Entry #066: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 (Cusco, Peru)

Hey folks, this is a tri-city blog entry today! Mainly 'cause it, uh, covers me being in three different cities (to various extents), but more than that, I'm in a new country. This time, it's Peru, my second-to-last stop on this trip. More specifically, I'm in Cusco at the moment, prepping to go on the Inca Trail to see Machu Picchu. What's my thoughts on Cusco? Well, you're going to have to read on to find out. But suffice to say, people in Peru know the tourist business better than the folks in Bolivia, for better or for worse (and believe me, it's very much for worse).

So, back in La Paz (which seems like an eternity ago), I woke up early, and I woke up tired. I think I had only gotten about four hours of sleep, maybe. In any case, I grabbed my stuff, went down to the reception, and checked out. Unfortunately, I was having some issues with my credit card (the second time this has happened): when the card is swiped, the machine says it's invalid, before any other information is put in. As I've since used the card for online purchases and been able to use it by having the numbers punched into the machine, I can only assume this is due to an issue with the magnetic strip, which is annoying, but manageable for one more month. Never seen anything like it before, though. In any case, in this circumstance, I just used my debit card, and then went outside to wait. I waited for an uncomfortably long time; long enough to worry about if there was another miscommunication, like with the cycling thing. All through this time, I had to turn down taxis, and saw two other buses stop by, only to have my hopes dashed when they told me it wasn't the right one. But thankfully, my correct bus eventually did come, and so I was able to hop on. It then spent the next hour picking up people (I guess the one advantage of forcing people to go to the station is that it ensures a swift departure) before heading out in earnest. And even that was pretty slow going, due to the mass of traffic in La Paz. However, once we got out of the city proper, things got smoother.

This first bus ride was a good five hours long. I don't really have much to say about it. For the most part, I was looking out my window, listening to podcasts on my phone, and munching away on the Ziploc bags of the cereal I had packed for breakfast. I was also spending the time somewhat regretting my seat on the bus, because it turned out to have the worse view for pictures and just general pleasant looking-out, and was also the side that got the full brunt of the sun. My nose was already a bit red, so I didn't want things to get worse. But regardless, there were still some nice views (even if they were on the other side of the bus), and before long, we made it to Lake Titicaca. However, at this point, we had to get off the bus in order to cross the lake, so that we could continue the journey to Copacabana. The bus drove onto what could be considered an overly big raft, and all the passengers had to cross on a number of small ferries. The crossing cost 2 bolivianos a person, which stretched my already thin remaining budget of b8.60 even thinner. After a short little wait, I got back on the bus, and we drove the short a short distance to Copacabana before arriving at about 12:30.

I had about half an hour before the boarding would begin for the next bus, so I went to their office and checked in (this time making sure to get a seat on the other side of the bus), and then walked around town a bit. For a pathetically small lunch, I bought myself a vegetarian empanada for b5, and after paying another b1 to use the restroom, I finished out my time in Bolivia with only b0.60 (or about $0.09) in cash, so that's petty good. As 1pm rolled around, I got myself an immigration form and boarded the bus. As it was, it only took about twenty minutes to each the border. And while there were some long lines involved, I have to admit that it was probably the smoothest and least confusing land border crossing thus far. I just went into one office, got my passport stamped, walked about 200 feet, walked into another office, got another stamp, and then was able to get back on the bus. We then continued driving through the countryside, although the Peruvian countryside, for about three hours. It was beautiful, but if you had blindfolded me prior, I would have been completely unable to tell you whether we were in Bolivia or Peru. The two seem very similar, at least in those areas. As for me, it turns out I had again chosen the wrong side of the bus, because the better views were across from me, and - it being in the afternoon - the sun had switched sides. It was so bad, in fact, that I had to close my curtain to avoid getting a burn. Some time later, we finally arrived in Puno.

I got off the bus, and my first instinct was to get some cash. (Now, side note: I don't like the exchange rate between soles and dollars. It's 2.80 soles to a dollar, which is in the perfect wrong spot. It's too low to round to either s2.50 or s3.00, and tricky itself to divide into numbers quickly. I briefly considered taking the conversion of prices using both of those rates, and then figuring a price between them, but that's doubling my workload. So, I've decided to consider my personal exchange rate when buying things to be s2.50-to-1, because then everything seems more expensive, prompting me to be more frugal.) I then walked to my hotel. I stopped along the way at a mobile shop to get a SIM card, but like in Bolivia, they did not have Micro SIMs available. However, I'd be in Peru almost three times as long as Bolivia, so I figured it was worth the shot. So, I just got a normal-sized card. I then found my hotel (which was a bit tricky, as there was absolutely no signage for it) and checked in. After plugging in my phone (which was on the verge of death), I got myself oriented and settled. I then decided to give that SIM card a whirl. I had read online that you could cut a normal SIM card into a Micro SIM using an Exacto-Knife. Well, I didn't have an Exacto-Knife, but I did have a paid of 60-cent scissors that I had bought in La Paz for grooming purposes. So, I took one of my collection of old Micro SIMs, taped it to the big card, and began whittling away. I didn't time myself, but it took at least a half-hour before I was able to get the size write. Some more shaving for smoothness, and I tried putting it in my phone. To my surprise, it worked! And like that, the phone was ready to go.

