On the summer solstice 2014, four other Texas women, or cotravellers, and I started our journey to Peru. When I arrived at the Austin airport, I ate at an organic, locally-sourced bar, served by a spoken word poet.
Two flights later, I took a “sleeping selfie” at the airport in Lima. Although my overnight layover was long enough for a nap, PA announcements and airline workers banging on the glass wall to have the door opened by a coworker prevented that.
In another chapter of my life, I’d lived in Denver, but the Mile High City did not prepare me for how mountainous or altitudinous Cuzco was at 11,200ft.
I could’ve kissed the ground when I arrived at the hotel in Cuzco, especially since I was on time for the continental breakfast. However, the receptionist politely told me that complimentary service began the next morning.
Since we couldn’t check in for a few hours, our trip CEO, Chief Experience Officer, took us on a walk in search of breakfast. She explained the ubiquitous rainbow-like flags did not symbolize gay pride, but the indigenous Quechua culture.
Apparently, our weeklong visit coincided with several celebrations: the summer solstice, St. John’s Day on June 24th, and another celebration, which I can’t recall. For most of our vacation, we saw people in a variety of parade costumes.
After returning from breakfast, we discovered one cotraveller’s luggage had been burned by an outlet short-circuit.
Perhaps that was the risk the nearby electrical sign had warned about.
I was thrilled to check in, but the novelty of my new surroundings distracted me. Such as the negative first floor button, which inspired many creative musings every time I was on the elevator. I never pushed it since I didn’t want reality to disappoint me.
Even my room number amused me since it was the educational accommodations code for students with disabilities, which I certainly needed to help with the combined effects of sleep deprivation and high attitude.
Later in the day, our CEO walked us to the Plaza de Armas where the Iglesia Compania de Jesus lined one side of the plaza.
La Catedral lined another side.
In the center stood the Inca, Pachacutec.
Down an alley branching off the Plaza de Armas, we came upon a series of parade floats. I especially liked this one for incorporating a soccer theme since the World Cup invaded everybody’s mind.
Since Cuzco was a major tourist destination, I gave a few soles to take a picture of a grandmother with her grandkids and a goat. Throughout the rest of my vacation, I could truthfully tell all others who tried to solicit money from me for that shot, that I’d already taken one!
Nearly every public space had a thick gathering of people, whether they were watching a parade, listening to a speaker or just being together with extended family.
For our first dinner, I ordered alpaca brichra mediterranea, which was served with a berry sauce, sliced figs and cream pasta. Tasted like deer, but with less cholesterol than beef.
Afterwards, I was initially delighted to see the bathroom at that restaurant was stylishly covered in straw. Then my mind drifted to how could they possibly keep that sanitary? I chose not to over-think it.
Months before this trip, I’d attended a slideshow presentation, where I first saw the famous 12-sided rock of Cuzco. It‘s a prime example of Incan ingenuity since the wall was a sturdy construction despite its irregular-shaped rocks that fit together perfectly.
Travelers unused to high altitudes are cautioned not to drink alcohol for the first two days. Well, mama needed her medicine. We split a delicious bottle of Intipalka, a Peruvian Malbec! Most of the world only knows Argentine and Chilean malbecs. While sipping wine and eating a piece of chocolate cake, we watched the US play Portugal.
For the second time in just two hours, I took another picture of a bathroom. These so-called bathroom rules start off as legit since, in Peru, one tossed used toilet paper in the trashcan rather than flush it.
By the time we took our city tour on Monday, I thought we were already on Tuesday. The details of tour were fuzzy, but I remember that this was a baby alpaca. I’d just eaten one of its cousins last night.
Speaking of eating mammal cousins, we got a preview of how guinea pigs were prepared as part of our city tour.
On a rooftop of one of the houses were bulls, which symbolized Catholicism.
On another rooftop was the southern cross, which symbolized Andean religion.
As we took in the ambience of rooftop religious symbols and guinea pig preparation, a parade marched by.
At the next stop, we visited a burial site where Incan VIPs had been mummified and buried with libations for the afterlife. There weren’t any displayed mummies, but I got to experience the coolness of the limestone altar where mummies had been prepared.
