Entry #067: Thursday, March 13, 2014 (Cusco, Peru)

Alright, here we are, the night before my Inca Trail trek. This is my last big multi-day trek of this trip. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't seem quite as grand as either the Kilimanjaro trek or the Everest Base Camp trek. That's probably because it's only four days, from being picked up in my hotel to being dropped back off. Since it is so short, it probably won't have either a two-hour video or seven-hour podcast covering it, so, um, don't get excited for that. However, it mean that I'll likely not have a new entry up for at least five days, if not more. In short, nothing much is gonna change. But enough of the future, let's look to the past.

Before we begin, I'd like to bring to attention an article from the Huffington Post that I saw via Facebook. All I saw at first was the title, "The Truth About Travelers", which intrigued me. What truth could it be talking about. So I read it, and so should you. Here, give it a whirl. I can wait. Done? Good. Now, for every single sentence in this article, I was waiting for the "But here's the truth" line. But it never came. Every smug self-affirmation was meant unironically, without leading up to a punchline. As such, I can say this is exactly the kind of attitude regarding travel that I despise, and one that I may have mentioned before when talking about the "free-spirit" types you meet in hostels, the kind who give you the philosophical travel advice which is all personal BS which applies to the person speaking it, and thus applies to everyone. But yeah, I can't stand this kind of self-indulgent tripe, which seems to boil down to the following:
We're travelers. No, sorry, "nomads". Because we associate ourselves with ethnographic groups that we honestly have no relation to or actual understanding of. We're better than you, non-nomad. You know why? Because we can endure uncomfortable living conditions [for a while before moving on]. Because we can live with local people, and experience the lives, and hardships, that they do [for a while before moving on]. We know our true selves. You don't. And you won't, until you do the things we do. You're afraid. We're not. We know more than you, and we've lived a more full life than you. The truth about travelers is, we're better.
Now, I've been asked by some people (three I can think of specifically, possibly a few more), why my general tone towards myself seems to be fairly self-deprecating. Hell, the title of this blog calls me a loon, and the subtitle calls me a jackass. Do I have confidence issues or the like? No, it's nothing of the sort. I'd like to refer you back to my first entry - my pre-departure entry, in fact - from way back last April. In there I included a snippet of my journal from when my sixteen-year-old self went to Mozambique. Basically, I was acting like some sort of poet-philosopher in training, who feels like just because I can set foot in a land that's not the one I was born in, I have some sort of enlightened view of the world and humanity. It's the same thing with this entry, though the author seems to be closer to my current age. You almost view yourself as some sort of Messianic figure, sent from Nomad Heaven to proselytize in the land of home-dwelling heathens.

But here's the actual truth about travelers. We're no different. We're no better than anyone else. We're no worse. We're just people, like all other people. We haven't necessarily lived a better, or more full, life than someone who has stayed in one country. We may have, but there's no guarantee. We're in no position to say you should travel, just because we have. Personally, I'd recommend traveling. It's been a great experience for me, and there's a good chance it would be for you, too. But I have no right to tell you how you should live your life, or how you should learn about yourself. I, like this author, have experienced a gamut of humanity, but if anything, that experience has shown me, in a very Socratic way, that I know nothing. I really am just a loon who's wandering. I really am just a jackass trying to write a travel blog.

And I need to both remember and remind others that I'm not special. I'm just a few thousand miles away.

So that's why I'm often self-deprecating. It tempers the temptation from any end to make it seem like I'm some sort of guru with a hidden knowledge of the human condition just because I spent some time in Southeast Asia and took some photos in Africa. And really, I might be a tad biased (okay, exceptionally biased), but when I compare my own style to this article's conceited, sub-Return to Innocence drivel, I kinda prefer my own style. Long story short, if you read that article and were inspired...well, sorry. You ain't gettin' any of that here.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about the last couple of days. Let's start with the question that's been on literally everyone's mind: do I like Cusco now? Short answer: no. Longer answer: I don't really despise it as much as my first day here, but I still don't like it, nor would I ever particularly recommend it in good faith to anyone. Yes, it's the cultural capital of Peru, but the whole feel of the down is just dirty. And I don't mean physically (it's about midway in terms of cleanliness compared to everywhere I've been). It just seems like, if you're visiting, you can't get around the fact that you're a tourist. And like I said before, I don't know why it bothers me here more than, say, the touristy places in Africa or Asia. But it does. And if you talk to a thousand people, you'll get a thousand different opinions, but suffice to say, I probably won't be chosen as Cusco's ambassador anytime soon.