Before long, it was time to go to dinner, so I went out and about. I passed by a couple of tasty-looking local places and stands, but the kind of places and stands that I felt wouldn't accept the big bills I had. As is the way when I enter a new country and get new money, the first priority was getting smaller change. I eventually went into their local Plaza de Armas, and nearly got hit by foam spray. A second look, and I saw that there was a massive celebration, apparently Carnaval. I was genuinely confused. Wasn't Carnaval supposed to be finished once Ash Wednesday hit? Well, nobody told these folks. In any case, I found a restaurant there that noted, among other things, their pizza. I'd heard tales of a place in Puno that has great pizza, but upon going inside, I saw this wasn't it. What they did have, though, was alpaca fillet. Since I had missed my chance with the llama fillet, I felt this would be just as good. As I sat and waited for my food, I looked around the restaurant. Seeing as every single patron was a gringo, I felt as though I'd probably be paying a bit of a premium for whatever I was getting. In any case, the alpaca fillet was quite tasty, but I had a difficult time discerning if it was naturally salty, or if the chef had just gone a bit nuts with the seasoning. I waited in the restaurant for a while (mainly because they wouldn't give me the check), and then inexplicably paid with a credit card, thus invalidating half my reason for going there (maybe the price was so high that I would have got barely any change). At least I learned that despite the magnetic strip being broken, they could still punch in the numbers. I then walked back to the hotel, and relaxed for a little bit. However, my early wake up had taken its toll on me, so I groggily fell asleep before too long.

The next morning was great. For the first time in over a week, I had absolutely no obligations, nothing I had to wake up for, nothing I needed to do for the whole day. As such, I was able to wake up when I wanted, have a slow, relaxed breakfast, and take things at my own pace. And breakfast was actually really good. In addition to featuring about six types of fruit, eggs, breads, cheese, etc, it also had in its breakfast selection quinoa puffs. I'm not sure if that's the official name for them, but they're grains of quinoa, puffed up like tiny, tiny Corn Pops. The thing is, I remember these things from so very long ago. I loved them then (even before I actively ate quinoa), and love them even more now. I'm not sure when or why they left my life, but I'd love to see if there was a way they can return, because they are so good. Anyway, I then went back to my room and looked up what there was to see. The number one thing to see according to TripAdvisor was a place called Sillustani, which apparently was an old cemetery. I liked cemeteries, so I felt that would be good. As such, I went to the front desk and booked a trip there (as it was 11 miles away) and a two-day island-hopping trip.

I had until 2pm until the Sillustani trip left, so I went out to explore the rest of town. And to be honest, there really wasn't much. There were a number of churches, including the cleanest (by which I mean least-decorated) cathedral I've seen in my travels so far, but for the most part, it seemed like the main attractions in Puno aren't actually in Puno. I decided to go to the lakes edge (walking through some more big street markets, probably due to it being a Saturday), and found that it, uh, it wasn't that pretty. Where the water met the shore (and the rusted piers and such), there was just tons of algae growing, and the majestic Lake Titicaca seemed more like a scummy pond. I'd have to travel out a bit to see the real beauty. I then went to find some lunch, again with the intention of breaking large bills. I wanted to find that pizza place again, and mistakenly trusted TripAdvisor to give me the right directions, but ended up almost a mile away from where it actually was. When I did finally get there, I found that it only opened at 5pm. So instead, I went to some other place and got a sandwich (and because I foolishly bought it in the tourist area, it wasn't cheap). I walked for a bit and ate the sandwich in the Plaza de Armas, and then decided to break another large bill by going to a fancy ice cream place, where I got a mandarin-themed concoction. At this point, I was considering going to an arcade that I had passed by on the way to the hotel the night before. From their door, I could see that they had X-Men vs. Street Fighter, and probably had some other games I'd enjoy playing. However, it was a distance from there to the hotel, and I only had 40 minutes before I was going to be picked up, so I just went to the hotel and waited.