From the mountaintop perspective, I appreciated the neat layout of Cuzco where all streets radiated out from the Plaza de Armas.
No Cuzco city tour would be complete without visiting Saqsaywaman (pronounced similar to “Sexy Woman”). With retaining walls to prevent mudslides during the rainy season, Saqsaywaman was the site where the Inca would celebrate mother earth by drinking chicha, fermented maize. On August first, a young girl, who had not yet menstruated, was given chicha and coca leaves and buried alive to appease mother earth to prevent natural disasters. The temporary bleachers shown here had been brought in for people who could afford to celebrate St. John’s Day in style.
I didn’t know that Cuzco had a Cristo Blanco nor that the largest one resided in Bolivia instead of Brazil.
Our last city tour stop was the Convento de Santo Domingo, which was a Dominican convent built on top of an Incan temple. The Incan foundation had the usual trapezoidal construction that made it earthquake proof.
Of all the exotic or questionable things I ate, it was the carrot and pumpkin soup for dinner that did me in. The first two middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom were just due to diarrhea, but that third time, I leapt out of bed, tied back my dreads and heaved a sulfur and pisco sour flavored vomit. Next time I travel to a developing country, I will buy a small bottle of tequila or whiskey for such medicinal purposes.
I slept like a charm after that. In the morning, I boasted at breakfast about how my body could eject pathogens without further intervention, which was fortunate since I felt well enough to witness the re-enactment of the Inca celebrating the summer solstice.
We continued to the San Isidro market, where the fresh fruits, vegetables, juices, spices and slaughtered animals were sold.
One pleasant surprise was the lack of flies, thanks to the high altitude.
Another surprise was the availability of “potion” ingredients. My upbringing calls it “voodoo”. My mother would call it “working roots”. Whatever you name it, it was available for purchase.
Our CEO purchased a bag of coca leaves for us to try. We’d all drank coca tea, which was supposed to help with altitude sickness. I found the leaves slightly bitter and it had no noticeable effect.
For lunch, traditionally the biggest meal of the day, I ordered lamb stew that came with a huge chunk of lamb that I’d normally eat in a week.
Our CEO recommended we split a fried guinea pig since most tourists don’t like it. It had very little meat, a membranous texture, and a gamey taste most similar to duck. On my first bite, I’d forked what I thought was white meat, but the texture was very soft. The CEO told me that I’d just eaten part of the brain!
At this point, my camera needed recharging. I plugged in my surge protector and heard a loud popping sound. The receptionist reset the circuit breaker. Turns out the camera’s AC adapter worked like a charm without it. Yeah, technology!
Later, we visited a silver jewelry store that had its own on-site jewelry-making room. After seeing how the silver was smelted and the raw stones cut, we were released to shop.
I bought two pairs of earrings to remind me of Peru. One pair was in shape of a kantu flower and the other symbolized the solar calendar.
After walking around Cuzco a couple of days, I finally found my namesake. Of course, I had to take a picture with the little plaza sign.
I was delighted to discover Cuzco had a chocolate museum, where an employee passed out samples of dark, milk and white chocolate without vanilla and other added stuff normally found in chocolate bought in the States. I sampled tea made from cacao leaves and bought two dark chocolate bars, one with cardamom, the other with aji chili. I liked the cardamom best.
I split a Peruvian malbec and merlot blend at an upscale restaurant to have with the chocolate. Since I wanted a light dinner, I ordered a salad and discovered Peru has the creamiest avocados on earth!
Not only that, but I loved the food philosophy of this restaurant.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped into this liquor store for a 2.5L bottle of water. I could not resist taking a picture of the Peruvian fertility god sitting among the alcohol.
One afternoon, I had a little downtime to sit in the Plaza de Armas. Some local women told me that the propped up tree, named Queuna, couldn’t be cut down because it had been there since the time of the Incas.
Later, we took a private bus to the House of the People of the Sun to volunteer with some kids. Due to large potholes in the dirt road, we had to walk uphill with our donations.
The director greeted us and explained the different programs offered: jewelry-making, leather crafts, homework help, especially math, music, and psychological counseling.
