Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Peru - Cusco, the Andes and Machu Picchu

Photos to accompany this entry are here.

These are supposed to be anchor links, but i can't get LJ to recognize them, so you'll just have to scroll down :o(
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Monday, June 2, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Friday, June 6, 2008
Saturday, June 7, 2008

Saturday, May 31, 2008:
Early, early morning flight. Ravi is afraid we won’t make it, but we do and meet up with Robert, Julia, Becca and Abby on the plane. They were afraid we wouldn’t make it either. Perhaps I fly too much. We settle in and fall asleep as we loft upward for Miami.

We are close now to Peru, to Lima which beckons us onward. We landed in Miami, and approaching, outside the window were those towering clouds as lovely as I remember. I feel tension carrying every muscle, and I feel I must learn to relax all over again, learn to see with ease. As the plane soars upward, I am on the brink of turning in a direction I’ve never before been, and I imagine I might find my voice again here.

Left behind me are all the distractions of my usual day: phone, computer, mp3s: only my camera reminds me of the world’s progress in these things. Below me, the water is a brilliant, sharp turquoise scraped by reefs and dotted with boats. Miami falls behind us, peach and gay along the coast. And now, the long stretch of ocean, broken by other countries I have only heard of: Cuba, Panama, then to Columbia, Ecuador before Lima. Later, slim islands will float out of the clouds like streamers, moistened by the heavy equatorial heat. Later, the sunset will cast its streaks onto the sky opposite it, it will striate into gray, beige, and a single lance of pink. It will toss its oblique shapes onto the wall, offer me a new resonance. It will be the most beautiful sunset that I haven’t seen. But for now, the abyss of ocean only, and the ring of an unfamiliar Spanish around me.

Sunday, June 1, 2008:
In a crowded Lima airport, we’re tossed into the rabble of weary travelers. A full complement of Marines appears to have come with us on the flight, and we’re caught up amongst their luggage carts and bags until we at least meet up with the hotel’s pick-up driver. Lima out the window is haphazard and orange; we’re glad to check in at last behind a locked gate. The shower doesn’t drain right, and we filter water from the sink to drink, but we fall into bed regardless.

Morning and we’re flying over sloping mountains that emerge from the clouds like ice floes. These are the Andes. Up here, they are treeless and angular, softening into plateaus, sliced by deeper gorges, and startled by high Andean cities amongst neat squares of farmed land. Their vastness takes my eye to the horizon as we approach Cusco. We land with the sun shining on umber shingled buildings, their angled roofs mounting upward against a backdrop of great hills. We are here!

We’ve found a tour guide – he says he works for our Hostel and once we get there he sets about figuring out to take our money from us in exchange for tour services. We comply, of course, but decided to spend the day walking about in Cusco. Cusco, at an altitude of 10,860 feet, is not an oxygen-filled city. We travel slowly, stop often, and cringingly drink bottled water.

Our first sight out of the hostel is a parade of dancers and bands. They are parading the Virgen in the streets, and we arrive in time to see them carry her into the church where she resides. I bask in the sound of brass and drums; the dancers’ steps are simple, but their heart is in every move as they dip and weave, the mens’ golden beaded crests sparkle, the womens’ fringed shawls match their ribbon-wrapped braids, their beaded shoes tap time, the locals line the streets and cheer. I love the variety of dancers – young and old men and women alike, some no older than 9 or 10, some no younger than 50. Cusco greets us with this joy.

Later we wander the streets aimlessly, simply drinking in the colors and shades. We eat our first Peruvian meal at Pukara, simple tastes with rice and potatoes – everything tastes fresh and delicious. We’re too paranoid to eat the fresh vegetable garnishes and stare at them sadly for wasting them.

We sit for a while in a number of places – the Plaza de Armas, near the Colegio de Ciencias. But the jewel of our day comes after an exhausting climb up a long flight of stone stairs and around a sloping road to the Church of San Cristobal. From here, the entirety of Cusco’s metropolis languishes before our eyes. Nestled into the embrace of these lovely mountain, mottled as they are with brush and trees, the hundred thousands of buildings reach upward along the slopes. In the distance, rain is falling in a veil over the ridge. We’re in a different world here: the houses seem at rest, from somewhere the muted noise of firecrackers and band music drifts to us.