After I got picked up, the van drove around and picked up a bunch of other people (including, to my amusement, a couple who was eating at the same restaurant the night before, which included what I felt might be the world's overall largest dude: sized like the Big Show, he was). Eventually, though, there were too many people, so we had to split up into two vans, and then headed to Sillustani. Along the way, we got a very good guide, who spoke both English and a slow-enough Spanish that I could often tell what he was saying, and I could also compare it to the English to learn some new terms. And as for Sillustani itself, my absolute lack of research meant that the place was nothing like what I was expecting. I was expecting a cemetery, as that's how it was categorized. But this wasn't a cemetery. It was a burial ground. It's basically been used as a burial ground by both Pre-Inca and Inca cultures, with each culture having it's own tomb style (some completely below ground, some half-below, half-above, and some completely above ground). In addition to having an interesting history and some cool ancient architecture, the scenery itself was gorgeous. The place was surrounded on most sides by a small lake (I forget the name, but its separate from Titicaca), and just everywhere you looked was beautiful. Also, I can confirm that the Andean clouds are as beautiful as the Australian clouds. We eventually left Sillustani and headed back to Puno, but not before stopping at a local home community, where we could see some llamas and alpacas close up (as well as a pen for raising guinea pigs, which are eaten here), and were shown a collection of food, a few parts of which we were able to try. My favorite part, by far, was pan de quinoa, or quinoa bread. It was just in little bite-sized pieces, but it was also really good, even just by itself. While the inhabitants wanted to sell some stuff, most of us were able to scoot on by back to the bus. We then drove back to town, and were dropped off in the the second main plaza area. I only realized afterward that I hadn't tipped the guide, and I think that was because I hadn't seen a single other person do so.

Anyway, this plaza was fairly close to where that great pizza place was, so I walked there (avoiding yet more foam in the midst of their continued celebrations), and ordered a personal pizza to go. And thus began a veritable comedy routine. I very clearly said "personal", but the lady taking my order asked, "Mediano o grande?"
"No, personal."
"No, personal."
"Personal es muy pequeño?"
"Lo pequeño?"
[Taking out two wooden boards.] "Esto es el mediano, y esto es el grande."
"De que tamaño es el personal?!"
"Uno momento." [Goes back, gets another board.] "Esto es el personal. Es muy pequeño."
"Yo quiero un personal, por favor."
"Un mediano?"
"NO! Un personal! Este tamaño!"
Finally, and begrudgingly, she took my order back to the kitchen. I later got my pizza and took it back to the hotel to eat. It came with a couple side sauces, which I was very grateful for, as without them, the pizza was incredibly bland. I can't imagine the disappointment I would have felt if the waitress's up-sell had worked on me. I then packed my bags to prepare for the next day, relaxed, and went to bed.

While I did need to set my alarm the next day, it wasn't too bad, because I wouldn't be picked up until 7:30. So, I had enough time to double-check my room, and eat another good, slow breakfast before I went to the lobby. (Although I was upset to see these two...Dutch, I think...girls taking huge portions of food, particularly fruit, taking a picture of it for Instagram or whatever-the-hell, eating about two pieces, and then leaving.) I asked the receptionist if I could cut my stay short from three days to two, and happily, they were willing to accommodate without charging me a penalty. (Considering the two-day tour cost me s80, or roughly $28.50 according to the official exchange rate, and included three meals and a place to sleep, I was getting a pretty good deal.) Not only that, they were also willing to hold my big bag overnight. While waiting, I met a couple named Jade and Renee, who I could immediately identify as Maori Kiwis. I talked a bit about where I had gone with them, and then it turned out we were all on the same trip. So, we gathered into a van and drove to the wharf. Along the way, Jade asked me if what present I had gotten for my host on the island. I had no idea what he was talking about, but apparently we were supposed to bring something, often food or the like, to present to our host. So, I quickly went to one of the nearby shops and bought a bag of rice and a bag of oats. Not fancy, but practical, especially on such short notice.

The group (maybe fifteen of us total) all huddled aboard the little boat that would be taking us here and there and everywhere. I sat next to a Chilean guy, and when I mentioned my work at Capcom, he got really excited because was a big fan of Street Fighter III: Third Strike (he called it Third Impact, but I forgave him because the second game in that series was Second Impact). We then talked a bit about gaming in general, including the costs of being a South American console gamer. It was an incredibly disjointed conversation, as I insisted on having as much of it be in Spanish as possible, but it was fairly nice to find someone who doesn't just give a "Oh, that's neat," response to when I say I work in the gaming industry, or who doesn't know what Street Fighter is. (Though, fighting games are one of the most popular genres in Central and South America, so I'm not totally surprised.)

