Note: There is NO way I could share the details and wonder of our recent trip to Peru in one post. No way. So, I’ll start with the beginning and share the rest over the next few posts. After a full month off, I’m working to find my groove again. Please be patient.
I don’t do re-entry well. I never have. For two and a half weeks as I travelled around Peru, I thought of titles for posts, ways to start them, how I would describe what I was seeing and experiencing. For those 2+ weeks my writer’s brain worked out how to express all that I was taking in. Yet now that I’m home I’ve found myself unable to focus, and put thoughts to page. My head has been slow to re-engage in the “real world” of daily life here. I’m still processing amazing things we saw, amazing things we did. I’m reliving some of the most challenging days of my life, some of the most inspiring and beautiful, and some of the wildest most incredible places I’ve seen. I’m still missing people we met, and wishing for a little more time in places we landed. Doing 15 loads of the smelliest laundry this house has ever seen, groceries, bills to pay, catching up on things that were undone for three weeks while we traveled, all took precedence in the first few days home… as my brain tried to re-boot and get back to speed. Life in Peru was one big sensory high, and my thinking slowed down as I took it all in and savored it. I don’t do re-entry well.
When we left here four weeks ago now, I was stressed and anxious. Weeks of getting three teens through finals and seeing two of them off, as China and Denmark returned home; having our two college age kids home, and adjusting to their moods and impact on our day to day flow; as well as all the details and effort that went into getting ready for a 3 1/2 week trip away; none of it was easy or relaxing, to say the least. Add a stomach bug onto the first part of our trip and I did not leave for Peru feeling my best. I arrived feeling anxious about the major trekking trip we had scheduled and felt fairly certain that I might fail. I knew that I hadn’t “trained” for it, as Smart Guy had urged for months. Much stronger, in shape friend, had warned me that this was the hardest hike they’d ever done. I’d heard countless tales of altitude problems and the challenges I would be facing. Here I was starting out down points, as I recovered from the bug. I can’t lie: I was wary and scared of what I was in for, and had developed a “stop, drop and roll” plan that included backing out if I couldn’t manage after day one. (I’ll come back to this…)
Our arrival in Lima, after an 8 hour flight from Newark, was surreal. We got in late at night and found our guide, Fabian, in a crowd of Latin faces all holding signs and calling out to people. We didn’t see him right away and we all looked around, exhausted, as we were bombarded by sights, sounds and the smell of the city. It immediately reminded me of India, though not as chaotic. Fabian, our puffy, red-faced, fast-speaking guide grabbed us, just as we were starting to think he wasn’t there, and ushered us to a white van that smelled of syrupy sweet air freshener, the kind that comes from paper pine trees dangling from the rear view mirror, or other such things. The thick smell thinly veiled the cigarettes they were meant to cover.
From the airport we sped through hazy Lima, the famous winter fog (referred to as the garua) settled wrapped around everything. It is rumored that Francisco Pizarro designated Lima as the nation’s capital in February, when the skies were vivid blue and the views of the sea were stunning. Little did he know that when the garua sets in from June-December, the city remains a dismal gray. Buildings downtown are painted bright colors to combat the blahs, but our first views of Lima at night, through the fog, were not endearing. With its crowded streets, endless billboards and colorful graffiti, the city was mysterious and shrouded at best.
Fabian had brought a driver as well, but little was said as we drove to our hotel in Mira Flores, a small district just north along the coast, from downtown Lima. Given our late arrival and the fact that we had an early morning flight to Cuzco, the hotel seemed particularly out of the way, as the driver made one turn after another and then headed along the coast. The kids and I glanced warily at each other from the back seat as downtown got farther and farther away. I had that uneasy feeling you get when you have no idea where you’re going and it all feels like the wrong way. Ferrel dogs crossed the streets, cars crossed traffic lines with no signals and we drove on and on.
When we finally arrived at our hotel, on what seemed to me a sketchy alley/street, I was sure there’d been some mistake. Why would we be staying so far from the airport, in an area that did not seem particularly good. Fabian did little to allay my worries, as he dropped off our bags curbside and reminded us that that he’d be back to get us at 7 AM, for our 9:45 AM flight to Cuzco. We would soon learn that the tour company was dedicated to having us at airports at least 2, and up to 3 hours before every flight. We spent a lot of time in the Lima airport in two weeks, and a lot of time waiting at airports in general. For a family that often races to catch flights, this was an entirely new experience.
