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July 20, 2006

Navel of the World - Cusco

***New Photos Posted***

It’s been over a week now and nary a peep from me except the odd email. I’ll tell you why, I’ve been more social here then I even was in New York and I sleep a lot because at night, as I believe I have already emphatically stated, it is cold. That of course is not a real excuse, but it’s the only one I have at the moment.

It was a very full week last week.

Upon arriving in Cusco there were immediate differences with the surrounding towns and even the department capitol of Abancay. Cusco is definitely a tourist town. And the tourists tend to ignore each other except at bars and occasionally restaurants. I got into town and headed directly for the Plaza de Armas to sit down and study my Footprints South America guide book to find a cheap, nearby hostel. After accosting some girls on the street to ask where they were staying, I ended up at the Hostel Casa Grande for s/.20 with three beds all to myself and a shared bathroom with no toilet paper and hair all over the shower. Not bad for the price, but just not my ideal for two weeks. After all, I am over thirty now and do like, just a little bit, the comforts of home when possible.

You know what, I’m going to cut out all the minor details and give you the drift of my almost two weeks in Cusco.

It’s expensive, at least by Peruvian terms and it’s rather small – at least much smaller than Lima. And while it’s bigger than the other towns I’ve been through it is much like a small town as most of the tourists don’t go outside of the main downtown and you begin to recognize people that are there for longer than a few days. Also, after awhile you develop the automatic “No Gracias” response to anyone walking towards you and the street vendors (painters, postcards, shoeshine, tours, massages, waxing) actually stop asking you. Paddy Flaherty’s bar has actually printed tee-shirts with “No Gracias” on the front and I just may get one to send home with David. They wear them as a uniform at Jack’s Café which is under the same management as Paddy’s.

So after doing some searching I found a place to call home for two weeks and pushed my bike up the hill on the second day to the hostel which by some standards is expensive ($10/night) and by others is quite cheap. I think it’s a good deal myself and it is a safe place to keep my stuff. While there is no heat (shall I remind you that it’s cold here at night?) there is hot water and it is family run so no complaints from me.

Language school was the next step. Since the San Blas language school is right next to the hostel (in fact they recommend the place) it seemed like the logical place to take classes. I had to take a test and apparently placed in intermediate beginning which was better that I expected – I still have a problem with complete sentences, but the opportunity to learn (don’t hold your breath here) reflexive verbs, pronouns, and some past tenses was too good to pass up. It would also give my days some structure while I waited for David.

School, like school everywhere, is one of the best places to meet people and when school is in another country it is even better because people are forced to be social. My days for the first week of school consisted of learning lots of grammar with two German students and a Dutch student in tiny unheated rooms. The afternoons were spent with Sandra – another Dutch student – walking around the city and visiting markets and museums.

One of my favorite places here is the San Pedro market. Sometimes there are lots of other gringos sometimes there aren’t but no matter what it’s fun. It is like the Union Square farmers market times 100! At the Northern entrance there are clothing stalls complete with sewing machines and everything from baptism dresses to tourist llama-wear. Then comes the meat section on one side and fresh juice section on the other. A lot of tour books reference the odd pig and cow parts that you can see in the market, but let’s be real, you can see weird animal parts in any Chinatown in any city, so it’s really not that odd of a sight, especially in a market. Sometimes you don’t want to be reminded that your dinner may be coming from the meat in one of these stalls, but that’s the risk you take leaving the saran wrapped, tasteless meats of the supermarkets at home.

The juice section has a heavenly smell. The fact that you can small anything at all in the market is kind of surprising because the cold and the altitude does funny things to your sense of smell. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking with the whole I’m-wearing-all-my-clothes thing I’ve got going right now. However, the one problem in the juice section (and the mate vendors) is the shared glasses thing. The M.O. of the juice stands and the mate vendors is that there are only a few glasses and after each use they get “rinsed”. I’m just too American to deal with this and just bring my own glass. You’re already a gringo, who cares if you look even weirder asking for the juice in your own glass. You can, alternatively, sometimes get the juice to go in a plastic baggie!

Then come the fruits aisles. Like everywhere else in the market there are vendor after vendor selling similar things. I know you are supposed to bargain, but I just am not good at it and $0.30 for 4 bananas is just a good deal to me. I’m used to paying $3 dollars for a few bananas so I’m not complaining, but if I lived here it would be a different thing. Again, there is a wonderful fruit smells of familiar fruits like strawberries (the one fruit I won’t eat), bananas (multiple varieties), and oranges and the unfamiliar smells and sights of grenadillas, cherimoyas, papayas, and huge melons that I don’t know the name of.