After a long boat ride across a sunshiny and beautiful Lake Titicaca. (As I had predicted, once you get away from the edge, the water becomes a gorgeous, shimmering dark blue. Apparently, the water is also supposed to be incredibly dense, particularly for fresh water. As a result, the temperature is so low that it's possible for a swimmer/diver to get hypothermia if they stay in for more than, say, fifteen minutes. Not sure if that's true, but I did test the water, and it was pretty damn cold.) Finally, we got to our first stop, which was Uros, a collection of seventy floating islands, made of pieces of floating reed roots tied together, with more reeds placed on top. Apparently, the islands could have something like ten families each, and if you didn't like your neighbor, you could pick up your reed house and move it to the other side of the island. Or, in more extreme case, you could literally cut the island in half. But as proof that traditional ways aren't always better, the president of the island was clear to note that only men could go hunting and fishing; women were only allowed to cook, take care of children, make crafts, and go to the market. And if a man did any of those womanly things, he would be considered gay and be shunned by society. Also, we saw that they used solar power for their lighting, since candles and dried reed islands don't mix. After a little while, we were split up into groups of two and were each led into a house. When I went in, the lady inside explained (in Spanish) about all the little things about the house, the bed that she and three other people sleep on, the different things hanging on the wall, etc. I was literally just about to start telling her about some of the similarities in, say, my home as hers, to make this a real cultural intercourse, when she held out a tapestry she had previously shown us and asked, "Usteded compran?" ("Are you gonna buy?") I think she could tell by the frown that immediately appeared on my face what my answer was, but the girl with me had to do her damnedest to get out of it. I dunno, I can appreciate that this is how they make their living, but it really does take you out of the mentality that this is a place of learning and understanding each other. Blah. I did end up spending a little bit of money, though, to go on a reed boat ride around the area for maybe a half-hour. For the most part, it was one of the quietest places I can remember being (with the exception of Jade, who was complaining about an altitude-induced headache, and then began smoking a cigarette to help).

Once our reed boat returned to the island, we got back on our more modern boat and headed off. This time, the boat ride was even longer. I eventually took out my Kindle and started a new book (called The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, a new-ish book about all the mathematical references in various episodes of the Simpsons, since a lot of the writers were people who were basically mathematicians). This lasted me until we finally reached our second desitnation, Ilsa Amantani. After arriving and immediately making our way up a steep hill, we were split up into groups to go with our host families. Normally, we'd only be split up into groups of two, but because of - what else - Carnaval, people were busy, and so some of the groups were a bit larger. My group, for example, contained myself; Lindsay, the only other American on the tour (because of course we'd be put together); and an Danish couple named Ana and Melte. Our host was an old woman named Maria, and we walked to her house, which turned out to be super conveniently close to the main square of this particular community (and apparently there's about ten communities across the island, together comprising about 4,000 inhabitants). Upon arriving in her house and putting down our stuff, we were immediately informed that it was time for lunch. It was pretty good. We were given a plant that I'm unsure of the name of, but had a very menthol-ly, mint taste, for tea, and then had quinoa soup, rice, a tiny bit of salad, and a fried cheese which might have been the squeakiest cheese I've ever eaten. During the meal, Maria really didn't talk to us, so it was just the four of us discussing (in English) about topics like how the Danish government gives high school and university students something like $500 a month just to go to school. It's conversations like that which make me feel as though I was born in the wrong country.

When we were finished with the meal, Maria led us outside, and we discovered part of the reason why she hadn't been talking to us: she was busy setting up some of her knit items on a tarp outside so that she could sell them to us! Happy days indeed. Again, I made it pretty obvious I didn't need anything (and perhaps a bit less obvious how annoyed I was at this tactic), but the others got some things, despite the fact that her prices were outrageous compared to anywhere else in the area and she was completely unwilling to lower them. After that, we took a small "siesta" (which involved less napping and more small talk with Lindsay, who was in the same room as I). We then all went out to meet at the local mini soccer field (which was fake grass, but still looked incredibly nice, especially for such a humble community). A number of people started playing, but I was content to watch, considering that I have the hand-foot coordination of a python, and also, I'm American, I shouldn't be able to play soccer. While this was going on, I noticed a set of Icelandic girls in another group, and they noticed me. We both thought the other seemed extremely familiar, but it took about twenty minutes before it clicked in my head that we had done rafting in Mendoza on the same day. Again, this is almost 20 days and three countries later, and we just happened to meet up again. Not that it amounted to anything - just one of those "Ahhhh, yeah!" moments - afterward we didn't really speak again. After the soccer game was ended, we had the option to walk to the old temple at the top of the mountain to get a good view of the area and watch the sunset. Of course, I wanted to do so. Admittedly, it was a tiring walk, with some pretty steep uphills, but I was somewhat smug about the fact that despite how tired I got, I was still moving way faster than everyone else, who were also getting pretty exhausted. I had to slow myself down a bit, in fact, so that I could converse with folks and not look unsociable. When we got to the top, I was a little disheartened by the fact that the temple was the holding grounds for a number of plastic bottles and other trash, but at least we did get some good views of the area. Unfortunately, we didn't get a sunset, as the clouds came through to ruin our fun.