Our first task was to find some food, late at night in a place we knew nothing about. We hit a popular sandwich shop two doors down and Middle Man (a vegetarian) ordered an egg sandwich, while we got chicken. The concept of avoiding lettuce and other high water content fruits/veggies went right out the window, when we found ourselves woefully inept at speaking Spanish, and holding the biggest sandwiches ever (monster frigging sandwiches!), that both had mounds of shredded lettuce and umpteen sauces. As we waited, locals stopped to say hi to us and test their English. Clearly we stood out. One enthusiastic guy enthusiastically told my kids that the surfing was amazing in Lima, and “the weed, the weed is the best!” Little Man’s eyes widened as Smart Guy and I tried not to laugh.
The next morning, we flew on to Cuzco to begin to acclimate to the altitude and get ready for our trek to Machu Picchu. This is when Peru really came to life for me. As we flew into Cuzco we got our first glimpses of the Andes, something to truly take your breath away. Stepping off the plane, the altitude was immediately evident. Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire and sits at 11,200 feet, high enough that breathing is a bit tougher from the minute you arrive. Altitude sickness billboards and warnings abound, but the fact that walking is more of an effort as soon as you arrive, was enough to make it clear that we were no longer where we live: at sea level. Surprisingly, as the day went on I learned that it did not bother me nearly as much as I’d anticipated. I felt the extra effort, but insisted on taking the stairs each time to our room on the second floor, as Smart Guy yelled “Are you kidding?! You’re going to regret that!” I didn’t.
Our Cuzco guide, Manuel, urged us to drink our first cups of Coca tea in the hotel lobby, and then we were off to see the Inca ruins of Scsayhuaman (pronounced similar to sexywoman), Quenqo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay. The ruins sit high above the city of Cuzo, and as our first Incan ruins, were very impressive to see. When you first approach these massive rock formations it’s impossible not to be humbled and amazed. The people who created these sites, the Incas, only existed as a nation for about 100 years, but accomplished so much and on such an enormous scale. Huge boulders moved and cut into perfect shapes that lock and fit together to form exquisite walls, temples and cities. Many of the stones fit so perfectly, so tightly, that today you can not slide a piece of paper between the seams. Despite the many earthquakes in the region, which have destroyed countless “modern” buildings, the Inca sites still stand: solid and impressive to see, by any standard.
We all moved a little slower through these initial sites, as the altitude impacted our
muscles and lungs. The many steps up from one level to another were challenging and we all found ourselves winded and laboring to breath, even when we walked slowly up only a few levels. Principessa, Middle Man and Little Man all partook of the 500+ year old slides, that were probably enjoyed by Incan children in the 1500s. We looked out across Cuzco, from the edge of the site and I wondered what it all had looked like when the Incans had looked out from that very spot. The entire world seemed to be theirs at that time, not understanding that in a very short time the Spaniards would wipe them out completely. In just 40 years, the Spanish completely annihilated the the Inca nation, despite the fact that the Incas often outnumbered the Spanish by enormous numbers. The public murder by strangulation of the great Inca chief Altahualpa was the essential end of Incan supremacy, but 40 years later, their decline was final when the stronghold of Tupac Amaru was discovered, and he too was murdered.
As we listened to the stories and history of the Inca, many of which I’d learned in school, and Little Man has studied and memorized, it was chilling and haunting to walk the very grounds where many of these great warriors and their people lived, farmed, worshipped, and worked to build their amazing society. Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards took more than 8 tons of gold from the Incas in ransoms, literally walls of solid gold and rooms filled with it, in each case murdering the chief when ransoms had been paid. All of this was done with less than 200 Spanish soldiers to carry out the conquest. It is difficult to imagine how this could possibly occur looking at the fantastic sites, many of which seem so impenetrable and highly defendable, even today. As I walked amongst the ruins, looking out at herds of alpaca and other tourists, it was stunning to imagine the history we walked on.
The hills around Cuzco rise up, with farmland and eucalyptus trees everywhere. Herds of Alpacas are a common site. The ruins often pop up in between small enclaves of poor, modern communities where clean water and electricity are in short supply. Many of the local people, of Quechuan background, still subsist on trading and farming, making meager incomes and trying to support their families by selling hand-loomed items and local arts to tourists like us. They live around and amongst the ruins that we explored and found so amazing, playing soccer on the very same places where Inca warriors lived and fought. Ferrel dogs are everywhere, though it’s hard at times to tell which are truly ferrel and which are tagging along behind someone going down the street. Collars and the niceties that our dogs enjoy are in short supply in the streets, mountains and jungles of Peru. But the dogs were everywhere.
