hola de peru

june 13 , 2003

lima y cuzco, peru

hola amigos,

well, it’s taken over a week to get out of my insulated and fearful first world consciousness and into enough trouble and adventure to make it worth writing (and reading?) about.

primero. first off. ay caramba! hay mucho, mucho frio aqui. it’s fucking collllld here. as in - winter. as in - summer, north america; winter, south. and sure, we came with turtle necks and down vests, but damn, we’re no peruvians. how do they live without central heating? in fact con nada heating? evolution? adaptation? must be. but it’s something young wati from sweltering indonesia and her gringo husband from balmy LA just can’t handle. yesterday, at the tiny “hotel california” in international cuzco, i was in bed all day with inca's revenge and a 102 fever from some combo dysentery-cold thing. lying under the covers as close to the hotel’s even tinier califacion (electric heater) as possible. shaking. feverish. a one week casualty of third world culture shock. of over-reaching. and un-heeding. on my part. today, con un pocito cipro y ibuprofen, mucho mejor. much better.

but to begin with.... we had a surprisingly gentle and friendly arrival/reception in peru. thanks to felipe, our dedicated local servas coordinator here in lima. you’ve heard me talk about “servas” before. the organization of open doors and open hearts that allows travelers to stay in the homes of local hosts for several days, making their stay full of both friendship and insight into a place that would otherwise be so foreign and anonymous. i had been so paranoid about crime and theft in big bad lima, that staying in toney chorillos by the pacifico ocean, in our own little casita for three days and being ferried about by felipe and our hosts, mery and enrique, that as usual, my fears turned out to be just an endemic and useless waste of time.

still, arriving in lima is - instantaneous culture shock. so grim. and run down. sort of a dusty brown, third world haze enveloping the former so-called jewel of south america. simply put -- poor. churches, apartment buildings, fruit stands, strip malls, phone shops, traffic jams, motels, mcdonalds, roadside vendors, religious processions, taxi cabs, rainbow-colored busses, social protests, kids, parents, markets, chifos (chinese restaurants) – all packed in along the broad and peopled streets, emitting a generally noxious exhaust from perhaps, too much effort on too little money. everybody and everything scraping to get by. long past restoration, dignity, or glory. the downtown sprawling with union strikers, ordinary people, protesting the eternally bleak economics, the rotating turnstiles of political leaders, the cycle of hunger, poverty, resignation, and despair. a “national emergency” declared by president toledo in an attempt to give the military and police the power to unblock the roads, make arrests, intimidate and enforce. and amidst and amongst it all… everyday – life.

not exactly the best time for gringo tourists perhaps. yet i’m left wondering how much my own country’s clandestine and political alliances, tariffs, trade quotas, CIA, and corporate investments have to do with the whole country’s tawdry history and state of mind. marginalized indigenous people. western chain restaurants. sweat shops. unemployment. three hundred years of colonialism and exploitation. the great and powerful US of A, the new spain. the rich richer, the poor poorer. a passive catholicism and impotency underlying the smiling faces and de-valued currency.

yet at the same time, lima offers us stubborn touristos the local delicacy of cerviche (the biggest and most deliciosa raw fish i’ve ever had), a new roja hair coloring for wati, local bar and cafe hopping in greenwich village-like and romantic barranco, upscale and stylish shopping in san isidro and miraflores, beautiful portico-ed and balconied spanish colonial architecture everywhere you turn, and chilling nights under layers of alpaca blankets in toney chorillos. information-brimming and enthusiastic felipe takes us to “la puenta de los suspiros”, the bridge of whispering sighs, in barranco, the place where local young lovers could, under the stern control of their catholic parents, catch the glance of their amor, just in passing of course, and release the sigh of unrequited love into the aromatic air. and to la plaza mayor, the central plaza in downtown lima (at nightfall of course, after the protestors have gone home), lit so beautifully with its spanish cathedral from the 16th century, it’s palacio gobierno on an adjacent side, displaying the typical layout of every city in peru. of course, here in the capital, it is the most grandioso and magnifico. but no matter how tiny the town or village, it’s first church, followed by el municipalidad.

