of family restaurant that serves Andean food. This week is probably our only opporunity to eat food specifically from this region, and lunch is the main meal of the day.
Here I´m going to squick more than a few readers, and one friend and reader in Waterloo may feel especially horrified thinking of a family pet. I wanted to try cuy, a local specialty - roast guinea pig. It´s considered a delicacy and expensive by Peruvian standards.
The quinta was open-air - we sat under an umbrella to avoid the blazing sun - and very friendly. Both our meals came on a plate full of potatoes, rocoto relleno (a pepper stuffed with ground meat and vegetables, topped with cheese), corn meal cooked in a banana leaf and some other side dishes. But the cuy! It was the whole animal - head, ears, eyes, claws, tail - roasted in its crispy skin. A little disconcerting! But also honest. There´s no pretending you´re doing anything but eating an animal.
It was alright, not delicious, a little difficult to eat because it was very bony, not fleshy, so there wasn´t much meat in any one part. I don´t think I need to eat it again, but of course I´m glad I tried it. After the meal we drank more mate de coca, to no noticeable effect, but it´s a nice thing to do.
On the way home, accosted by more young salespeople, I bought a little bag-pouch thingy in amazingly vibrant Andean colours from a little girl who was then hot to sell me another one - and a good salesperson, too. We stumbled on a row of market stalls, all selling the same things, and bought a piece of fabric made from incredibly vibrant colours. Everything is crazy cheap here, although Cuzco is the most expensive Peruvian city. It´s sad how little people are charging, and how many of them there are, and how hungry they are for our measly tourist dollars.
Today I called my mom from an international calling store, got her machine, and I know she´ll be so disappointed to have missed us. I also called my sister, who had surgery on Monday and is in horrendous pain.
Back at the hotel, we washed up and changed, then drank lukewarm cervezas by a fireplace, as it was raining into the open courtyard. Now we´re at one of the many internet places lining the narrow streets, charging 80 centimes per hour, about $0.25. It´s weird to feel rich. I feel myself throwing money around, tipping taxi drivers, telling people to keep the change. I guess there are worse things I could do here then overpay.
Late addition! The flag of this region of Peru is the rainbow flag. Yes, there is a rainbow flag flying high over Cuzco!! And we think Canada is gay-friendly!