We spent all of our first and second days in Peru touring the ruins and and sites of Cuzco with our guide Manuel, or on our own. He showed us the ruins and tourist stops, while we explored more on our own the next day. We found our way to a small local restaurant on day two for favorites including Chicharrones (delicious fried pork) and sopa de gallinda (chicken soup), two local favorites, and drank freshly squeezed juices and smoothies most days, that
would rival any shiny place at home. We wandered through the impressive halls of a small local museum, and the beautiful interior of the Cathedral on Plaza de Armas. Narrow alleys abound, with cobbled streets that are precarious at times and countless buildings that sit atop ancient ruins. As you walk around Cuzco you are constantly aware of the history, as Incan ruins mix with Spanish Colonialism and “modern” construction.
Vendors sell beef hearts on skewars (Peru is not for the weak of heart when it comes to meat!); roasted corn, bigger than any corn we grow here and not genetically modified. The Peruvians grow 35 varieties of corn officially, but locals claim more. Old women straddle vats of freshly squeezed pineapple, maracuya (similar to Passion fruit, and my favorite) and other juices, and people present their arts on every corner and in between. The city is alive. Cuzco was a constant visual feast, with temptations for your other senses along the way. And always the dogs. The dogs lay in the streets; they wander the alley ways with you; they are everywhere, and would play a bigger role as our adventure expanded.
At 6 PM on day two, our trekking guide Edgard met with us in the lobby of our hotel.
He’d come to lay out our trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay trail. He had a warm smile and wonderful brown eyes, and was clearly sizing us up from the moment we all sat down. I was sizing him up as well. As I mentioned earlier, I had a back up plan, and that plan involved possibly walking back to town on day two. I’d need s support team… IF I was indeed the weak link we all anticipated. In my mind, I had figured that I could surely manage the first day and then, if it was more than I could do, I’d simply hike back down the trail to Cuzco (Stop), stay in a hotel for the final 3 days of the trek (Drop) and then take the train I’d heard about and meet my family at Machu Picchu (Roll). I’d been working out this plan for weeks. The only problem: I had not really looked at a map; I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
When Edgard began to lay out the actual plan, that began with a 3 AM departure by car, then four hours of driving into the wilderness, my plans began to dissolve. As he talked, my head spun and I started to plot that I’d now need to get through day one, go back to the car with one of the crew and drive all the way back to Cuzco. This was going to be much harder than I’d expected, and I didn’t realize (yet) how completely out of touch with reality I was. Edgard seemed to already be realizing that mom might be an issue. Look folks, I put it right out there: “I am the weak link here Edgard. I am not in shape. I swear too much, and I’m not sure I’m going to make this.” He looked at me seriously and said “Yes amigos, this will be very, very hard. Perhaps I should tell you some other options.” He then laid out the possible places during the trip where we could hire a car and bypass some of the arduous trekking. He looked at me as he said all of this. “These are merely options amigos. You should think about them and let me know. I will need to arrange things if you choose to use these options, but if one of you needs the car, we all take the car. We stay together.”
I could here the air fizz out of my plans right then. What?! We’d all have to weenie out? I’d be hearing about that for the rest of our lives! Remember how mom ruined our whole trekking trip because she was too lazy to get in shape for it in the first place? As the others listened, my head was now cartwheeling, and I gulped my coca tea. By day two I was beginning to crave the coca tea and if there was any chance it would give me strength (as some locals had hinted), I would drink it all day… as I had been doing. “So family, we will all need to get to bed very soon. I will be back here at 3 AM and you will need to be ready;” Edgard looked at me warily as he said goodnight.
The other thing we’d learned as Edgard spoke, was that the “Peru for Jews” portion of our trip (explained in previous post) was pretty much USELESS. Edgard and his crew, he informed us, knew nothing about kosher cooking, Jewish traditions, or anything that remotely resembled the things necessary for Principessa to trek without concerns. At the end of our meeting with him, Smart Guy and Principessa had to head out into the Cuzco evening to secure pots and pans and food that my daughter could eat, for the next four days of what would be “very hard” travel, far from civilization. I’m not sure who was more worried, her or me.
The next post covers our life changing trek through the Andes, on a trail called Saltankay (Savage Mountain).
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