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Published: July 22nd 2010
Look at me! I belong!
Really...how ridiculous does this woman look in the Andes?
It’s not that I don’t like hippies, it’s that I have no use for them. None has ever caused me personal strife. They rarely annoy me. As far as I know, hippies don’t cause violent crime or even foment revolution; they’re usually too stoned to bother. They are simpleminded, overeducated, and generally useless. Never has an entire social subgroup amounted to absolute dead weight.
Cusco is full of hippies, bucket loads of them. The vast majority congregates and vegetates on the Cuesta Santa Ana. It is a sharp inclined street of bare-bones collective accommodation and other basic services. A man with Jesus facial hair has taken a seat in the sun next to his girlfriend. His untamed beard needs a gardener. He and she are decked out in the obligatory and mindless vertical striped linen pants that all supposedly free thinkers wear. The girl has a deep blue knit beret on her head, pointless in the powerful sun. It is a laissez-faire choice of attire. Both project an air of unproductive self-importance. Look at us, we’re different. We go against the grain. They are the wannabes of their parents’ generation. They seek to fight the power, but with a convenient escape
An Aloof Self-Importance
Gee, honey...should we shower this week?
hatch. If their interlude into hippiedom fails, so what? If they do not quite reach nirvana, with or without chemical inducement, they still have an out: a passport and plane ticket home to a first world nation. Hippies often come to places like Cusco to discover themselves, only to find out there is nothing to discover. Native artifacts dangling in their earlobes don’t change who they are. It just proves that they are trying to be someone they are not. Eventually they’ll wake up and sober up when the money’s gone, apply some soap and water, get a haircut, and go back to Calgary.
Rosalinda and I take a few pictures at the top of Santa Ana. We walk by a graffiti painting of a hippie in a red headband hauling a backpack and a guitar case up Santa Ana. Rosalinda knows who hippies are, but doesn’t understand them. There’s nothing Peruvian about them. It’s a quality both of us have in common.
“Why do they come here?”
“Because they think they fit in.” I was trying to be kind.
“Here in Peru? They are not a part of us.”
“So you are saying if a foreigner dresses like that,
Welcome to La Cuesta Santa Ana
Yes, an image is worth a th-, well, you know...
they won’t be better assimilated? Won’t they be able to understand Peru better than us unenlightened?”
“No! People from Lima don’t look like they belong here. “Those people over there are,” she struggles for a word, “very different.” We left it at that.
We have spent several hours of the three days aimlessly walking Cusco. Anything less than three days without leaving the city for a daytrip is not enough. There is simply too much here: plazas, markets, shops, narrow passageways, and viewpoints. We haven’t even stepped into a church yet. We have called San Blas home, where I would recommend everyone else do the same. It is above the fray, but by no means beyond it. The back windy cobblestone streets are lined with pubs, restaurants, and guesthouses. It is a refuge from the powerful pace and intensity of the masses below. The pace is slower. It is easier to find a little piece of Cusco you don’t have to share with anyone, at least for a short time. The stray dogs are docile. The constant horns of taxi cabs do not reach these heights as easily. As in other neighborhoods security details, whether it be the Policía
La Cuesta Santa Ana
Not a bad place when free of hippies...
Nacional or private firms, roam the streets. Their assignment is to protect the city’s most economically precious asset…me (and other tourists).
San Blas appeals to me because it lies on the cusp between the refined Cusco and the Peru most of its ordinary citizens have to accept on a daily basis. It is the other half, the one that reflects the reality of everyday life. The higher you climb the more it becomes apparent. The fine cobblestone streets start to crumble into loose pieces of rock. There are no more signs reading “hospedaje”, “Laundry”, or “Menú Turístico”. Rosalinda and I pass small corner shops that provide basic provisions to residents. As elsewhere, street signs spell out their names in fantastic and almost unintelligible Quechua. I imagine entering a taxi somewhere in Cusco and trying to tell him I need to go somewhere in San Blas by P’asñapakana and Atocsaicuchi just to see where he’d take me. I’d like to offer those two names for the bonus round on Wheel of Fortune, but the contestant wouldn’t have to call out any letters, just pronounce it properly for the trip to Tahiti…
Pat: The category is Names.
Edith: Got it. (Edith
La Plazoleta San Blas
The center of Cusco's low-key upper neighborhood...
takes in a deep breath and waves her fingers through her grey hair)
Pat: To help you out, Vanna is going to turn ALL the letters over! (Audience roars, Edith excitedly jumps up and down. She can feel that boarding pass in her hand already.) All you have to do is sound it out. Remember, ENUNCIATE. Got it?