Moving on we get to the grains and breads. The aisles here have some sort of order but the types of things for sale seem to blend into one another. The grains aisles are especially interesting with dozens of types of corn and flours and potatoes. I don’t know what half of the things are and I’m actually too embarrassed and not fluent enough in Spanish to understand, but I did learn about Oka which is like a potato only prettier. Apparently, it is cooked like a potato and is sometimes mixed with potatoes. There is also the weird potato-like vegetable that is used in Caldo de Gaillina. And then the tiny, wizened yellow root that is ground up into a powder and added to yogurt, milk, and juices. This is called maku (?) and can be found commercially in the grocery stores too. A nice girl explained this to me after an epic pantomime session with four of us gesturing and speaking broken Spanish and English in an effort to get a sponge to clean my kerosene encrusted cookware. You try to pantomime “sponge”.

Onward to the house wares which merge into chocolates and coffees. This aisle is only as interesting as getting sponges is and the chocolate aisle has bars and bars of chocolate to be used for drinks. There is only one little bar to be eaten and it is labeled “bitter” but upon trying it was some of the best chocolate that I have ever had. It is certainly not bitter and cost about a dollar. Sorry Whole Foods this chocolate wins hands down. Next comes some more fresh vegetables, but mostly herbs in all sorts of formats. One day the air was ripe with the smell cumin and we saw a woman grinding cumin seed in an ancient hand grinder. Other stands have flowers, fresh and dried, and if you need it you can get coca leaves here for tea (I think).

Then comes the best part – the food stands. Which let’s just say there is another post with the description of my meals. I ended up at a woman named Sinforosa’s stand and had some very cheap, very filling, very good food. Some sections serve only fried fish, other serve meats and most serve the traditional soup and Segundo. The soups are amazing in their variety and everyday there is a different soup. I don’t think I’ve yet had the same soup in all the places I’ve eaten!

Other places Sandra and I visited were the main cathedral, the handcraft market (which doesn’t seem to have a lot of quality handcraft stuff just a lot of suspiciously similar items). I wanted to buy a blanket that is used at every hostel and hospedaje that I’ve been in and I cannot find one – I’m just not looking in the right place. We went to the Cusco Center for Traditional Textiles where I did buy some gifts. The quality here is much better and while there isn’t much alpaca stuff there are fantastic examples of traditional weaving with natural color dyes. There are usually some weavers weaving in the shop and there is a very informative free textile museum adjacent to the store as well. The deal with this place is that most of the money goes directly to the weavers and the prices are in American dollars. This isn’t a budget place, but it is a socially correct place with beautiful samples of textiles for sale.

Then came a bunch of beer drinking in the evenings and then the weekend to Paucartbmbo which will have to be a separate post.

This week is just rushing by as I recover from a cold and learn even more versions of the past tense. My classes are in the evenings this second which isn’t as fun as in the mornings as most of my new acquaintances have morning classes, but I have been taking road trips to towns surrounding Cusco in the mornings (instead of writing!). Monday morning was a bus trip with Alessandro, my Italian acquaintance from Nazca, to Andahuaylillas, a town East of Cusco, where the church, which was built in the 1700s (I think) is known as the Peruvian Sistine Chapel. It is a simple church, not very large, but its claim to fame is the beautiful painted ceiling and the fact that it hasn’t yet toppled in any of the earthquakes the hit the area from time to time. Instead of appreciating the church as I should have I spent my time talking to two French cycle tourists. They gave me some heads up about the roads ahead and some address of people to contact. Very nice.

Tuesday, I finally discovered the wonders of the South American Explorer’s Club – Cusco, and enjoyed a wireless network. This is something that I probably won’t see again until maybe Chile. I spent a good amount of time writing and organizing pictures and lo and behold I was talking again and met an Englishwoman who is getting her PhD in Civil Engineering and was having some trouble with ArcView, my favorite program. I am going to meet with here on Thursday and take a look at her data to see if I can help. I love it!

Yesterday, Wednesday the 19th, another Dutch friend from the San Blas school – Samantha – and I headed off on a great adventure to Moray and the Salineras de Maras. Neither one of us knew exactly what to expect, but she did most of the planning. We met after breakfast at a very early 8:30am. This is sort of early here for tourist restaurants and shops and to try to find breakfast at 7:30am is a challenge. Fortunately, Café Amaru on Planteros was sort of open and they let me order breakfast even though they were still setting up. Samantha and I met and headed down Av. Del Sol to my second bus station in three days. This station was the Urubamba station and ran a little differently from the one I used on Monday with Alessandro. At this one you had to purchase your ticket ahead of time which entailed much jostling around and trying to keep your place in line, avoiding the buses which were much like the USPS trucks in NYC in that they made no effort to avoid hitting you, purchasing a ticket for s/. 3 each which, if you were there early enough, entitled you to assigned seating, getting onto the bus with your receipt and realizing that that you had assigned seats. Sometimes the local populace gets tired of the gringos and they try to push ahead of you. I’m getting used to holding down my space and telling the nice ladies to back off. Really, all I do is just push back against them and push my money over to the ticket guy. Otherwise, we’d never get on the bus!