Anyway, I was able to wake up on my own time, and had a decent breakfast in the hotel. It wasn't nearly as good as in Puno, but the Puno breakfast was one of the best I'd had in all of South America (and a number of other countries). There was some cereal, fruit, bread, and tea. I was a bit wary about the grapes they had (since you're supposed t be weary of fruits in developing nations that still have their skins), but I really like grapes, so I decided that, screw it, my body will just have to adjust to any microorganisms. I also found it absurd that, despite the fact that I could see the hotel's wireless router, I could barely establish a connection, and even when I could, it was the worst ever. The guy at the reception (who did not seem to be one of the two owners) seemed to understand the issue, and so gave me a note which had the WiFi password for the hotel next door. "You'll get good connection from your room." And he was right. Sitting in my room, I can get a stronger (and significantly faster) connection of the neighbor than I can from the hotel I'm paying for, when I'm sitting 10 feet from the router. And that's ridiculous. Anyway, it was raining outside; not hard, but enough for me to justify staying in my room and messing around for a good long while. Once the weather did clear up, though (11am, roughly), I decided to go out.

I just explored the area a little bit, going up and down some of the streets, seeing what there was to be seen (and more importantly, what could be seen without having to spend 50+ soles). Before long, I realized that it was about the time when the local walking tour would be meeting up. So, I walked over to the meeting point, and it turned out to be a rather large group. In La Paz, it had been two people. Here, it was about 35 (plus another ten Spanish speakers, which were given a different guide). Upon arriving, I was given a "Non-Touristic Map". That's really what it said. I was initially quite pleased with the concept, but the more I looked at it, the less I believed their claim. I mean, yes, there were some things that you wouldn't see on your typical tourism map (the most egregious example being the top four hotels for quickies), but other than that, it was just businesses and such that had paid to get their place listed, along with a 10% discount if you showed them the included card. And none of these places seemed really cheap regardless. But whatever, maps are never not useful. Plus it showed a couple of free Inca sits I could visit. So that's good.

So, the tour began. It was fairly interesting, covering the historical/cultural aspects of Cusco, some gastronomic aspects of Cusco, and ostensibly the modern aspects of Cusco (the guide had said he'd tell us what buses to use to get to various places, but he never did). Even the gastronomic elements were a bit dubious: we learned about the agriculture and food sources of Peru, and stopped in a restaurant to try some alpaca. (Pro tip: in these situations, allow yourself to be the last to sample. You run the risk of them running out, but if they don't, then you are free to whatever is left of the samples. In this situation, everyone else got one sample, and I got nine. Like before, the alpaca was quite salty, but it was again hard to tell if this was natural, especially because this one was in a garlic sauce.) We then walked up and down some of the important main squares of the cities. Interesting fact I didn't know: mostly every single one of the churches was built over an Inca temple that the Spanish destroyed. While I don't appreciate the destruction of things, I have to admit I can see the logic there. We then stopped at a Mediterranean restaurant near one of the city's markets, where we each got a sampling of falafel. It was at this point that I was questioning the validity of the gastronomy section of this tour. The only connection the guide gave between the restaurant and Peru is that you can find all sorts of cuisines in Peru. Also, this place was open until such-and-such a time. Whatever, I was getting free food out of the deal.

At one point during that sequence, I was trying to explain to a guy who could barely speak English (much less Spanish) that the falafel had no meat in it. This apparently caught the attention of a lady-folk who was with him, and she started chatting me up. It turns out, she was from Belgrade (that's in Serbia), and was in a loosely-formed tour group with this guy and some other folks from Serbia, Croatia, and some more of them Slavic-speaking countries. This explained why it seemed like a good number of the folks on this walking tour were speaking Slavic. I gave her the same basic information about my trip that I've given to everyone else unfortunate enough to start a conversation with me, and so we were basically chatting through all of the parts where the guide wasn't speaking (which turned out to be all the walking portions, which wasn't always a good idea, since we were walking uphill a lot). Continuing the tour, we went by a local musician (and unsurprisingly, instrument maker/seller) who played a number of instruments for us. I particularly found it amusing when he played Kaoma's Lambada song, which is still one of my most feel-good songs of all time. We then continued going up, getting some great views of the city, before heading back down and going into a "chocolate factory", which - while I enjoyed getting free samples of chocolate and cacao tea - was clearly a touristy place, as it was mostly just a store, and had "classes" where you could make your own chocolate, and had everything written in English first. And that's where we ended our tour, so I felt that, even on this walking tour, the very concept behind them all that you're supposed to be a bit more underground, it all felt very...unreal.