Edith: You bet, Pat. (She looks back at her husband in the audience with a beaming smile. She can hardly control herself.)
Pat: OK, Edith from Rapid City, you have five seconds. Ready?
Edith: Let’s do it! (She clenches her fist. The stage lights dim.)
Pat: OK, Vanna. (Pause The board reads---)
Q ‘ A P H C H I K ‘ I J L L U
Pat again: Five seconds, go…
Edith: Uh, but, what the @#!% is that? Uh….umm….quopasjew, no wait…qapchalikeum, no it’s…Oh, hell, just give me the toaster!
Pat: (Buzzer sounds and stages lights come back on) Oh, I’m sorry!
OK, back to Cusco…
Rosalinda and I find a broken and abused playground. It has fallen into disrepair. Chains intended for the swings no longer connect to the seat. There is shattered glass about. The seesaws
Say This Three Times Fast
Say it at all if you can. It probably means "Main Street" in Quechua...
are terribly uncomfortable and the fulcrum is cracked. The only functioning amusement is a suspended tire about a foot above the sandy ground. We take photographs not just of the playground, but of all of Cusco spread out below us. On the steep hill that falls into downtown, homes are no longer the high gloss whitewashed sturdy constructions. Rather they are of dried mud bricks. Some are leaning very dangerously downhill. I fear what would happen to the foundations in a torrential downpour. In a small back patio a portly woman has hung out her laundry. The line is connected between a hook in the wall of her home and the chain link fence of the playground. Directly above is a basketball court. No hoop is connected to either of the backboards. Instead the backboards are advertisements for Cusqueña beer. Sticks and stones hold down the all-too-familiar corrugated metal roof of the open washroom. A rainbow of colored buckets is stacked up against a support pole. A bundle of newly foraged branches and twigs rests on the top of a short hill. A bearded old man hobbles to us, desperate for conversation. He tries to help us with something we
It's easy to like this part of town. It keeps you in shape, too...
didn’t want or ask for. His speech is indecipherable. A great deal of the lisping is due to his three visible teeth. The scene is awkward. We try to pay attention. Soon enough he was on his way carrying on a conversation of which we were no longer a part.
“Shall we go back down now?” Rosalinda suggested.
“You mean back down to Cusco, or should we stay up here in Peru?” She knew what I meant. “When people come to Cusco, do they ever think of this?”
“No, I don’t think so.” This is the Peru she knows, not the neon lights of restaurants or fine jewelry shops.
“Probably about the bands on the Plaza de Armas at the nightlife of rock bands and drink specials.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Let’s go…” She had seen enough.
The depot for Cruz del Sur in Cusco belies the service rendered aboard the luxurious coaches. It is just as dirty and uninspiring as what we saw in Ayacucho. Rosalinda turned over her reservation at the main counter as I waited for her in a row of blue plastic chairs. She came back with ticket in hand. Her backpack was secured tightly for
Cusco from Above
From a playground in San Blas...
the journey to Lima. She bought some drinks and snacks and stuffed them in her shoulder bag. I brought no luggage, just my daypack. An agent called out for all those Lima bound and the masses started to rise.
“Incredible,” she muttered as I escorted her to the line for an ID check.
“I think I am the only Peruvian going to Lima.”
“That’s Cusco.” We smiled.
We shared a few thoughts and reflected upon the last two weeks. This moment was bound to come, as much as both of us attempted to pretend it would not. Following an embrace and promises, she boarded. She disappeared into the second floor of the coach. For once I had found a travelling companion I did not want to choke the snot out of after three days. Compromises were not too painful after all; I can be very demanding that way. A bitter, bile-like saliva filled my mouth. I did not wait for the coach to depart. Instead I silently tuned away and made for a taxi. Concerning those promises, I just hope they are ones the both of us can keep. A taxi pulled up to me and I bent
Rosalinda Taking in the View
I'll need to get a copy of her photos...
over and poked my nose through the front passenger window.
“Where do you want to go, señor?”
All of a sudden, I paused, then froze. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I hadn’t planned for this. To the Plaza de Armas? The ruins outside of town or to a restaurant? I had no idea. I didn’t know what I wanted; I had spent the last two weeks wondering what Rosalinda wanted to keep her happy. It had never occurred to me what I would like now. Nothing came to mind. This had never happened before. I was in a state of verbal and mental paralysis. “Señor…¿adónde?” he repeated.
I told him that San Blas would be fine, but I didn’t need to go back to my Spartan room in the guesthouse where I had checked in earlier in the day. “How much is the fare?”