The ride out of Cusco was interesting as it backtracked over some of the roads that I had ridden in on, on my bike. To see the road from a bus passenger’s perspective was enlightening. There really isn’t much shoulder, but to their credit, the bus (and sometimes car) drivers are used to people and animals in the roads and they tend to make room for you. It’s awfully nice of them not to use the shoulder as part of the road when there are pedestrians because apparently they otherwise just use it as another place to drive on! Once we arrived at our intersection which really just was an intersection as the pueblo of Maras was about 2km away we were immediately approached by a taxi driver. The whole taxi thing has tourists everywhere afraid. I have to say I look at them all with a little bit of suspicion, but some of that is just not knowing the system. In many cases, the drivers wait, with maybe one or two passengers already, for more people to fill their cars up. We apparently pissed off a local woman by telling the taxi driver that we wanted to go to the Salineras first. He tried to talk us into going to Maras first, but we didn’t really understand why and the woman got out in disgust. Whatever. We were paying a hell of a lot more money then they were for the ride and sometimes when you’re paying that much you just get your little bit of privilege. The ride should have really cost a few soles, but we paid a lot more to have the driver (Eustaquio was his name) wait for us at the two sites. It was well worth it and neither of us had the time to walk the 20 or so kilometers which is what many tourist do.

So the Salineras de Maras are pretty impressive. There is an underground water source that is highly saline and bubbly. Over the centuries the Incan and now the Indians have created this crazy terraces system of salt drying pools. From what I could understand from Eustaquio, the pools take about three days to completely dry, but it seems that they are constantly monitored by guys walking precariously on the edges of the pools. There are at least four grades of salt and I wish I knew more about the actual production because while the packets that were for sale looked pretty clean the pools themselves don’t look so clean. The colors run from white to orange depending on the other minerals in the water I suppose.

The temperature where we were – which is a little higher up than Cusco - was amazingly warm. And in the is little valley with all the salt it was quite hot – wool socks and sandals was not the best choice in footwear, but, well, as it was my only choice. Also, there air is much cleaner and the air appears almost crystalline (when it isn’t full of dust from the cars). There is a lot of farming in this area and we saw some wheat fields just starting out and some hay type stuff being harvested. This area had relatively flat fields, but we could see the terraced fields in the distance on the sides of other “hillsides.” One really cool thing about the area we were in was that there was a much better view of the higher mountains of the Andes. These bare, snow covered, peaks appear to be the same elevation as the farmed hillsides, but obviously are much higher. I don’t know what causes this phenomenon except maybe distance. The part of the Andes we are in appear more rounded, but I think the scale is just like nothing I’ve ever seen. Think the Touloume meadows part of Yosemite but on a much grander scale.

So off we went from the Salineras through Maras to the cultural site of Moray. OK – this site is pretty impressive and I have found out from a cool little book called Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost, that Moray was an Incan experimental agriculture site. Using the natural depressions in the earth the Incans set up concentric terrace farming levels. Because the different terraces receive different levels of sunlight and have different temperature ranges they were able to experiment with crop growth; some think that experimentation here lead to maize becoming a high altitude crop. A very cool visual are the stairs leading from one level to the next. The stairs are made of rocks that stick out of the walls and are still very sturdy. They zigzag down from the top to the bottom and each set of stairs line up almost perfectly. It was quite a little hike back up out of the natural depressions and when we reached the top Eustaquio was waiting to take us back to the bus stop. Along the way we picked up a bunch of local Indian women. Eustaquio actually asked us if it was ok to pick up these women. Of course he could was our response. To see the loads these women are carrying would make anyone cringe. We ended up taking a little detour through Maras picking up and dropping off people. This is also where we realized that a taxi ride costs about a sol for a simple to and from.

We finally caught a bus after realizing that a gringo tour bus had sort of offered us a ride as it was zipping by. Oh well, we can ride with the locals – it’s much more interesting. On the ride back some kids and I traded Spanish and English homework. I did theirs and they did mine – it was a fun way to make friends.

Back to classes and finally dinner at which, last night, I treated myself to a really nice dinner at the Inka Grill which is a very classy (but touristy) restaurant on the Plaza de Armas that serves Nuevo Indian food. I had alpaca and quinoa (Michelle – you could make this no problem) and a warm pineapple desert cooked with chicha de jora and anisette flavored ice cream. I still haven’t had cuy or actual chichi de jora yet, but there is a time for everything!

So – I still need to document the Paucartambo Fiesta de La Virgen del Carmen weekend, but it’s just going to have to wait – that is a whole post in itself with many amusing “I’m too old for this” moments.

