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Published: January 8th 2009
At the risk - or, rather, certainty - of sounding trite, the past number of months saw an odyssey of a different kind. From the casual observer I was at the last entry to a paid up participant in Porteño
life, finally I could claim membership of the society I’d shuffled awkwardly around the edges of, like some shy teenager, with a mixture of childish infatuation and graceless mimicry. There followed a journey too intimate and banal to recount here, until the voyaging once more resumed its literal character and I landed up in Peru just in time for the holidays.
Cusco’s main square on Christmas eve was a mass of bodies huddled under a thick blanket of odours. Vendors had swarmed over the surface of the Plaza de Armas
, festive and folk wares toppling from their rickety stalls, and withered old figures carrying twice their bulk pushed through the cloying effluvium of coca tea, incense and urine. In amongst the scores of biblical figurines and miniature alpacas, a baby sprawled under a bundle of bright woven textiles, in a polychrome Nativity, and above the streets the pitch-coloured mountainsides were punctured with flickering lights, like a giant join-the-dots puzzle. Backpackers
staggered from the bus station, disoriented by the demented bleating of competing off-key carols piped from every transport company’s stand.
The city is a departure point for trekkers hiking the Inca Trail and daytrippers to Machu Picchu, but it also has a reputation for attracting drifters and deadbeats. Those who once set their rucksacks down in this slacker Shangri-La on some now long-forgotten date live amidst Quechuan-speaking locals in a kaleidoscopic panorama of steep cobbled streets with dreadlocked dogs and rambling llamas, hypnotic red rooftops and moon-faced girls with mutinous stares. Masked men with leather chaps waltz past bulging Incan walls and wide-hipped women squat on miniscule stools dismembering live frogs with macabre efficiency. Once back down the mountain it all feels like some delirious technicolour trip. Who knows if it was just the rare air?
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