Published: July 21st 2010July 14th 2010
La Plaza de Armas
One of the world's great open public spaces...
To come to Cusco is like flirting with an intoxicant. This colonial masterpiece of the Spanish Empire puts me in a very familiar element. For me it is a temporary suspension of reality, for other travelers it can become a very, very prolonged one. Many come for weeks and still haven’t left. Cusco’s rules of engagement with the safe and friendly confines of its historical core rarely change. It allures then has a hard time letting go. Stay here long enough and it generates a false sense of being a local; nothing could be further from the truth. Cusco relieves travelers of any sense of responsibility while in its grip. Consequences and challenges are few. They can do as they please. Make a mistake in Cusco and recovery is painless. Structure and services are at anyone’s disposal. Lose something? Need clothing replaced? Want a cold sangria after having two Big Macs? It’s never a problem. Throngs head for the Irish Pub, a sort of de facto embassy for the ex-pat and backpacker community. When in Peru, this city is as unavoidable as taxes. Cusco is where the backpacker subculture comes to live it up, share harrowing tales, forget their miseries, restock,
On the left is a luxury hotel, where I did NOT stay...
It has taken little time to realize I have been to Cusco many times before, yet the background and setting were different. I have been a guest within the same bubble of immunity from the challenges of South America. Cusco sprouts offspring, twins, and very close cousins all over the world. The faces are the same, so is the attire and attitude. Change the backdrop and there are striking similarities between King’s Cross in Sydney and Luang Prabang in Laos. Amsterdam also beckons in the same way as a focal point for Europe; so does Bangkok for Southeast Asia. Lagos, Portugal once did the same for me twenty years ago. One man’s Bali is another man’s Queenstown or Siem Reap. Cusco is a distribution center for those coming, going, in the planning stages of something bigger, or maybe even to melt into the cobblestone streets and whitewashed homes over the long term.
Travelers and tourists alike come in certain categories. There is the type who will pour a foundation, stay, marry a local and open a bar or restaurant to serve their cultural compatriots. Others’ stays here are programmed down to the last minute, for which Cusco is
It begs to be explored...
perfectly suited: breakfast at the hotel, into the tour van and off to the ruins for lunch and back to town for more sightseeing and picture-taking. No thinking is required. Others are in a holding pattern, on the brink of that “big trek”. Cusco is where to stock up on supplies before taking off into the Andean wild. The final class of traveler is the antithesis of those prior, the one who has dragged himself here to decompress and recover emotionally and physically. It could be from a traumatic encounter with crumbling mines in Bolivia or in search of antidotes for the insect bites on a canoeing tour of the Amazon.
Cusco is enticing, alluring, and seductive. Bear in mind there are no secrets here to be discovered that tens of thousands before have not claimed as their own little pearl. Rosalinda and I have retreated to San Blas, a lofty neighborhood only somewhat less tacky and commercial than the downtown area. She has been before, but with family and could only sprint around the back streets, upper plazas, and cool passageways for two days. She has come to the conclusion that she is a foreigner in her own
La Compañía de Jesús
The Jesuits contribution to the Plaza de Armas...
country. The apex of Peruvian cities, she cannot even read the menu. Spanish takes a back door to English; my mother tongue reigns supreme. Nothing is set up for Peruvians. Whether it be signs for laundry, upscale accommodation, or evening entertainment, a minor in English would be very helpful. Much to my surprise, she has been a great sport about it. We duck into a Dutch-style restaurant where a man from Venlo hands her a bilingual menu, but nothing in Spanish. I think I would have put up quite a protest. Imagine being handed a public transportation pamphlet while touring New Orleans and realizing it’s in Hungarian. She is surrounded by people completely unknown to her; their accents, complexion, and mannerisms are unfamiliar, yet provocative. The languages are unintelligible. People speak English too fast. I order a Pad Thai dish and she has some sort of pasta alfredo basically because that’s the one item she can decipher. She retreats into herself and is quiet. She is a Peruvian lost in Peru, yet homesick for her own country. She may as well have stepped into the bar full of aliens in Star Wars.
An amorous young couple is chatting at table
Dumb, naive women beware...
not far from us. Rosalinda scrunches her eyebrows and discreetly leans her ear toward them. She cannot make heads or tails of the guttural sounds their vocal chords are composing. She whispers to me, “Ricardo, is that English they are speaking?”
I tune in. It isn’t. It more resembles the sound a bullfrog makes when shoved down your esophagus while a family member tries to extricate it with a plunger. “No, dear. That is Dutch, from Holland. You remember the orange team in World Cup? Well those folks are from the Netherlands. This entire café is themed for them. It is their home away from home.” She was not impressed with what she heard.
“Is it hard to learn?”
“Terribly. But to make up for it, the language is totally useless outside the geographical area of a master bedroom closet.”