Take care and next week David and I will be hiking the Inca trail with 6,000 others!

Also, if you haven’t already, please visit my Heifer International gift registry and help bring chimneys to Peru!! Thank you!!

July 09, 2006

Altitude is Interesting

***New Photos Posted***
***New Google Earth KMZ file*** File opens in Google Earth

It’s been almost a week I think since my last update and coincidentally my last shower! I write this in Cusco in my icebox room (this part of the building really never sees the light of day) dressed in long underwear, pants, a tee shirt, two long sleeve shirts and a Patagonia Micropuff jacket. Oh, I forgot the hat and the fact that I’m under the covers in bed. Besides not having plumbing system that you can put toilet paper in no one here has heat. The plumbing I can understand these building and sewer systems are old, but no heat? It’s COLD!!!

I left Curahuasi with assurances that it was all down hill to Limatambo. Let’s just say that contrary to popular belief, the locals actually do ok on distances, but terrain is a completely different story. It may be since most of the travel is done in these crowded little buses that will take you from anywhere to anywhere. In a car no one really pays attention to the subtleties of terrain anyway. People only notice a lot of up or a lot of down. Gradual inclines and descents are ignored except by truck drivers. The descent continued into the Apurímac Valley towards the river, a view which apparently (according to my footprints guidebook) inspired Thornton Wilders’ The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I can believe this vista has inspired a book, imagine the Colorado wilderness without the development. A huge snow-topped peak in the background, a winding river below and lots and lots of nothing else.

And then I was riding by the river, or actually below a little branch of it. There were little channels of water carved out in red soil within the rocks that made up the river bed. This must be a sight to see in the summertime with the rains. Now it it all dried up and people have made big triangular mounds of rocks - like Andy Goldsworthy – but with less attention to gradual change of color. This is where the gradual uphill nature of the rest of my day became apparent. Since the descent had taken me quite far down out in altitude, the heat of the day was more intense and there ware no cooling effects of elevation to ease the midday heat. Instead, there were insects.

My favorite bug of the day was a biting black beetle looking bug. This creature is at first just vaguely annoying. The bite doesn’t really hurt – less than a mosquito - but it leaves this tremendous mark that changes over the course of a few days. At first there’s nothing and then a few hours later there is a little pin prick of blood with a rosy circle around the bite. It still doesn’t itch. Then a few days later the rosy part becomes quite red and finally it itches a little. I’m sure that if you were actually warm these would itch quite a bit more. After a few more days they look like quarter inch sized red blotches. If these are bad would someone please tell me? My legs are covered with them.

Finally, I arrived in Limatambo after pushing my bike up that last hill right as school was getting out in the afternoon and with assistance found the one and only hospedaje in town. According to the little boy and girl I was conversing with later in the evening, there is one hospedaje and four restaurants. It’s a little intimidating walking into these places (this one happened to be attached to a one of the thriving restaurants) at the midday meal and ask for a room. There is really no need to ask the price or whether there is a window or not or all those things books tell you to do because there is only one place in town, it is usually clean albeit cold, and it is usually pretty cheap. In this case, it was s/. 10 which is about three dollars US. I parked my bike by the slab of beef hanging up in the back courtyard where everyone was running around dealing with the lunch crowd. I focused on not dropping my stuff into the blood on the ground and getting my gear up the steps. It takes 4-5 trips now including the bike which some places let me take to the room and some don’t.

I had a great afternoon in Limatambo eating egg sandwiches and walking around. Egg sandwiches – what a great concept. Cheap and with some protein and relatively easy to come by – makes for a great lunch or breakfast. The main square is undergoing some renovations currently with new pavement going in. The neat thing about Limatambo is that most of the roads are paved with good sidewalks and there are even benches on the sidewalks here and there. The square and church are well taken care of and obviously used. On the way back to the hospedaje there were a group of girls playing a jumping/clapping game with string so I asked if I could watch and one brought me a seat.

It was fascinating to watch this game both because of the amount of exertion needed at altitude and the variations. It is played with two girls standing across from each other essentially holding a loop of string up with their ankles. The string is held at various levels on the body: ankle, calf, knee, hips, waist, arms, shoulders, neck, eyes, above head with hands. At each level there is a different series of jumps/claps and chants to say and if you step on the string, do the wrong move, or say the wrong word your turn ends. The levels as I recall are: three motions jumping, 11 motions jumping, 16 motions jumping, two variations with the head, three motions clapping, clapping reciting vowels, clapping reciting full name, clapping reciting days of the week, and clapping reciting months of the year. Pretty cool. The crazy thing is after doing this for about an hour they all ran off to play volleyball for two or more hours. I took a nap.