church and state, the spanish heritage to peru. along with small pox and the rape of its culture, women, and gold. no matter. tout ca change, tout ca reste. such is the history of civilization. cortez´s building his cathedral over the aztecs’ sacred place of worship in mexico city, pizarro building his over the most important inca palace here in lima, alexander in egypt and afghanistan, peter in the caucasas, the chinese all over southeast asia, the japanese, germans, the americans in iraq? oil being the modern day gold, s’il vous plait. at least, the modern day peruvians had their revisionist history revenge on the spanish by tearing down the horse-rearing statue of francisco pizarro, mighty contiquistador and founder of the city of lima, from the plaza mayor. apparently, i just missed him by a month or two. now, only a gaping hole in his place. lo siento, senor pizarro. go the way of christopher columbus......

on to cusco, capital of the incan civilization. largest empire in pre-columbian america. by 45 minute plane, of course. replacing the winding 12 hour bus ascent, and who knows the how many months approach by the conquering spanish in the 1530s. one can only imagine the grueling trek and the wild-eyed greed leading the spanish arsenals of horses, armor, treachery, and plunder. over unpaved roads. through insect-laden, steep mountain jungles. through unpredictable rains and torrential weather. through death, disease, sacrifice, and submission. all in the name of god, church, the crown, wealth, and glory.

we get off the plane and are greeted by our sign-bearing hotel driver. "erick trullers", the sign says. ok, that's us. no problema. except -- young wati from sweltering indonesia immediately gets an acute bout of "soroche", altitude sickness. even with our prescribed dosage of preventative diamox. headache, body aches, shortness of breath, overall tiredness, it’s still not too bad though. at least, not compared to the four servas travelers from israel, who we hear recently arrived with only three, one succumbing to an immediate high altitude heart attack right at the airport. wati sleeps - for about eight hours straight. i comfort her and while she’s asleep, i sneak a look around in the late afternoon. it's a wonderful, steep-hilled, cobble-stoned historic city full of back packers and tourists from all over the planet. all here to see the incan ruins of machu pichu. one of the great tourist meccas on the planet, yet one that has somehow, un-capitalistically, preserved its sense of integrity, naturalness, and dignity.

by night time, wati mostly recovered, we manage a walk around the gorgeously lit central plaza, a multi-cultural mix of guitar-strumming, peruvian-dressed international backpackers and local, peruvian-dressed with nike t-shirts groups of indigenous banda members, practicing for an upcoming religious festival. once again, the ubiquitous mix of sacred and profane. next we hop into a taxi to make our way up the steep cobblestones to bohemian san blas, where we get some delicious home made and restorative cream of broccoli soup in un pocito restuarante overlooking the plaza. we’ve been warned by our guidebooks not to walk the streets after dark, but the streets are so quiet and the few local people we see either so friendly or so indifferent to us, that we brave the “odds” and meander through the midnight stillness of cuzco, soaking up its centuries of history and moonlit beauty. caught between our inherent role as tourists, and our desire to see the actual city unadorned with busloads of tour guides and tourists, we learn to pick our moments of individuality, exchanging occasional risk for the purity of experience. back at the hostal, the electric heater keeps us from stiffening altogether, as it gets down to near freezing here 11,000 feet in the peruvian andes.

the next day we take the city tour, see the central colonial cathedral with its gold leaf and solid silver altars, along with the ancient quechuan temple of the suns, moon, rainbow and flash (lightning). as we've been told, it's remarkably built - without cement - another architectural phenomenon of an ancient, pre-western civilization. comparable to the pyramids in egypt and mexico. huge blocks of stone transported by massive amounts of human labor and sacrifice. engineering of the pre-intercontinental railroad variety. the millennial earthquakes have destroyed much of the plastered-over spanish colonial architecture, but not the implacable, original quechuan stone masonry. we learn that the quechuans were - the people, the culture of the pre-columbian andes; the incas - only the kings, humans in the form of the divine. later we are bused out of the city - to the nearby incan ruins of puka pukara and tambomachay, and to the most impressive, we're told, besides machu pichu, to sacsayhuaman (sounds like "sexy woman"). wati's a bit worn down and stays on the bus, but as i’m culture climbing the site, a big group from good ol’ mississippi decide they recognize me from tv and the movies. i tell them they're probably quite wrong - unless they saw an obscure, rarely seen documentary film about a poet and his criminal uncle- but they insist - and i am coerced into signing a few autographs – here at sacsayhuaman - in cusco, péru. ah, the power of american media, don’t you know. even when only imagined....