Our dinners arrive. One look at my Pad Thai of thin rice noodles and peanut sauce and Rosalinda’s mouth waters. She has never seen anything so exotic. Like super divided highways, my meal could have been delivered on a spaceship. She has only eaten Peruvian, touristic Italian and very substandard South American Chinese cuisine. She tries to be polite, yet
Bricheros take on all different appearances. This one had girls all over him...
gives in. “Can I try some?”
“Sure.” In addition the chef was very liberal with fresh vegetables and red chilies. The flavors explodes in her mouth and awakens taste buds she never knew she had. Her eyes roll to the back of her head with pleasure.
She takes another mouthful. “Is all Thai food like this?”
“No, Rosalinda. This is very basic. It is how the Dutch prepare it. Real Thai food is far, far better and the flavors are more intense. The Dutch palette is very bland.” Right then and there, she was ready to book a flight to Bangkok.
On the second morning we silently walked down the main drag from San Blas on the way to the Plaza de Armas. We spoke no words and knew what had to be done. Our time together had just about run its course. We stepped down into a travel agency that specializes in selling tickets on Cruz del Sur. We pulled up two stools and sat side by side at the counter.
“Can I help you,” the agent politely asked.
Rosalinda responded, “Yes, Cruz del Sur runs a bus to Lima from Cusco, yes?”
“Certainly, there are two
Dozens of these compete for the tourist dollar, sol, peso, and euro...
departures…” the agent continued with some ordinary details.
“How long is the journey?”
“Twenty-one hours, via Abancay.” We had come through Abancay when arriving from Ayacucho. The bus ticket was less than half of the flight. If the difference were remotely close, a ninety-minute trip would have been far more preferable.
We looked at each other. It was unquestionably the best way back to Lima in comfortable lounge seats in which passengers could sleep. The route all the way was asphalted. “Let’s do it” I commented to her. She agreed.
The agent requested, “How many tickets?”
Rosalinda’s carriage was turning into a pumpkin. She sighed gloomily and exhaled, “Solamente uno.”
In a country whose people are so monetarily derelict, Cusco and others places we have been have few panhandlers. Annoyances come in other forms. The brilliant Plaza de Armas is awash with aggressive vendors, shoeshine boys, and cute women handing out brochures for massages. What is up with massages in Cusco? Ten minutes without “Amigo, your shoes…dirty” or “You need good food, you come with me” is practically impossible. In spite of the bothersome disruptions of hanging jewelry and watercolors shoved in our faces the main square is
Two Civilizations Collide
Incan foundation supports Spanish colonial architecture...
one of the world’s great public spaces. Cafés, stores, and restaurants spill onto the open rectangular plaza. In the center is a green, well manicured promenade of benches with a dignified fountain as its centerpiece. It is void of trash and framed by a first-class cathedral and baroque Jesuit church. It is as historical as it is social. People use it to cut across as a shortcut. Others stroll. Some blissfully look into the cutting rays of the sun.
Between visits from a few starving artists, Rosalinda points out a part of Cusco’s identity many women miss until it’s too late. “Ricardo, you see that man over there, with the braids around his wrist he is trying to sell? That is a brichero. You wanted to know what one looks like, well there he is.”
I studied him as carefully as possible without being detected. He was just as I heard about. Rugged, muscular, and his early to mid twenties, women find him invitingly handsome. Under the guise of selling dangling and faux Incan junk, his only goal is to seek out and conquer (then dispose of) as many young foreign ”gringas” as he possibly can. As Rosalinda and I
It's Not What You Think
The rainbow patterned flag represents the Cusco region, not anyone's orientation...
scan the Plaza, the candidate pool is absolutely superb. As far as he is concerned, the blonder and dumber they come, the better. He is not up for resistance if little will be offered.
His appearance is a huge part of the bait. He wears canvas sneakers, perhaps sandals in order to portray that he is not too aloof. The one I am examining has a pair of oversized and obviously counterfeit Ray-Ban sunglasses over half his face. His trousers are from Lacoste; the wool scarf around his neck is strictly for effect, unnecessary on this brilliantly sunny afternoon. A three or four-day stubble also accentuates his looks. His image projects, “I’m in the know, I’m cool. I’m not part of the capitalist, military/media complex, but I still belong.” I hold out an inkling of respect for his exploits because when questioned, bricheros rarely lie…to other men. They will freely admit who they are and what they do, however with a naïve ditz with milky legs and deep cleavage from Leeds, all bets are off. This one in particular surveys the Plaza. His head continually scans the grounds until he fixes on his next potential victim. I pondered his behavior
One of so many in Cusco...
and it occurred to me: I was watching a shark hover over a school of tuna until one either too weak or distracted would briefly become separated from the masses. Like any predator, when it senses weakness or smells blood, it pounces on its helpless victim.