“Siete soles, señor,” two-and-half times the normal rate. He was clearly looking at me as fresh touristic stupidity ready to be fleeced.
I exploded. Out of my mouth came a tirade of unkind words. In addition to calling him a common thief, I believe I made an allusion to his family being descended
The tires works; that's about it....
from donkeys. I slammed the door hard enough to break the latch and stammered away. What came over me? I had been quoted ludicrous rates before and just politely told the driver to be on his way. If Rosalinda were here, that wouldn’t have happened.
I walked my way back twenty minutes to the Plaza de Armas. From there and for the next three hours, I can’t tell you where I walked. I wandered aimlessly all over Cusco. I didn’t glimpse into any of the shops. I stopped for no drinks. My camera never came out of my pocket. I climbed and descended hills and staircases with no purpose. It was nearly dusk when I made it back to the upper reaches of San Blas in a mindless daze. Luis, the guesthouse owner, waved at me as I made it to my room. “Ricardo, ¿cómo estás?
“Bien, gracias” a half truth.
“Where did you go today?”
“I don’t know.” That was the truth. I entered my room, locked the door, and went to sleep.
I pull up a stool at the bar in place of taking a table. Oddly enough that single act snapped me out of my stupor.
The Playground and Above
A look at the upper reaches of San Blas...
This is familiar territory for me and I take comfort in it. It permits me to get my bearings straight. I start to put the pieces back together. At the Cross Keys Pub, I ignore the cute girl who greets me in English and I reply to her in Spanish. A cold draught sits next to me and I take my thick tipped uni-ball pen out and lose myself in the off-white pages of my Moleskine. An American family is behind me. They are chatting about the flight to Cusco from Minneapolis. Otherwise there are no other distractions to occupy my mind. I finish my drink and go to Paddy’s down the block. There it is a stage of commotion. I struggle to squeeze my way onto a stool, but no one pays me any attention. The place is packed, but there are no Peruvians but for a man collecting empty glasses. Mimi, a gorgeous Korean girl cannot muster enough strength to pull her cell phone away from her ear to take my order. I am ready to offer her my services and chuck her Blackberry like a javelin at the Olympics. I immediately want her fired. I spin around;
The "Other" Cusco
You don't see too many tour guides or street vendors around this part of San Blas...
the place is packed, by and large with first-timers. College kids swap stories about their time in Lima and if the fries at the McDonald’s on the Plaza de Armas are as good as the ones in Savannah. The mindless group mentality turns me back to the drink that Mimi has yet to pull out of the fridge. I am gone after that one. I am beginning to think I am outgrowing this scene, a scary thought when I ponder where I was twelve years ago. I used to live in watering holes like these.
I walk back up to San Blas. I am more at ease there. The folks at the Taberna where we watched the World Cup are acquainted with my face and my order. I peer into the shops along the steep Cuesta San Blas and see a merchant holding up a fifty sol note to the light. She runs her fingers over the lettering which should be in relief at the top of the bill where it reads “Banco Central de Reserva del Perú.” Counterfeit cash in Peru is as common as tornados in Oklahoma in June. It is necessary to check change all the time,
Put to Bed
A boy is asleep on a three chairs at his parents' pizzeria...
even the coins. No one trusts anyone when it comes to cash. Cusco gratefully lacks postcard stands. There are so few in the shops around here that they will soon be a relic of the past. For every postcard stand taken down over the last ten years, someone has put up at Internet café. Come to think of it, it has been fifteen years since I sent a postcard. It is an ultra-electronic age dominated by Facebook and lesser social websites. A pack of loud local teenagers pushes by. Many have an earphone dangling from one ear with their mp3 players ensconced under their tops. Nothing changes; they could be middle schoolers in Connecticut.
A delightful touristic cocoon, Cusco offers me the time to think, I mean really think. I put in order what is important and what is not. Over the past year, friends have come, some have regretfully gone for the time being. I ponder whether these travels should continue every year (certainly!) and if the decisions I have made over the past two years are the right ones (I hope so). Overall coming to Peru permits me to compose a mental list of resolutions. For most who live and work in the real world, New Years comes around the first of January. For me it is this time of year. When away, it is easier to take stock of what is important and dismiss useless trivia. At the brink of forty, a dilemma hounds me: How do I maintain this blissful tour du monde while setting and accomplishing other personal goals. Can I keep it together? Is it possible to strike a balance so that work doesn’t eat away at me? Is it time to have more to come home to than leftover pasta and the evening cable news shows? (I really like leftover pasta, by the way)
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