i've been directed to la valle sagrado de los incas, the sacred valley of the incas - for a visit with the children of our lima servas hosts, the bustamantes - to a little village called lamay. one's a ceramicist, the other a traditional peruvian musician. wati's still not quite up for the trip. no electric heater, no beds. no… needless to say, she’s just a first world kinda gal by now. but me, how can i resist? “la gente”. the people. the mountains. the friggin’ sacred valley of the incas! so - being the totally modern couple we are, wati moves to another hotel the next day, and i board the local bus to lamay. of course, i have my concerns about her safety, and all my fatherly, husbandly, worrisome horns go up, but in the end, she sends me off, assuring me that she survived in bali in a tourist town for more than a year. "so go and have a good time," she says. and i do.

the non-tourist bus winds up over the crest of the andes and down into the sacred valley. through the artisany town of pisac and into lamay. i get off the bus and start asking in my pitiful espanol, "conese la familia bustamante? donde vivvir?" i don't have directions to the house, but everyone is supposed to know one another in this tiny hamlet. and sure enough, after walking past the central plaza (the same style as in lima and cuzco, but pocito), onto a dirt road full of brown adobe, hand-made homes, i find la familia bustamante. i can tell, they have the only carro in sight, a beat up red volkswagen bug.

the next two days are full of music, improvisation, caring for a 6 month old baby, and exploring the sacred valley de coca cola. i mean, de los incas. i just wonder how there got to be so many big red coca cola signs here. the invasion of the gringos, no? carlin, a multi-talented, native musician from trujillo, his wife maris, a liman ceramicist who’s given up her urban life to home school in the valley, the baby, and nango, a full bearded, 23 year old fellow trujillan musician, and i -- all pile into the bug, and we head up into the hills towards los banos de manchacancha, the hot springs of manchacancha. it's awesomely beautiful. climbing the dirt roads, seeing the natives in their crimson & green clothing, sporting colorful pointed peruvian alpaca hats with ear flaps - farming, gathering grasses, raising families, simply living "la vida". brown skins. smiling. waving and chasing the rare car to come their way. just like in other third world countries. cambodia. laos. finland. (just playin’ wid you, finland). while at the same time, the innocent, open smiles are disturbing. knowing these free-roaming indigenous people, just like in other third world countries i’ve seen – vietnam for example – are being rounded up by the government, being re-settled and educated in the name of modernization and progress. being tempted and coerced into trading grass roofs for tin, while being herded into de-humanizing reservations, much like our own government did with our own native americans during our own shameful history of the “taming” of the west.

the waters of los banos are not so caliente, and once i get in, i'm afraid to get out into the cold mountain air. i have five layers of clothes - and i'm still freezing. i mean, i've been through new york and chicago winters, but this is completely different. there's NO place to get warm. no ski lodge. no restaurant, no bar, cafe, home, nada. and i'm starting to get sick. typical gringo, si? as wati would say, "pity i am."

el musicos, the musicians, play everywhere. they live, breathe, & sleep the music. wooden flutes and pipes (saponos), guitaros of every shape & size, and drums, drums, drums. we stop at restaurants to play, to collect dinero. they play in the car, before and after dinner, and especially late at night. i buy the chilean wine, and they drink and play. there are lots of friends of jose and his amigos, but i don't quite have the peruvian stamina. you know, all the bandas of the andes, that you see in all the european and american cities? well now i am amongst them. i am shaking the maracas and taking digi photos, and one night, i even do my cock tale monologue from borneo. the one i did in a theater in LA for about 6 months. about the black magic shaman who puts a curse on an adulterer by putting his dick on his forehead. of course i do it 99% in english, but with my mimetic flair, and clown's desire to please, i think they get the gist. i am one of la banda.

unfortunately, the cold, the late nights, the floor sleeping, and the water - especially the water - get the better of me. damn, i should have used the bottled water for brushing my teeth! all the books say it. damn, stubborn and stupid gringo! so after making it to the sunday market in pisac (see photos) and buying all my bag can carry, and then to the annual catholica but really pagan festival in urubamba (see photos), with another servas host, architects yoyo from peru and laurence from bretange, france, i make it back to lamay two days later - with a excellent combination of the afore-mentioned flu and inca's revenge. but i've seen a slice of local peruvian life that only getting off the beaten path and living with locals can offer. si, i've paid the price. but now instead of worrying about it, i'm just doing it. sounds like progress to me.

wati and i will be off to machu pichu tomorrow. i think we've waited long enough. we've gotten a little taste of the andean air. and water. a little soroche, flu, and dysentery. and we've had a warm reunion at the hotel california in cuzco. but it's still fucking colllllllllllllllllllllddddddd.

hasta la vista, babies,

hope you're all toasty warm,


don enrique, el gringo