On the top of the hill, it started getting really cold, really fast, and with the sun at the horizon (I think; the clouds were in the way), it was gonna get dark really fast. So I quickly walked back to Maria's house and relaxed in my room for a little bit. After a while, Melte (the only one of our little foursome to have the foresight to bring a proper flashlight) asked if we wanted to head out to the local store. We agreed, and so we made a little excursion, in the dark, to the store, passing by locals celebrating Carnaval by getting drunk and (in the kids' cases) spraying each other with foam. We each got a small bottle of water (at a cost greater than you'd pay for a 2.5 liter bottle on mainland), and some snacks. Melte also got a bottle of beer, and the shopkeep was quite insistent in knowing when he was going to return the bottle to him, practically threatening the poor kid. We then went back to the house, I made sure to present the rice and oats to Maria as a gift. She accepted them in a terribly nonchalant and ungrateful way, perhaps as retribution for my refusal to buy any of her woven clothes. We then had dinner, which consisted of a potato soup, bread, veggie stew, and rice. I had thought we might be getting guinea pigs (as there was a shack full of them in Maria's house), but no dice. Again, the dinner conversation just consisted of the four guests, Maria didn't seem too interested.

After dinner, we waited in our rooms, as we heard there was going to be a fiesta. Sure enough, Maria eventually came in with some traditional clothing for us to wear (which was a bit of a surprise). The guys were all given a poncho and a woolen hat, whereas the girls were dressed to the nines with traditional shirts and skirts that made them all look pretty chunky. We then went to the community hall (passing by  fallen tree, which is apparently a Carnaval tradition - everyone dances around the tree, taking one chop at it; whoever fells the tree has the honor of planning and paying for next year's celebrations), and found that we were the first ones there. We sought refuge inside the hall to avoid the second-floor urinating of a drunken Carnaval reveler, and then just waited. Eventually, others came in, and so did a three-piece band of guitar, drum, and flute/pipes. Once the fiesta began, I looked around and noticed that the composition of the room was mostly just us tourists, along with the hosts and a couple folks selling drinks at a table in the back. Either everyone was too drunk from Carnaval to attend, or this whole thing was a bit of a show put on for tourists. While I was a bit perturbed at the latter option, I decided to let it go and just enjoy what I did have. And before long, we all started doing what I can only guess is traditional Peruvian/Andean dancing, which involves joining hands and moving around in a big circle, occasionally doing some crazy moves. It was honestly pretty fun, especially when the circle got "pinched" and people nearly ran into each other, but it was also very tiring, as evidenced by the fact that people went to the sides of the hall and sat down immediately after every song. We did this four, maybe five times, before Maria talked to the folks in my household, basically telling us to go home. You could tell she wanted to go to bed. So, we got back. After using my Kindle's reading light to navigate my way to the bathroom and brush my teeth, I used it a bit more traditionally (to read) for a little bit before finally going to bed.

Whether because I have an astute biological clock, or because I just went to bed earlier than I normally do, I woke up a half-hour before breakfast, and so woke up everyone else (I had promised to do so the night before). Breakfast was a simple affair: tea, bread, and pancake-like things with manjar (which you might remember as the dulce de leche-like stuff I encountered in Chile). After eating, we all grabbed our stuff, said our goodbyes to Maria, and then headed to the dock, where we again proved to be the first arrivals. We got on the boat, and once everyone else showed up, we were off again. This time, we headed to Isla Taquile (which I think everyone mispronounced as either Isla Tranquila or Isla Tequila. To be perfectly honest, we didn't really have too much of an interesting or informative time on this island; our guide basically just said to us, "Yeah, walk up this path until you get to the main square. We'll meet there in an hour." And while it was also a pretty lovely place, it wasn't too much different from Amantani. On the way up, I pretended to get tired so I could sit down near a small group, whose guide was giving them a lot of information about the history and culture of the people. So at least I learned something there.

