It’s taken me awhile to put pen to paper (or, more truly, fingers to keyboard) on this one. I’d love to tell you that there’s a simple explanation like I’ve been too busy. However, in all honesty, it’s been because there was something different about this trip. Something about the place that captivated me and almost defies words. Especially my usual curt words. Sure, we had our share of the kinds of experiences that I’m told garner the occasional chuckle from readers — but this sketch has a different kind of theme running through it. If you pick up on a subtle hint of awe, I did my job right.
Peru — the Sacred Valley in particular — has a certain mysticism to it.
- Shortness of breath?
- Numbness of the extremities?
Those are the symptoms of finding oneself in Peru’s Sacred Valley. At altitudes ranging from a cool 8,000 feet (or some number of confusing meters) to 22,000, it’s a vigorous mountain climb attempted by thousands of otherwise lazy tourists each and every day (up to 2,500 people enter Machu Picchu each day). The guides are trained in their universities to literally “walk slower for the tourists who aren’t acclimatized” to these altitudes. And boy was I grateful. Most of the negative effects are reduced for those who can respond, “Yes” when a guide says, “Did you get dee pill?”
“Dee pill” is a twice-daily prescription for a drug that causes the pH in your blood to increase, which through some trick of science means you can skip the headaches and nausea normally suffered by travelers at these altitudes. It also means you get the occasional and unpredictable tingling of your hands, feet, and (if you’re lucky) face. It became a sensation that we looked forward to.
We first arrived in the big city of Lima. A shocking (at least to me) 3,000,000 of Peru’s 10,000,000 people live here. Despite my less than stellar math education — which will play a character part in a few paragraphs — I can tell you that’s about 1/3 of the country. I can also tell you, based on personal experience, that the country’s educational system seems lacking in what I would call “Driver’s Ed.” Not since I was in Moscow have I seen anything quite like it.
I’ve had close calls in cars everywhere from Copenhagen to New York to – the worst – Moscow. It seems like people in nearly every big city take pride in their ability to say, “We have the craziest drivers.” I have always chortled. There was no chortling in Lima. These are some crazy drivers.
What Flashes Before You When You’re Facing Death?
Let me share our near-death experience from Day One in Lima. It was 3:00 or so. We were wandering the streets exploring the five-hundred year-old Spanish Colonial architecture. Across the plaza, we noticed the Presidential Palace and decided to take a closer look. Being the extraordinary (and humble) gentleman I am, I led the way across the street practically draping my jacket over a puddle so that no shoes would get wet. As I was brushing off the brownie points I’d just earned from my jacket, I suddenly froze. Out of nowhere appeared some kind of unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck. They say when you’re near death, your life flashes before your eyes.
If it was my life that flashed, I really need to live more. What I saw was even more shocking than an unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck barreling toward me in a South American capital.
There, before us, was a completely, absolutely, buck-naked woman in her mid-seventies. I’ve seen a lot in my life. But I haven’t seen that before. Sure, there was this one time in Philadelphia where I saw a middle-aged woman changing her shirt in front of the LOVE statue in Kennedy Plaza, but that was just a shirt. This Limanite was completely devoid of clothing. Not a stitch. In broad daylight. In front of the Presidential Palace. No, she wasn’t protesting. She was just walking around wrestling with a burlap potato sack that said, “Fresco! Organico! De Los Andes!” or “Fresh! Organic! From the Andes!”
Thankfully, I have been forgiven for staring at this unexpected sight since it inspired both of us to run away from it — and the truck — saving us from being pancaked in Peru.
Which brings us to our experience in the Andes, away from the dangers of the Big City.
But first, let me explain that Lima is on the Pacific coast, west (1 hour by plane) from Cusco, the Incan capital. It, like the rest of Peru is in the same time zone as New York. Most tourists from the States come to Peru to see the Incan wonders of the Sacred Valley, culminating, of course, at Machu Picchu (correctly pronounced, as I learned, “Machu Pick-chu,” by the way).
A Confusing Past
Our time in Peru left me with many questions about the unique and unusual history of the Peruvian people. It’s truly complicated.
So, imagine this: You’re sitting in your house minding your own business doing your normal activities like, say, watching Entertainment Tonight. All of the sudden a UFO shows up. So, your mayor does what she should do. She goes and says, “Hi. Welcome to our town!”
Then, after that, the people in the UFO behead your mayor. And make you one of their slaves. You know, after they take all of your prized possessions, forbid you from speaking your language or going to your church, and begin marrying your children.
Well. That, my friends, is exactly what happened when the Spanish arrived in 1534. Except no one was watching Entertainment Tonight. It was, in a few small ways, a better time.
I say it’s a complicated heritage because, not only did the Spanish conquer the ancestors of today’s Peruvian people, but they also infiltrated their DNA. Practically every Native Peruvian has both Inca and Spanish heritage. The Spaniards brought religion, food, language, blood(shed). They did it by conquering and nearly destroying most of the traditions.
Thankfully Quechua, the native language, and many traditions (including the beautiful worship of Pachamama — Mother Earth) remain in many of the rural areas where they were protected by the almost insurmountable landscape.
Dinner was a Pet?