After the side of beef incident I decided that chicken was more the dinner for me that night and set off to find it in one of the three remaining restaurants. I know that all the meat that I eat comes from stands on the street and is carted around in wheel barrels and the like, but I just wasn’t in the mood to be confronted with the meat that evening. It turns out I had this great polenta (or maybe quinoa) based soup and pollo dorado - chicken in a red sauce – with the ubiquitous papas and rice. It hit the spot and was following by a cup of mate. Off to bed for me as the second pass was loomig.

I’ll shorten this a bit. The ride up the second pass was much nicer as the grade of the road wasn’t as steep as the first pass. I rode up most of the pass and was followed for a bit by a really evil looking stinging insect with what looked like an inch long stinger nose. Saw a man hit his wife who was arguing with him – felt bad, but stayed out of the way. To her credit, she deflected the blows and just kept badgering him. Passed a Frenchman who has been on the road for three years and was pretty relaxed about the whole thing. I guess I would be too if I had been riding for three years. Towards the top of the pass saw no people and two goats which I’m not sure were domesticated. Towards the top of this pass there were no more houses, farms, stands, anything except a mining operation and a bus now and again. The winter sun plays tricks on your eyes as it seems like the sun is setting, but really it is only 1pm. It is very low on the horizon and while it doesn’t set until 6pm or so seems to go down much earlier. This was one occasion where the locals got the distance wrong. There was a small pre-pass that I think they were all thinking of when I got distance estimates, but the really pass was a good 5-7 km beyond. Maybe they just don’t go that far often.

Something here about maps. This pass, Abra Huillique, is listed on the maps as being 4100m which is pretty high. In reality, this pass is about 3800m and the other one from Abancay has it beat by 200m. Why this is shown as a pass and the other isn’t is a mystery to me. I was planning on a really rough day and it turned out to be hard, but not nearly as difficult as the other pass. Also, they don’t mark the passes like we do in the US – you just have to guess – or use a GPS. Once over the top I stopped at a toll booth and chatted with one of the operators and his two sons. He kept calling me Jennifer Lopez once he learned that my name was Jennifer. That joke is growing old, but it is a cross-cultural one. He tried to get me to adopt one of his sons. And so off I went.

The stark change from barren rocks to beautiful fields was an odd switch but it was a beautiful afternoon and it was an easy 15 km ride into Anta in a huge glacial valley wehre everything was green and gold and you could see a huge peak in the distance. Once in Anta, a taxi driver showed me the two hospedajes in town and while on the way to check in I was almost accosted by an enthusiastic Brazilian who said that he too was cycling around Peru.

So this Brazilian was my first brush with the type of traveler who will take you for all you’re worth if they can. At first, the enthusiasm was great. He wanted to go here and there and had been here for two years when he was only planning on being here for a month. Then the stories began. His bike and all his money was stolen (two years ago) and he worked really hard to get a second-hand Peruvian bike. Then his newly recouped stuff was burnt when the house he was staying in was set afire by kids lighting fireworks at Christmas. So now he was working for a “national champion” bike racer who was a bike mechanic now in Anta. The guy really did race bikes, but I question the national champion bit. He apparently had an awful accident and did a pretty bad face plant. That ended his bike racing career. I watched him unbend a crumpled wheel and begin to put it back into shape. Most people will tell you that the wheel is not longer sound or safe, which may be true, but when you don’t have enough money to buy a new wheel you get this guy to fix your old crumpled one.

Then the Brazilian started asking me for my maps. Long story short, he started asking me for all my stuff “when I was done with it”. The GPS, the maps, the guidebook, because it would really help out his research for his book. Come on, the GPS? He was starting to act as if because I came from the US where a moderate income in US terms equated to a fortune in Peruvian/Brazilian terms that I could just give him what ever he wanted. That’s when the warning bells that were already ringing started clamoring. The next morning he actually asked me to buy him a GPS, just a $200 one and then asked me to write to companies to get sponsors for him. I, in my oh, so tactful way, told him to write to the companies himself. “I don’t have the addresses,” he said. “They are on the internet which you’ve already told me you are more than proficient with,” I responded. So on that note which, was still a good one, we said our goodbyes and I rode off into the morning light up another big incline towards Cusco.

I think I’ll save Cusco for another post as my fingers are pretty cold and I’m getting hungry.

Also, if you haven’t already, please visit my Heifer International gift registry and help bring chimneys to Peru!! Thank you!!

Take care everyone come visit Peru!

July 04, 2006

Walking up the Andes

So the last stop was Nasca. I have covered the distance to Curahuasi in two phases: rapid and snails pace.