Anyway, after the tour was over, the Serbian girl asked if I had any lunch plans, and invited me to do something with her. I didn't have anywhere I specifically needed to go for lunch, so I agreed. At first, we thought her Slavic group had ditched her, so we set out to find a place, but eventually ran into the group. I just followed, my only real concern being that they might choose a place well out of my price comfort range. Thankfully, they instead chose a fairly cheap place. And while I was hoping that I might be able to sit at a separate table, the staff at the restaurant moved some tables together so we could sit together. This was awkward, because aside from the one girl, none of these folks were particularly welcoming of me, and didn't speak to me, or speak in English at all. (My paranoia later prompted me to ask what they said about me, but apparently, their only mention of me was when one asked, "Is the cowboy eating anything?" That's me, I'm the cowboy, apparently.) I ordered an avocado salad and a sandwich, and then waited, all the while chatting more with the Serbian girl. I was the last person served, and it turned out that they completely forgot my sandwich, but this was okay, since the salad was pretty substantial in itself (and, for only 9 soles, I thought it was a fair price, especially considering how much avocado I got out of it).

Afterward, the rest of the Slavic group went their own way, and I decided to do some shopping, so the Serbian girl joined me. As we were walking, she noted how much she disliked the rest of her group, because they didn't really take the time to appreciate the places that they were, and just cared about going to get food and, later on, going to bars and such. She also didn't like the folks leading it, because despite living in South America, they also didn't speak any Spanish. Having known first hand that you need to have some catharsis when traveling, I let her get it all out as we walked to the supermarket. My main goal was to get some Snickers bars for the trail (if EBC taught me anything, it's that one bar per day can do miracles). To my surprise, there were no Snickers to be seen. It wasn't a total loss, though; I managed to get some water, shampoo (for when I'm in places that don't provide it) and garbage bags (which can be lifesavers for my stuff if it gets rainy on the trail). We then went to the San Pedro market, the largest local market in the area. My goal here was to get a cheap, thin sweater, one that I could wear on the trek and then throw away immediately after without regret. Unfortunately, the only things available were hand-made woolen sweaters, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted. I wanted a cheap, machine-made fleece pullover, not something that somebody had put time and effort into. So I gave up on that, and we walked back to the main plaza. It was only then, after speaking for the past several hours, that we introduced ourselves to each other. (I had tried to see how long it could go.) I found out her name was Iva, and we parted ways, with the possibility that her group might be doing something at the bar in the plaza that night.

I stopped into about a dozen or so trekking stores on the way back to my hotel, each time trying to see how much a backpack and trekking poles would cost for my four day trek. (I was debating whether I should use poles, but I think my biggest issue is that I go uphill too fast, so fast that it's not good at high altitudes, and the poles are an excellent way of slowing me down.) The equipment offerings seemed to be pretty much the same everywhere, so the only real difference was price, and there was some range. The best price I could find was a place near my hotel that offered a backpack for 5 soles a day, and a pair of poles for 5 soles a day. Even though I felt I'd choose that one, I gave them the same statement I gave everyone: "Voy a decidir maƱana." ("I'm going to decide tomorrow.") I then got back to my hotel, dropped off my stuff, and then hung out until dinner time. At that point, I decided to go back to the McDonald's (particularly since it was right where the bar was, if that was going to end up being a thing). And this time I actually got the local thing: Pollo Crujiente al Plato, which was a plate featuring two pieces of fried chicken, a minuscule (token, really) salad, green-colored rice, and fries. I also got another order of those yuquitas. Additionally, they had a whole station of sauces: along with ketchup and mayonaise, there were about five sauces that I cannot even begin to remember the names of. And so I got a sampling of each. My review on this part of My Disgusting Quest™: It all tasted exactly like you'd expect it to. The fried chicken tasted like decent fried chicken, the fries tasted like McDonald's fries, the rice tasted like rice, the salad tasted like fast food lettuce and tomato. I did enjoy the yuquitas (although they weren't nearly as good as the ones from the previous night). As for the sauces...I don't know. I couldn't tell. I could have a sample of some, and it tasted great, and then I could try that same sauce a minute later and it would be revolting it was very strange. Overall, though, this meal was so jam-packed with carbs that I had to abandon one of the rules of My Disgusting Quest™, namely the one where I have to finish what I order. I really couldn't. It would have been bad.