When we got to the town center, we found that there really wasn't a whole bunch going on there. There was a school for teaching knitting to the locals (as textiles are the center of their economy), one of those signs pointing out the distances to cities all over the world (although the directions were all out of whack), and a couple overpriced stands, but that's about it. I chatted with my other three housemates for maybe a half-hour before our guide came up and called us together. We then walked to a restaurant for lunch. The restaurant featured a long table facing out to a gorgeous view of the lake, wonderful to look at and take pictures of. Unfortunately, the guide found out they had no fish, and felt you couldn't eat at the lake without having fish, so we went to another restaurant, with a somewhat less awe-inspiring view (this one of the island-side and the homes/farms thereon). Here, we were able to order trout (which I should note, is an invasive species introduced from Canada), on a dish that contained the fish, rice, fries, veggies, and tea, for s20 ($8 according to my personal exchange rate, $7.14 according to the official rate). A pretty good deal, overall. We then headed back down to the dock, and after a couple people took a couple quick dives into the lake (I had no swimsuit or towel, so I stayed dry), we all huddled back into the boat and went back to Puno. It was about a three-hour trip, and during that time I was able to finish my book (which wasn't the greatest academic book I've read regarding The Simpsons, but was fun nonetheless) and rest a little bit.

When we got back, it was time to get in the van and head back to our respective locations. I was the first one to board, so I made the decision to tip the guide s20. As I sat down and looked outside, I saw that absolutely nobody else followed suit. Was that just not a thing in Peru? Do you not have tip tour guides, except maybe on the Inca Trail? Well, at least I could take solace in the fact that the guy probably could use that small bit of money more than I could. Anyway, after a few stops, I was dropped back off at the hotel, where I was able to get my big backpack, safe and sound. Having about six hours before my bus would leave for Cusco, I decided to spend some time in the lobby, mainly to charge my phone and figure out my plan for the evening. I also checked my email on the hotel's computer, all while listening to the most odd soft-piano covers of Linkin Park songs coming out of the lobby's speakers.

Eventually, I took up all my stuff and left the hotel. I first walked downtown to get to their local supermarket (which is a bit of an understatement - this place seemed to be like the Peruvian equivalent of a Kmart) to get a couple of things. My main goal, and one I had been putting off for a while now, was super glue, so to help reapply the rubber pressure-guards on my goggles, half of which have just been barely staying on since December. I also got some water, a couple tiny just-in-case snacks, and a bottle of Inka Cola, which seemed to be the local soda, and I figured I needed to give it a shot, despite its sickly yellow color. The purchasing portion of this was a bit of a nightmare, because I foolishly tried to pay with my credit card (I have no idea why), which required me digging in past my front backpack, jacket, and vest to get my passport, and then trying to explain that the magnetic strip was broken and the numbers had to be punched in manually. However, when the cashier had to call someone over, who also tried swiping the card, I looked back, saw all the people in line, and just gave them my debit card (which I just realized, probably incurs a foreign transaction fee). I then left the market and looked for a restaurant. I decided that, since I had time, I could afford to find a place serving guinea pig, known here as cuy. Finally, I did, and so I went in and set my stuff down. Unfortunately, I was informed that they didn't have cuy that night, but I was already too comfortable sitting down, so I just ordered a cheap steak. While they were preparing my food, I attempted to fix my goggles with the super glue. Unfortunately, I didn't anticipate the near-aqueous viscosity of the glue, and so it got all over the place. On the table, on a lens of the goggle, everywhere. Rarely have I seen something go so wrong so quickly. I quickly grabbed a napkin to clean up as much as I could. I couldn't test at the moment to see if I had really messed up the goggles (lest they be permanently bonded to my face), but I later saw that I could see through as well as before, so I figured I'd just try later. I then had my food, which was inexpensive and decent but forgettable, and I also drank that Inka Cola, which was a bubble gum-flavored disgrace to the legacy of the Incan people.

I hung around the restaurant for a bit longer (justifying it by getting a vanilla flan for desert, which was pretty awful), but eventually felt like I had worn out my welcome, and so headed to the bus station. Immediately upon arriving, I found the desk of the company I had booked through (Cruz del Sur), and got my ticket. The guy wrote down "21:00" on the ticket, which I thought meant they would start boarding at 9pm. So, I still had an hour left to go. So, I just sat and waited. And waited. And waited more until it was finally 9pm. At that point, I went to the door to the outside, but was told that I couldn't go out until I paid the tax, which I could do at a very innocuous desk with no clear signage. As with the airport in Bolivia, I didn't mind paying the tax (here it was just s1, which is less than 40 cents), but the fact that this can't just be paid by the companies and added onto the ticket price baffles me. In any case, I paid the tax and then went out to where the bus was. But despite being 9pm, they weren't letting people on yet. So I just waited, and waited, and waited some more. All this time, I saw folks move in and out of the bus, one guy just sit in the driver's seat for ten minutes, arrhythmically tapping his hands on the wheel, and another guy hang up a large pornographic calendar poster in the back of the drivers' cabin, very visible for all the world to see. In fact, they didn't even start boarding people until 9:50, and at that point, some folks came out and just pushed in front of me to be the first to check in. (Additionally, there were some folks (from Ukraine and Belarus) from the island trip on the same bus as me.) Then, promptly at 10pm, the bus took off.