Getting a bus ticket out of Nasca was an exercise in patience. The first place was Imperial service only which means that for s/.100 you got a reclining seat, dinner and breakfast. In retrospect, this now seems like a good idea. They left at 8pm. When I checked in a second time the 8pm was full (mind you this was 1 hour later so it was probably full when I checked the first time). The next place didn’t go to Abancay even though the guidebook said that it did. I then stumbled across Patrick who has been cycling around Central and South America for about 7 months and is loving it. He suggested Flores, the company he rode down on, but when I tried they said that they couldn’t take my bike. When asked why the answer was that it had something to do with no one was coming down from Abancay so the luggage space was empty but going up it was full and there wasn’t much space anyway. I rode out to Expreso Wari, which was supposed to have 6 trips a day to Abancay but only had two, to check out their prices and schedule. The low end bargain had space for the bike and the best price and a decent time. Forty soles but the bus left at 11pm and arrived, supposedly, at 8am. Sold.

As it was now 10:30am I had a lot of time on my hands to kill so I headed back to town on my bike to check out of my room, load up the bike, and kill time. I had Chicharonnes sandwiches for breakfast, wrote some long emails, found the adjustable wrench I need. The wrench was more difficult than one would think. All the ferreterias have the tiny wrench or the huge monstrosity, but none seem to have any sized in between. After being shown the small one I said that it was too small did they have anything bigger. Mind you I’m looking right at the size I need which is right next to where he got the initial wrench. He’s routing around and I point it out to him. “This one?” Yeh, duh. I have a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t asking for a bigger one correctly; who knows what I was saying. What else. I tried the tuna fruit from a stall. This is a cactus fruit and they peel it for you and you eat the bright magenta colored frut pips and all. The nice lady indicated that they would pass. I bought fruit, papaya & orange juice, and cookies from street vendors. These ladies selling baked good all make them themselves and most of them are very good. I like the dulce de leche cookies. I stuffed most of this away for the bus trip later.

Onward to the square to sit in the shade. The Plaza des Armas is a great place in any of these towns where there were Spanish and the community gathers there every evening before dinner to socialize (although it seems to me that people are socializing all the time) and hang out. There are couples and kids and men and women and a gringo or gringa here and there. This was before social hour, but as I was looking around for a trashcan for my fruit detruis a couple struck up a conversation with me. It was fun and the man took to writing the question down as I could understand that better. I got all sorts of tough questions: What to you like about Peru, what don’t you like about Peru, What to you like about Peruvian, what don’t you like about Peruvians, cost of traveling to here vs Europe or elsewhere, where I was going, George Bush?, why Iraq?, Oil, what did I think about their new president (Alan-I think), Venezuela’s politics, Bolivia’s politics?. Fun stuff like that. While I know some of what is going on with the politics here and in Bolivia and Venezuela, I don’t know enough to converse on it. We parted way and I went to search out Patrick for a beer before sitting at the bus station for 2 hours.

The bus. Apparently it passed us by and the manager and a nice Peruvian backpacker of sorts help me lug the bags over to the bus. We shoved all the bags on and I went over to supervise the loading of the bike. I had learned the word side in order to say “It needs to be on the other side” The gear side needs to be on top or there is a high probability that the derailleur will get bent. Everything got loaded including myself and off we went. I ended up sitting next to the backpacker.

As we headed off into the night I realized that everyone, and I mean everyone had blankets out. I had heard that the buses got cold, but I didn’t understand until the wind started blowing in the cracks in the windows, how cold. With three top layers on I was ok, but my legs were a little cold. The bus was packed with both people and cargo. There was almost no space for the bike and there were packages in the last 3 rows of seats, the bathroom and the floor where we were sitting. You just stepped on them to get in and out of your seat. We went up for about 2.5 hours and then just stopped. In a fitful sleep, I could hear someone banging at something for about 1.5 hours and then we started off again. It could have been overheating due to the altitude as much of the climb is done in the first 2.5 hours by vehicle. Good luck Anton! Off we went for a few more hours with a bathroom break, a caldo break about 5 minutes from the bathroom break, and then the exciting road to Tintay.

By now the sun had risen and while it was still cold on the bus it was better then the night chills. We were cruising along about to pass by this rickty little bridge when the bus started slowing down. We turned and much to my disbelief, started across the bridge. Yikes, I was too enthralled to be scared. Up, up, up we went to the little town of Tintay where we unload what seemed like a department stores worth of stuff - much of it sewn into potato sacks. There were doors, baskets of oranges, garbage cans, a washing machine (maybe), and a million sacks. Many of the people got of here too. Apparently, much of the town speaks Quechuan. Back down the dusty road and onto the main highway again.