In the past, there had been programs to raise awareness about recycling, composting, and promoting the use of native languages such as Quechua, native cultures, and educating rural people about labor and sexual exploitation.
I was alarmed to see that the house, dedicated to helping children at risk economically and/or intellectually, was across the street from a women’s penitentiary.
All the kids had assigned duties.
I was eager to them with their math homework, but the one student who had finished his, packed up his notebook and wouldn’t let me check over it.
Most of us chose to paint the mural, which had been sketched out in pencil. The theme appeared to be an ecological message about how everyone was responsible for maintaining the well-being of the environment.
After painting, I visited the music room. My presence caused the kids to be giddy. Finally, the teacher got them to play a traditional song.
As soon as the bus dropped us off from volunteering a half-day, we went to a nearby little bar to take a medicinal tequila shot, Followed by two helpings of a local mint Bailey’s imitation on the rocks. This became our place for a couple of nights.
On the way up the stairs to breakfast, I came across a little boy, chasing after a lemon-sized yellow ball. Unfortunately, he and two other boys were playing soccer in the dining area. I have an on-going irritation with parents who allow their kids to play in undesignated areas, especially restaurants. I joined two cotravellers at their table, but was preoccupied by the boys. Finally, one cotraveller got the ball. I pocketed it since I was comfortable with being the bad guy. I explained to one boy in my broken Spanish that we were in a restaurant and I wanted to eat in peace. I told him I’d give the ball back when I finished eating. Of course, the parents and grandmother were all there, thought the situation was funny, but apparently agreed with me keeping the ball. One cotraveller returned the ball when she saw they were leaving.
For our second day of volunteering with the kids, we stayed the whole day. Some cotravellers helped with preparing lunch.
I managed to help a few kids with their math, algebra problems and one geometry-based algebra problem. One girl made posters out of the problems. I was so happy to understand and explain the problems in Spanish.
The jewelry-making teacher showed me the basics of making silver earrings.
That was a steep learning curve, but I eeked out a pair of earrings after a while. I have a newfound respect for jewelry designers.
Then I went into the leather craft room to make a bookmark. The design was already engraved on the bookmark. So I painted it. As usual it took longer than I thought it would.
As soon as I finished, I went outside to thaw out. Next thing I know, I had a paintbrush in my hand and I started to paint the grass part of the wall mural. The painter in me just had to make the grass have more depth.
We ate lunch with the kids, which consisted of sopa de viernes or chupe, a carrot and tomato salad, a veggie fritter and half a boiled potato.
After lunch, I found a quiet spot and whipped out my ever-present journal. I wasn’t alone for long. The boys were fascinated by both my cursive handwriting and how quickly I wrote. They couldn’t read my writing until I printed—just like my students in the States.
The next morning, I sprang from bed at five thirty-three—thirty-three minutes AFTER my wake up call was supposed to ring. Eleven minutes later, I joined my tour group on the bus to Ollantaytambo. Despite the breakneck speed around curvaceous roads, I saw snow-capped and cloud-covered mountains.
We arrived at the train station with just enough time to use bathroom…
and to hear our daily dose of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” on pan flute.
We took a comfortable, clean train with sunroof windows and complimentary snack and beverage service to Aguas Caliente, the city just outside of Machu Picchu.
The CEO had told me earlier in the week that the puma represented the present world; the condor represented the future; and the snake represented the past.
For the first time on my trip, I saw a Peruvian hairless dog. Apparently this one was a Batman fan.
We hiked along the Urubamba river up to the base of Machu Picchu. I stood on the pedestrian bridge where hardcore hikers ascended. The next day, I’d take the bridge to my right for the brave who traveled up by bus.
This is one thing that happens when six women travel together: time to break out with the hand sanitizer before eating!
Half of us made a short trek to the hot springs after lunch. It was a bust since they wouldn’t allow us to soak our feet in the pools because we didn’t have bathing suits. Yet, I made use of the toilet since our hotel temporarily had no running water. We chilled the bar area, overlooking the pools and rushing river water while listening to Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. A Chinese film crew showed up to document the hot springs.