It really was not the most ideal of bus rides: it took off at 10pm, and as six-point-five hours long, meaning we'd arrive in Cusco at 4:30 in the morning, a terrible time to arrive anywhere, for any reason. So, I wished for two things: first, that I'd fall asleep immediately and soundly through the entire trip. Second, that there would be some delay on the road that would result us in arriving in Cusco rather late. As it was, neither of those wishes came true. I know I managed to fall asleep (as evidenced by several weird dreams, one involving video games about anthropomorphic pink foxes), but it was anything but sound, as I woke up and fell back asleep multiple times through the night. Second, not only did we arrive in Cusco on time, but we arrived early, at 4:25. But the lounge we stopped in was fairly nice, clean, empty, and had a plug next to a table, so while other people began heading out, I stayed put. I mean, what was going to be out there for me. I couldn't check into my hotel, nothing was going to be open, and there might be some seedy characters about. So, I literally spent the next four-and-a-half hours sitting and writing. It needed to be done, and it was as good a place to do so as anywhere. I saw a few more groups coming in and out, but still I stayed put, until the sun was well into the sky, and I knew that the places I'd be going to would be ready to accept me.

I grabbed my backpack, and headed out of the bus station, but not before grabbing some cash from an ATM...twice. I knew I was going to need to pay the remainder of my cost for the Inca Trail trek in cash (not sure why, when I could pay the original deposit via PayPal), but the ATM would only allow me to withdraw 400 soles ($142) at a time. So, I walked into town, waving away beeping taxis until I got to the office. I went in, confirmed the details, and handed them the cash. They gave me some basic information about the trip; mainly that the second day would be the most challenging, but only in the sense that you're going uphill from 3,100 meters to 4,200 meters in six hours. As a comparison, on the summit for Kilimanjaro, you go up from 4,300 meters to 5,900 meters in as many hours...in the middle of the night. So I'm not terribly concerned regarding that. What I did become genuinely upset about, though, was the fact that boiled water is only provided by the company starting on the third day (of four). For the first two days, you are responsible for buying your own water, which would be something like 5 soles for a 500ml bottle. I almost flat-out said, "That's bull!" There is nothing more essential to success and, indeed, survival when trekking than water, and the fact that the company is basically forcing people to pay extra for that is pretty lousy. I am genuinely considering buying a couple extra 2.5-liter bottles and carrying them with me to avoid paying the prices.

Anyway, after getting a duffel bag that I was allowed to fill with 2.5 kilograms of stuff (since I'm allowed to have a porter carry 6k, the sleeping bag I'm renting is 2.5k, and the accompanying seeping pad is 1k), I continued making my way to the hotel, through the lovely looking Plaza de Armas. I arrived shortly after 10am, which may be the earliest I've seen a place allow check-in. Along the way, I looked up the reviews for the place on Booking.com, and I was genuinely curious as to why I had booked here, because the only times WiFi is mentioned in the reviews of the place are all very negative, stating that it is super weak in the rooms. I mention this because I have, like, two requirements for a place: hot showers and good WiFi. Those are my personal priorities. But as such, I asked them which room had the best WiFi signal. The owners didn't know, but they assumed that the room right next to the reception desk probably stood a good chance. Indeed, I could see two signals from there. So, I took that room and put my stuff down (exposing a lot of sweat on my body from having walked 3 miles in the heat with all of it). However, when I actually tried connecting to any of their WiFi signals, I wasn't able to get anything through. It was incredibly pathetic. But hey, at least I had some beautiful views out my windows.

Anyway, I stayed in the room until about lunchtime, when I decided to go out on the town, get something to eat, and maybe go visit some places. And it was during this first trip that I stated getting my impressions of Cusco. I later looked up what the general opinions of Cusco are. On one side of the field, there is the thought that Cusco is too touristy. On the other side is the mentality that Cusco is great and those who think otherwise "can suck it" (their words, not mine). As for me, I don't know if it's the fact that I didn't get much sleep, or the fact that my first action in the city was to give away a lot of cash, but I am firmly sided in the former position. Namely, so far I think Cusco sucks. It is the worst form of touristy, from all angles.