Abancay. There isn’t much nice to say about Abancay. Individuals were somewhat friendly especially at the restaurant on the square where I had a wonderful but unappreciated dish of Caldo de Gallina. This particular restaurant only sold this dish so it was finely tuned. The altitude had finally gotten to me and I had no hunger whatsoever. I made myself eat the soup anyway as it was good and nourishing. I do not recommend the hostel that I stayed in. It’s called El Sol and there are many others that would have been better, but after pushing my bike up the hill from the bus station I just took the closest one. I learned my lesson there. The outside looked ok, freshly painted with a café attached. I refused to go to the café. For some reason I decided that I did not want to have a private bathroom. I think it was because they were charging too much so I went with the 10 sole deal. A room without a view (or a window), shared bathroom (where I walked in on someone peeing in the dark), and a teen who laughed with a high pitched giggle when ever I approached and always asked where I was going. There was a concert in town the day I arrived, but as I hadn’t really slept on the bus and the effects of altitude were beginning to get to me I decided to bag it. The funny thing is about traveling so far, it is quite a bit about the journey and what you see along the way and not so much the tourist spots that you check off. This concert would have been fantastic, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open so I had to pass. After being awakened at 3am by knocking at the front door and then at 3:30 am by and alarm clock and the radio turned full blast I fumbled around for my earplugs and got a few hours of sleep. It was also this morning that I realized that besides the lethargy of altitude I had finally succumbed to the traveler problem. Oh well. I left the next day.

So now riding. Let’s talk about hills. There are hills and there are the Andes and let me tell you the Andes are kicking my butt. I rode with a mountain biker for the first few kilometers out of town up and up and up and had to stop pretty constantly. I should have actually stopped more, but I wanted to get a little farther away from the urban settlement. Finally he ditched me to ride with a friend of his and I never saw him again. The word on the street was that the pass was 30km or so from Abancay. A breeze you say, think again. Think NO DOWNHILL ANYWHERE. Bit by bit I slogged my way up the mountain(s) and got higher and higher about Abancay. From a distance it almost looks cute. The terrain is pretty dry but not desert dry. It smells of eucalyptus and reminds me of the foothills of California but higher. In the sun and with exertion you feel hot, but as soon as you hit shade you realize that it isn’t really that warm out. The sun is deceiving. I haven’t worn short sleeves since the first days out of Lima. Here I use the long sleeves as a cover up and as a social thing. I want to look as asexual as possible and I think that it is working a little bit. I don’t think that people realize that I’m female unless they see the braid or they look closely.

After about 5 hours of riding and walking I rounded the bend to hear a babbling brook and lots of kids voices. There was a field on the side of a hill with a few flat spots that was perfect and while I had only gone 18km in about 5 hours I was beat. The woman that came flying down the hill towards me was all smiles and she gladly let me set up camp even showing me where a flat spot was. The kids all helped me carry my stuff up and once I got the tent up we looked at pictures and they took turns being pushed on the bike. It was a beautiful view and both the dog and the location were tranquille (safe). Once the kids left for dinner (about 4pm) I started the delightful task of getting water and making my own dinner. Dinner here was important because part of the reason I was so beat is that I hadn’t had much to eat all day. A tostada that tasted like pork fat dipped in my mate de coca and a choclo bread which I also dipped in my tea, various fruits and that was about it. My dinner consisted of a mix of large bead cous cous, mixed with tuna and that delightful Penzeys spice called Old World. While I wasn’t hungry due to altitude it was necessary and I retreated into the tent to eat. An attempt at clean up (cooking with kerosene is not fun) and I was off to bed. It was 6:13pm. So if I ever make fun of anyone again for going to be early remind me about this one.

A word on altitude. Last time I exerted myself at this altitude (lower actually) I got awful headaches. This time it hasn’t been the headaches, but just the fact that the oxygen isn’t getting to my muscles. This problem of oxygen to muscles and just plain breathing often makes pushing the bike a suitable solution to riding the bike especially on the slightly more inclined switchbacks. There are nice gradual switchbacks and there are “what were they thinking” switchbacks. Most of this road consists of the “what were they thinking” switchbacks. Another thing is appetite. I have none and while you need to eat it’s difficult to shove the food into your mouth – you just don’t want it. It really helps to have salt and spices and a nice cup of tea in these circumstance, even if everything smells like kerosene. I was taking altitude medicine up until today (July 4th) and that may have helped.