I then walked back to the hotel, along the way stopping by places to see how much Snickers cost. Price at the first stand: 4 soles. Pricey. Price at the second stand: 4 soles. Third stand: 4 soles. First market: 4 soles. Second market: 4 soles. At this point, I just figured that was going to be the price, so I bought four of them. Just for kicks, though, I walked to yet another market across the street, where they were selling them for 3.5 soles. Typical. I then got back to the hotel, where I got a text message from Iva saying that the group wasn't going out, since they had to get up early the next morning to go to the Sacred Valley. I thus used the rest of my evening to relax, although found myself getting tired fairly early, and so I ended up going to bed shortly after 11pm.

Today, the main objective was to make sure I was ready for my trek. So, after I woke up (after an eight-hour sleep, which may not have phased me if it happened on some weekend back home, seems pretty long for this trip) and had breakfast, I started getting my things together. This involved a lot of going through my sometimes-need items, and taking out stuff that matched what the suggestions were. Flashlights with fresh batteries: got it. Insect repellent: got it. (Oddly enough, I still have the same packs of wipe-on repellent that a friend gave me before I left. I've almost used none since the trip began.) Toilet paper: check (courtesy of the hotel I'm staying at). And so on and so forth. And then I remembered the poncho that I had gotten in Oruro to protect me from all the foam and water of Carnaval. I had kept it specifically to use during this trek, but truth be told, I didn't know if it really had the chops to last in actual rain. So, I tested it the best way I could: I took some dry napkins, put them under the poncho, and then held it under a running shower. To my legitimate surprise, the napkins stayed dry, so I figured that would work fine as a rain jacket. Not that we're gonna have rain: the weather should be perfect.

After putting together all the stuff that I had available in the room, I decided to go out for the day. The "Non-Touristic Map" had mentioned two different Inca ruins that were free to visit - the Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) and Zona X (an Incan military training ground) - and according to the map, they were just up the hill from my hotel. So I got out and began walking. I walked up and up until I reached Sacsayhuaman, a major ruins and tourist attraction (which was part of the Boleto Touristico or, if I wanted to get in on its own, 70 soles. Nothankyousir.) And I walked past that, and kept walking, and kept walking. At one point, I stopped and looked at the map, and couldn't necessarily place myself with respect to where the Templo de la Luna was. So, I decided to get out my phone and compare my GPS position with Google Maps. Then, for kicks, I searched for the temple to see how much longer I'd be walking. And that's when I saw the map I was given had taken a few liberties; namely, it put those two sites on the edge of the map, but didn't note that they were nowhere close to Cusco. The temple, for example, was in Huayna Picchu, another mountain close to Machu Picchu. In short, it'd be quite a while before I could reach it. Zona X didn't seem to be easier to get to. As such, I decided to go back down the hill into town. As I did, I passed by the Museo de Arte Precolumbiano. I double-checked and saw that it was not part of the Boleto Touristica, so I decided to give it a look. It wasn't free (in fact, it was 20 soles), but I decided to spend that much to at least see something. It was a nice little place with some cool historical artifacts; nothing that really made it a must-see attraction, but it was clean, well-presented, and had competent English translations. That is to say, a solid, if small, museum.

It was well past time for lunch at that point, so I decided to walk around and see what I could find. More specifically, I was looking for small, cheap places that I could pop into and out of without paying much. Worse came to worst, I'd go back to that place where I got the avocado salad. But that turned out to be unnecessary, as I ended up walking by a place that I could/should have easily missed, seeing as the only signage on the outside was for a photocopy shop upstairs. But when I looked through the door, I saw people eating, and a whiteboard in the back promoting a "Menu Familiar", the most enticing thing for me being quinoa soup for s4.50. So, I walked in. The place was jumpin' - every table was occupied, but one of the ladies there motioned for me to sit down at one that just contained a single old man. So I did so, gave him a quick smile, and then looked at the whiteboard again. Underneath the soup offering, it mentioned two other items, Locro de Pecho (um, something of breast meat) and some chicken dish I didn't recognize. Before I could look into what they were, a bowl of soup was placed in front of me. That's when I realized that it wasn't a separate option - this was a fixed menu place. I ate the soup - it was delicious - and they asked me which of the two dishes I wanted. I ordered the Locro de Pecho, because...eh, why not. It turned out to be a stew-like stuff with beef in it, along with a big pile of rice. I was also given a glass of orange juice. Or at least, I thought it was orange juice until I drank it. It was more like Tang. Which is not bad, except that I felt they were probably using tap water, and so it probably wouldn't be in my best interest to continue drinking. But despite that, and despite the fact that they used a pretty low-grade piece of meat in the meal, I loved it there. Every single person in there was a local, and nobody spoke English to me. And that's not me turning my back on my beloved language; the point is just that they didn't treat me like a tourist. They just treated me like a person. And the food was good, and there was a lot of it, all for just s4.50 ($1.60). That's what it's like to eat like a local. That small little hole-in-the-wall place, which I probably wouldn't be able to find again if I tried, may have been my favorite little piece of Cusco.