On our way back from changing money, we went to a restaurant to watch Italy vs Uruguay because as one cotraveller said, “I’ve never seen an ugly soccer player.” I watched more sports on TV in the past few days than I’d watched all last year.
For the second early morning in a row, we stood in line for a Machu Picchu shuttle. Some tourists speculated about the safety of the infamous shuttles. I shared the same sentiments as one cotraveller: “I’ve walked too much this week to roll off a bus!”
Once we arrived safely at the entrance, most of us got off the bus in a civilized manner, but this impatient European shoved me in the back twice saying, “Go, go! Go, go!” when I paused to allow people across the aisle to get off the bus first. I turned around, put my finger in his face and threatened, “Push me one more time!” He repeated “Go, go!” softer, but didn’t touch me again.
And just look at the line that he’d rushed to wait in. Our CEO told us that many tourists have the delusion that they’ll be the first at the gate.
My visit to Machu Picchu was amazing even though it was the only time while in Peru I was immersed among other tourists, some of whom were absolutely rude when it came to taking their pictures at prime spots then moving on.
A tour guide explained that Machu Picchu had three parts: Agriculture, Urban (homes), and spiritual. East-facing doorways signified residences. All other facing doorways were either storage spaces or temples.
We came upon a bright green coca bush. Our guide explained that cocoa leaves needed chemical processing with sulfuric acid to make cocaine, which eats away at one’s flesh. He stated that all countries should legalize marijuana like Uruguay did since it’s a safer drug. Our CEO concluded, “If you can’t beat them, joint them!”
The Incan canal system below ground still collected more than enough drinking water through rainwater harvest to supply the estimated ancient population. During the wet season grounds became saturated. This temple was falling apart because of water damage.
In one part of Machu Picchu condor wings and the body of a condor were etched in stone.
For some inexplicable reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take a 45-min hike to the Sun Gate. I’d already walked too much on my recovering broken ankle. The best part about the steepness of the trail going down was my knees hurt so much, I didn’t even feel any ankle pain!
Three cotravellers and I made the Sun Gate trek.
Before leaving Machu Picchu, I put a decorative stamp in my passport.
I was so exhausted when I hopped on the shuttle bus, I didn’t care that it barreled down the narrow winding trail.
Once again, my hotel room number in Cuzco was prophetic. I certainly needed to clean up after hiking Machu Picchu, then spending hours traveling.
Since this was my last day, I took a picture of the Cuzco street dogs. They were so sophisticated in that they knew how to cross the street and otherwise interact with humans. I’d heard that none of them were strays although they freely roamed the streets.
After the city tour a few days ago, many shoeshine guys had approached me. I purposely waited until my last day to have them shined up. He gave my shoes the best shine since they were bought. Charged only two and half dollars, but I ended up giving more than that.
A cotraveller and I returned to the chocolate museum. After a few sips of Mayan hot chocolate mixed with red pepper (aji), honey and hot milk, I proclaimed, “All black people should smell like chocolate.” The cotraveller said, “All white people should smell like vanilla, then there’d be no racism.”
At the Cuzco airport, security and a group of passengers huddled around a flatscreen TV. I didn’t have to remove my newly shined shoes nor throw away my opened bottle of water because of a tight game between Costa Rica and Greece. The crowd roared when Costa Rica won. Then magically, the airport announcements resumed.
My last supper in Peru was the most expensive, courtesy of the Lima airport. I bit the bullet and ordered Malbec with fettuccine and shrimp. I bought a $3 bottle of water afterwards to counterbalance the saltiness of the sauce.
Before we boarded, about six airline workers donned disposable rubber gloves and hand searched all carry-ons. As soon as I saw them confiscating all beverages, I chugged my expensive bottled water, which had resided in the front pocket of my backpack.
The DFW airport has a new thing: cue up for an electronic kiosk that scans your passport, takes an unattractive picture, and asks for the same information as the paper immigration form, which I’d already filled out, but no one ever asked for.
Yet throughout my travel, I was a big fan of the old school technology: pen and paper for my notes, edits and long-division money exchange calculations! Make no mistake, I’m happy to return to the land of time-saving devices, even though I’m not sure where all the saved time goes.