In the morning was more kerosene cooking with a cup of mate de coca and a bowl of goopy quinoavena. This concoction is meant to be had as a drink but as it was just oatmeal I made it a little heftier and treated it like oatmeal with the addition of the absolutely necessary salt and a little sugar. Not bad and very good for you. With two full meals under my belt I was ready to start back up the hill. I knew that there were about 20km to go according to a kid whom I bought water from the day before so I set my sights on the pass and would see what happened after that. I have to admit that besides looking up at the mountains here and there and looking do at how high I had risen I didn’t really think about much other then moving forward. You could tell when lunch hour was due to the drop in traffic and about two or three people offered to take me to the top. One guy said that it was 5 km more so I figured another hour or two walking ( you lose all track of time) and when I hit kilometer 5 I was horrified to look up and see at least three more huge switchbacks. The bastard – it was 7km not 5km. The joys of a car – how was he to know exactly how many km it was to the top. People wanted to talk to me but I was too exhausted to breath much less figure out how to say things in Spanish. Oh, on the coast they call the language español, but in the mountains they call it castellano. That is the difference. The people in Lima looked at me like I was crazy when I mention castellano – that’s ok, now I know where it’s used. I passed Quechuan potato farmers, rock haulers, lots of couples or women with animals. I can’t really tell who speaks Quechuan and who speaks Spanish. You would think that the woman in the brightly colored skirts and the bowler type hats would be Quechuan, but often they speak Spanish. I gave up trying to figure out and just said Buenos Dias or Tardes or Hola to everyone. If they answered in a lot of syllables I figured it was Quechuan.

So I pushed up the last 2 km of road way and got to the top. There was a nice lade that said, “Un poco mas.” And this time she was RIGHT! At the top I tried to smile as I took a picture but I just couldn’t between a variety of infirmaries and just being too tired I was happy enough to get a picture. The top was at about elevation 13,125 ft according to my trusty GPS. Pretty good for a New Yorker. I was trying to cheat at the end and hitch a ride, but there were no empty cars around when you needed one. I’m glad that I did it myself though. And tomorrow there is another one to tackle!

The descent was fantastic. Twenty seven (27) of downhill and one tiny little hill that I, yes, walked up. Twenty seven miles. It was exhilarating even keeping the speeds low. On this side of the mountain, or in this valley I should say, there is a lot of farming. It seems to be grains rather than potatoes and there are a lot of animals. Funny think is I can’t remember what type at the moment. It’s not llamas – haven’t seen one of them yet. I think I usually see the people on the side of the road and I’m looking at them rather than the animals. Perhaps it’s cows, that makes the most sense because I haven’t seen goats recently and there aren’t that many horses. For the descent I put on my heavier shirt (on top of the other two), the shell jacket, and some mittens on top of my cycling gloves. No need for the extra warm layer as the shell shielded me from the wind chill. The hard part was breaking and controlling the wobble. I now think that the wobble is really due to over loading and it wasn’t too bad. I could head for the shoulder to beak the oscillations or as it turns out just back pedaling and moving my weight around helped. Riding into the U-turns really helped. At one point in the descent I even passed a truck. That was safer than trying to break and stay behind him because the real danger with the downhill (besides flying over the side) was having your hands cramp. After awhile you develop a rhythm that allows your hands to rest, the bike to stay at a steady speed. It was really something else.

Upon arrival at Curahuasi, I was directed towards my current location. It is a clean, pleasant hospadaje at the East end of town, where I am now happily ensconced for a rest day with a slight cold. I went to take a hot shower upon arrival and much to my dismay (shivering with no clothes on ) I discovered that there was no hot water. We chatted and for a price (which I was more than willing to pay) I got hot water but that was after three family member got involved trying to get it running. It involved a propane tank, a meter on the side of the building and I don’t know what actually occurred to make it work, but it was wonderful. I washed my hair for the first time in 5 or 6 days, brushed my teeth for the first time in two, had a toilet where I could sit down, and scrubbed the kerosene soot from my hands.

I’ll leave you with these two things. Once the dirt was scrubbed away I could clearly see the bumps and bruises from my first fall. I was going so slowly as to not be moving at all and couldn’t get my shoe out of the clip when I just toppled over into the drainage ditch that lines the road from top to bottom. I looked up to see a farmer on the hill above me looking down so I waved at him. He waved back and didn’t laugh. My plans are to try to make it to Cusco in 3 or 4 days. If I can get to Limatambo tomorrow I will have a bed to rest in before the attack on the peak, but I have a feeling that the road to Limatambo is on a gradual incline which isn’t as bad as a pass road isn’t easy. Limatambo over the pass (4200m) and down to Anta. And finally an easy ride into Cusco from Anta to try to find a hostel for a few weeks. Perhaps I can try to bargain for extended stay rates!

Feelings after the first day of ascent:
1) Estoy cansada
2) Some dogs really, really suck. I’m glad I got rabies shots
3) At altitude I understand even less in Spanish
4) People can be very nice even with a language barrier on my part
5) Falling isn’t so bad at zero mph
6) Food and water is important whether you want it or not
7) The camping gear was necessary – all of it.
8) Dictionaries rock

No photos (my connection is - and I´m not kidding - 10.0 mbps - and you thought dial up was bad).
If you´ve gotten this far here is another
Google Earth file
showing the ascent (part of the bus ride is missing but each and every glorious switchback of the pass is shown)


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