They seduce by often claiming they are direct descendants of the Incas and are endowed with the power to see the gateway into another world. I have even seen one in an Atahualpa costume at a live show in San Blas. He did nothing; he just stood there. Who knew? Girls were all over him. Is it the metal plated pendant close to his neck or the singular sky blue feathered earring? From that point on they discuss astronomic convergences and how the Incan God of love destined that they were meant to be together. He promises her a gateway of knowledge into a new world. For some reason this sucks in the chicks. Of course, he neglects to mention any children, wives, or other girlfriends awaiting his mystic wisdom while shacked up in an eight-bunk dorm room at a fleabag hostel a few blocks away.
The great thing about extended travel is
that after a certain period of time, I forget what day it is. Similar to the ñustas, Andean women in traditional dress, I have no real need to know. More crucial to me is the calendar date rather than if it is a Tuesday or a Friday. When Rosalinda and I surfaced to street level one morning to take on Cusco for the third time, we had to make an adjustment to our plans. Everyone else had. It was all over the television radio. It was the talk on the street. Who do you think will win, Holland or Spain? Cusqueños are pulling for Spain without question. I believe it has something to do with the historical or linguistic connection. No one from Cusco is even secretly rooting for the Dutch.
We have settled into to a watering hole called the Taberna San Blas. The owner Nick, a British ex-pat, assured us two days ago that we would have good seating in front of one of his two HD screens. Cold drinks hit our table and we have planted ourselves directly in front of a smoky grill of roasting beef, lamb and chicken. Nick is at the helm pushing and
Wolrd Cup Final
At Taberna San Blas. Check out the guy onthe right. Think he's into it?
flipping the sizzling morsels. Rosalinda and I have arrived ninety minutes early. She does not complain about the wide gap between our arrival and kickoff. Others file in and stake claim to the best seating left. We go up to the salad bowls Nick has set up at the front by the entrance. The pregame is a broadcast from Chile; few folks pay it any attention. It is time to lounge and stare out the window. We chat with the other nationalities at adjacent tables. I find a group of Americans and mildly interested French. Rosalinda has turned around and started a conversation with a man from Catalonia, whose interest in the match is understandably rather intense. Rosalinda has made amazing progress. Once a wallflower, she doesn’t cling to me in order to meet others. She does need to be formally introduced to strangers. She is starting to open up.
Sometime between the playing of the national anthems and kickoff, two young and awfully pretty blonde ladies walked in and stood in the corner. I noticed them out of the corner of my eye and did what I could (very, very little) not to turn around and have a better
Can't Resist Temptation
The sign outside the bathroom at the Taberna San Blas...
view. I surrendered to the visual temptation and scanned them for no more than a second or two. I tagged them as most likely Americans. All off a sudden, Rosalinda buried a sharp elbow into the mid section of my rib cage. I winced without emitting any verbal acknowledgment of the pain she inflicted. Does she file those things to a fine point every morning?
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing, uh… the molding at the top of the ceiling…” Whatever I said, it didn’t work.
“So, ¿te gustan las rubias?” You like blondes?
I kept silent. Perhaps I’d get lucky and the place would catch fire. That would make her forget. Nick kept turning the meat on the grill. The table fans blew the smoke out the second floor window. I tried to salvage the situation, “Look! The match just started! Now we don’t want to miss any of the action.” It didn’t work. She scowled at me.
“Why don’t you ever look at me like that?”
“I do,” and that was the truth.
She uttered a sigh of disapproval and tightened her lips. Our attention turned to the Spanish and Dutch on the high definition screen.
Miss No Action!
A monitor is set up in front of the toilet during the World Cup...
minutes into the first half, more medium and medium rare lamb pieces hit my plate thanks to Nick. This couldn’t be much better…World Cup final, packed pub, cold drinks, and grilled meat within arm’s length. I got up to use the toilet. Nick had installed a screen and the ledge of the window in the bathroom. He didn’t want anyone to miss out on the action. A few minutes after my return, I received more lamb from Nick, this time the rack…just wonderful. I dove in like Greg Louganis. A few last chunks were on my plate when Rosalinda expressed interest, “Are you going to have those last pieces?” She desperately was eyeing the pink morsels.
“I have a better idea. There is some more coming in a minute. Just wait a bit and Nick will come around.” I suppose I was not in the sharing mood at the time. I thought very little of my comment. It was even a bit diplomatic. I was proud of myself.
Rosalinda did not see it that way. She peered over my shoulder, “Hey, Ricardo, there are two more blondes that walked in. See?”
Instincts took over. I turned around. The first two were gone. So help me, I looked everywhere for the other pair. I even checked under the table. She must have been mistaken, no blondes anywhere. When I swerved back to my set and faced forward my lamb was gone. Wh-? Where? I stared at Rosalinda who ignored me. She made no gestures and stared at the match, however she had taken one last satisfying swallow and put a napkin to her face.