The Peruvian ambrosia is, of course, Guinea Pig. I don’t know if it’s just for the tourists, although it seemed genuine: The act of eating Guinea Pig is held with a level of respect normally reserved for religious experiences. On the most special occasions, families will save their soles (1 sole = 33 cents) and buy a Guinea Pig for roasting.
Now, if you go to Peru and skip the Guinea Pig, you’re really not living. And I love living so what do you think I did?
Admittedly, after I ordered it, I was freaking out. Like completely freaking out. I recalled the time I ate the as-yet unidentified fish in Tokyo that caused me to nearly wretch all over one of Tokyo’s finest rooftop restaurants. This was a different experience altogether because I had the misfortune of knowing what was coming. I was absolutely 100% freaking out. As I sat there, white as a ghost, afraid I’d wasted a precious meal and might embarrass my country, I did my best to meditate and think about something — anything — else. I looked across the restaurant at the beautiful view of the Rio Sagrado (Sacred River). I thought about the amazing Incan ruins we’d seen everywhere. Nope. Nothing could get my mind off of what was coming: A class pet for millions of Americans was about to be dinner. Freaking. Out.
I recognize cultural mores are unique to each place. So, my definition of Guinea Pig is certainly not the same as my Peruvian friends, but this was tough. And it was about to be even tougher.
The cook rang the bell indicating that the little creature was ready to be delivered.
Our waitress knew exactly what was about to happen. She’d seen it many times before. In fact, she’s probably watching some other poor schmo from another country doing the same thing right now as you’re reading this. “Hahaha! I’ll have the Guinea Pig!” She knew the result when I asked for it with my hard US accent.
To say it tasted like chicken would indicate to anyone who’s had it that I didn’t get up the nerve to try it. I tried it. And it didn’t taste like chicken. It tasted like Guinea Pig. Like a spongy, sad meat that really had no business being eaten. The tiny little leg bones just made it that much sadder. The spongy, roasted meat was…I really can’t go on. I ate enough to say I’d done it and hid the rest under my mashed potatoes.
It was all the more real when some of my friends from home heard about what I’d done. They started sending pictures of their children petting their little furry Guinea Pigs. For the next several nights, I woke up in cold sweats with nightmares of little, cute, friendly fur balls named “Lollypop,” “Boo Boo,” and “Cream Puff” attacking me.
It’s a meal I’d rather soon forget.
“Education is the Currency of Democracy.” ~ T. Jefferson
I’ve found that every trip takes on a life of its own. This one somehow focused on education.
One day, we rode in a car for about an hour to a town called, Ollantaytambo, and then headed up, into the mountains for another couple of hours along an unpaved road that held onto the mountain by its gravelly fingertips. We passed women herding cattle and llamas. We dodged hippies. We saw the “real” Peru. (As a quick and worthwhile aside, there are a lot of hippies — mostly from the States — wandering around Peru. They sell bracelets made of string and look, for the most part, lost.)
Upon arrival, we walked into the classroom, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Excited about the opportunity to look, from a safe distance, at the kids as they learned their alphabet or whatever. When we walked into the room I immediately knew something was different. On the board: Advanced math. How did I know it was advanced? Because I’d seen it in college. It had funny shapes and really big numbers. Really big numbers. I didn’t understand. These were fourth graders.
And then, the students — these kids weren’t kids anymore — saw us. And suddenly their teacher lost control of them. They became kids again.
Our guide would later say, “Gringo is a term for foreigners whom we like. It’s not offensive.”
Right. Who’s kidding who? Aside from your excellent grammar, you’re wrong. But, whatever. Hat’s off to you for properly using “whom.”
These kids threatened me with their math. Once I’d moved passed their math skills, I saw their faucet-like noses. With a combination of yellow and red that belonged on a hotdog and not a nose, it was clear these kids were suffering with an epidemic of something I didn’t want. (In a bit of literary foreshadowing, I’ll share with you that I would get it. It set in on the flight back to the states and I was sick for a solid week.)
“What have you brought me?!” They asked, not-quite in unison, but in nearly perfect English.
I looked at our guide. Then at the teacher. Then at the students. The teacher told them to start singing. One of the boys suddenly jumped up, vertically, I don’t know, maybe three or seven feet in the air pointed at his chair, pointed at me, and said, “Sientete!” I recall hearing that a lot in school when we were being disobedient. Fearing a demerit, I sat down. My knees were level with my chin in his tiny chair. One point for the boy, no points for me.
They began singing a song, which our guide later translated. My favorite verse went roughly,
“Airplane! Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend. She’s cheating on me. My family is so sad. I’m so sad that I kissed a skeleton. Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend.”
If you think that’s strange, just take some time with, “Humpty Dumpty.”
After their song, we passed out apples. They seemed pleased with us and, like any good performers, offered another tune in response to our apples, which, to them, were akin to a standing ovation.
Meeting these students was a great fortune. Seeing them light up when we walked in was awfully exciting.
Machu Picchu is everything you could imagine. Seeing it was an inspiration and awe-inspiring. I can’t put words to it. So pictures will have to do. The only thing I will say is that it sat covered by dense vegetation unknown to anyone for five-hundred years. Which leads me to this exciting question: What else is out there waiting for discovery?
In closing, we went because we’d never been. We’ll return because it’s amazing.