  • The prices are generally higher for everything.
  • Similarly, everyone is trying to get money out of every facet they can.
  • There are stereotypical tourists (fat white guys wearing floppy hats and shorts) just wandering about.
  • You can't walk twenty feet without getting accosted about something. Do you want a massage? Do you want a pair of sunglasses? Need to book a tour? One guy even asked if he could shine my hiking boots.
The whole thing has got me really hot and bothered. I mean, I've been in touristy places before, but for some reason, it annoys me here more than anywhere else I've been to. I would almost say it was infuriating. And when looking for lunch, I literally had two guys from neighboring restaurants trying to shove menus into my hands. Thing was, both of them were above my price range, so I just passed them up, walked down a side street, and found a cheap sandwich place, where I got myself a sandwich and a lemonade. Meanwhile, I was looking up places to visit in Cusco, and was dismayed by the fact for a number of the places, you have to buy a Boleto Turistico (literally, a "tourist ticket"). It's somewhat similar to the Florence Firenze Pass, but a lot less appealing. It allows you to visit 16 places, only 13 of which are in Cusco, and some of the paces don't let you in unless you have such a ticket. And the thing costs s130 ($46), which I consider pretty steep, considering I really only cared about visiting a couple spots. And more than that, it just made the whole city seem so manufactured. It was a real turn-off. In the end, I walked around a bit, but then just spent some time looking at hiking equipment places and getting some water and stuff. I then went back to the hotel.

After futzing around my room for a while, I decided that, hey, maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I should just go out there, bite the bullet, get a Boleto, and force myself to as many places as possible and enjoy it. So, I put on a jacket (as it had rained a little bit during my first outing), and tried walking to the ticket office, all the while trying to ignore and/or get rid of persistent solicitors. When I couldn't find the ticket office, I considered just going to one of the spots and buying the Boleto there, but I was beginning to question it all again, mainly from just being outside in this environment. Like, seriously, while there was some beautiful scenery and architecture, I just couldn't bring myself to enjoy any of it. I decided to split the difference and just visit one of the numerous churches in the area. If nothing else, it could give me some solace and refuge (and I enjoy doing a little prayer and reflection in each church I go to). But when I got to the entrance, I was stopped and directed to a sign, which said that I had to pay s10 to get in. Not a suggested donation, no, I had to pay s10. I had to pay money. To step inside a church. I was literally staring agape at the women pointing this out to me. I wish I could have properly translated Jesus's "Den of Thieves" speech quickly enough to make my point, but instead I could only sputter out, "That's disgusting," and left. I walked over to the shadow of the larger cathedral and say down, trying to figure out if it was me or if it was the city. And as I was sitting there, literally with the shadow of the cross over me, some guy comes up and says, "Hey amigo, want some sunglasses." Not willing to play any games, I just shot my head up and said, "Vaya. Ahora." He indeed left, and I just felt that if nothing else, it wasn't my day. So after checking out a couple other equipment stores to get a general sense of rental prices, I went back to the hotel.

I spent the next couple hours just watching some videos and playing some games. See, the thing is, I never really had any interest in Cusco itself. The only reason I'm here so far before my Inca Trail trekking date is because I had to be. The trekking company wants to ensure acclimatization, so they want people to arrive at least two full days beforehand, lest they don't let you get your paperwork. So it's not like I had any real investment in enjoying this city. That, at least, made me feel better about the whole situation. Anyway, when it was dinnertime, I went back to the nearby Plaza de Armas (you might notice there seems to be one in every South American city). I had earlier seen a McDonald's there, so what better time to continue My Disgusting Quest™. Unfortunately, I made a big mistake. I didn't see anything inherantly Peruvian, so I just got a generally Latin-American themed "McNifico" along with some yuquitas, which generally pan out to be yuca/cassava fry-like things. However, when moving aside, I saw a panel of their menu board that was previously hidden, revealing a chicken platter dish that claimed to be Unicamente Para Peru. If there was a more clear and literal sign that something fit my criteria, I had yet to see it. But the problem was that this meant that I might have to come back to McDonald's. Ugh. Anyway, I brought the food back to the hotel, ate, and then relaxed and wrote for the remainder of the night.

So, I honestly don't know what the next two days hold for me in Cusco, aside from the fact that I'm going to rent a backpack. As I said before, I was never really specifically interested in this city in particular, but at the same time, my negative viewpoint of it may be due to having a long, tiring journey to get here. Maybe tomorrow, I'll see it in an entirely new light, fall in love, and do everything that's possible in the city. Or, I might just avoid all the tourist traps and touts and relax in my room. Either is a legitimate possibility, so make sure Vegas knows what your bets are.

Oh, and I'm hoping to have one more entry before the Inca Trail hike, but if not...well, then I might be on the Inca Trail hike at this point.

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