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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!!

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