Anyway, when I left, I bought myself some hand sanitizer, which is notable, because I'm usually 100% using hand sanitizer (I prefer soaking up the germs). That said, it is pretty useful on treks, when you need to quickly clean your hands before a meal or something like that. So I'll make an exception. I then went and got a small ice cream cone, and then sat on a bench in the Plaza de Armas, listening to music. But despite the fact that I was just sitting there, minding my own business, and despite the fact that I was wearing earbuds, that still didn't stop scumbag touts. Like, people would just walk in my view and wave their items in front of my face. And twice, a guy would sit next to me, trying to sell me either a trip or a painting. I'm not exactly sure, because I paid them literally no heed. Like, I was statue-like, almost catatonic, never moving a muscle or acknowledging their existence in the slightest. In some ways, I liked doing that more than just waving them away, because I could sense them trying for an absurdly longtime trying to get my attention before they realized they were literally wasting their time. I might also want to look into doing more impromptu acting to mess with them. I haven't had the chance/need to do that for a long while. But regardless it's terrible, and helped put back that awful taste that the lunchtime place had washed out.

I then went to a couple more trekking equipment places (and unsurprisingly, there are a lot in the area). But in the end, I ended up just going back to the one near my hotel, and got a backpack and a couple poles. 40 soles for the whole shebang (~$15) seemed fair enough, though I don't think I'll ever beat that rental deal I got in Kathmandu, especially when you consider I had no collateral there. Here, unfortunately, I had to give my driver's license. I then brought the stuff back to my room, and then basically said, "Screw it." I spent the rest of the afternoon messing around, doing some writing, watching some videos, playing some games, and not having a care in the world.

I continued like this until dinnertime, when I decided that, y'know what, I was gonna get some cuy. In case you don't remember from the last entry (or if I didn't mention it in the last entry), cuy is guinea pig. Peruvians raise guinea pigs, with little houses and such, but they don't do so as pets. They raise them so they can eat them. It's a traditional dish dating way, way back. And I can't leave Peru before trying it. Not that I'm leaving Peru for another week or so, but still, why not now? So, I go down to one of the restaurant alleys. Unfortunately, the price was not insignificant - it seemed like the going rate everywhere was s55 ($20). Possibly a good chunk of this was a "Cusco Tax" of sorts, but I could only justify it because a) I spent so little at lunch, and b) when am I gonna eat this again. When I realized I wasn't going to find a cheaper place, I just went into a restaurant, and ordered the Cuy al Horno. I then waited, playing a game on my phone to pass the time. And then it came out. And it was...it was a baked guinea pig, all right. The paws/claws had been taken off, but the head was still there, it's mouth open enough to look like it was crying out, with its ugly rodent teeth sticking out. If someone was on the fence about becoming vegetarian, this could easily be the back-breaking straw. As it was, it reminded me why, in Western cultures, we try to make our meats look as little like the original animal as possible. But it was there, so I needed to eat it. I began peeling it, and that's when I actually started becoming legit disappointed in the dish. There was barely any meat on the thing. It was mostly just skin and bones (literally). I had to rip it apart with my hands and dig in with my incisors to get what actual meat I could have. Maybe you're supposed to eat the skin, but I don't do that for chicken, and I'm not gonna do it for guinea pig. And while it definitely tasted like some sort of meat, it didn't hold a candle to a good piece of chicken. In fact, I thought the side offerings were better (one was just some sliced potatoes, but it also came with a fried bell pepper filled with veggies and meat [possibly the innards of the guinea pig, but I'd prefer to think it just random ground beef]). In some regards, I wouldn't have believed that locals actually ate this if I hadn't seen people in the middle of nowhere raising little pens of guinea pigs.

Overall, am I happy I had it? Sure, it's always good to try something new. Would I have it again? Nope, probably not, seeing as it's overpriced, under-meaty, and...guh, the head on there is genuinely creepy.

Anyway, I went back to the hotel, and just did more writing, and all that's left now is getting my final packing done before I have to go to bed (and wake up super early). As I mentioned, I'll be going on the Inca Trail starting tomorrow, which should be nifty, although I've heard it's pretty touristy. Hopefully it's not quite as bad as Cusco proper, but we'll see. Besides, if that's the only way to see Machu Picchu in person, then it's the only way to see Machu Picchu in person. Just suck it up, princess.

Anyhoo, see you on the flip side!

No comments:

Post a Comment