I am forever captivated by clouds. Here, they are magnificent, reaching far over the valley like a canopy of silver draping voluminous on top as cotton candy. Through these cloud patches the light strikes again here, again there, before creeping upwards along the mountains to the sky. It is here that I first imagine I might fall in love with Cusco: “Let it into your heart,” I tell myself, “or why are you here?” Long-held walls come down slow.

Monday, June 2, 2008:
Today is a day of ruins and learning. Our guide meets us in the morning – he is short with a wide, smiling face and quick direct movements. We don’t even catch his name.

There are a number of main ruins around Cusco. We visit three: Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puca Pucara, and then go to see Qorikancha. Our first stop, Sacsayhuaman, was an enormous walled complex outside of cusco. Much of its stonework was (surprise, surprise) taken by the Spaniards to make the numerous churches that dot Cusco’s city itself. However, today, it is the site of an annual festival in June to celebrate the winter solstice and Inti Raymi (Inti is the sun god).

Some of the rocks on the bottom are 120 tons. Using obsidian and Hemetite, the Inca sculpted and carved these monoliths. We hear for the first time about Pachamama – literally “earth mother” – one of the most important figures in Inca religion. We’re also told that some people believe Cusco is the shape of a Puma, and that Sacsaywaman forms the puma’s head. Build on a knoll, the Inca could control all the activity in the surrounding hillsides.

Next stop is Q’enqo (Qenko) – the names are Quechua which isn’t generally a written language, and so the translations vary from place to place. This is a labrynthine set of rocks used to make sacrifices in times of hardship (earthquakes, epidemics, dry seasons). Sometimes these sacrifices were things like a black llama, but in times of need it would be the most perfect member of the royal class. Here we learn the importance of balance in the Inka life – male (negative) with female (positive), water with fire, life with death.

We then go to PukaPukara, where accountants kept track of the royalty’s needs. Our guide spends a lot of time here telling us about the domesticated crops but I am distracted by a pair of enormous bird wheeling over head, their black wing feathers stark against white stomachs. Next thing I know, we’re rushed back into the van and taken to Qorichancha.

Qorichancha is the Temple of the Sun, probably one of the most important temples in Inka times in Cusco. It contained a number of different buildings: Inti Cancha (sun enclosure), Qorikancha (gold enclosure), and temples for the Moon (sun’s wife, killa), Venus (chaska), stars (qoyllur), thunder and Lightning (llapa), the Rainbow (k’urychi) and lastly the High Priest’s champer (Willaq Umo), It’s been built over by a Dominican Priory and Church of Santo Domingo. Earthquakes have since damaged the more recent structures, but the basework of the Inca temple still stands. Here, we see the beautiful even workmanship of the Inca up close and unweathered. We are perpetually amazed by how closely the enormous stones fit together. In one place, an enormous rock wraps around a wall with 14 different angles.

Finally the tour is over, and the guide/driver take us to the train station.

Robert and I navigate the ticket buying, which it turns out, doesn’t require much navigating since the pretty ticket girl knows perfect English. We walk back to the hostel to collect Ravi, who has spent the morning resting to recover from his sinus infection from the previous day. We go to eat; we get complimentary Pisco Sours (supposedly the national drink – they’re not awful) and my brother orders the one and only guinea pig we eat during our meal. They are playing terrible woodpipe versions of Celine Dion in the restaurant, but it makes up for it when the guinea pig comes out totally golden and crispy, with a tomato helmet. It’s twice as big as a pet guinea pig. Hm, tasty.

We finish up our day with some shopping – I bargain vigorously, and it will be my best day of bargaining, for eventually I lose the heart to do it. I think they need the money more than I do. In the evening, we meet Edgar, our trekking guide, for the first time. We don’t know it yet, but he’ll become one of the most important people we meet all week.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008:
6 am pickup, and in the van with the guide are two additional people who we learn will be our cooks. The sun rises as we drive, and Edgar stops the car once, to point out the Sacred Valley and fields of maize far below us. After a pit stop, we pull off down a very bumpy, rural road and into a farm yard. There are children running past us to school – Edgar tells us that some of them run for over an hour down from the mountains to get here. They look at us with curiosity, but toss polite “Buenos dias!” at us as they speed by.

Our first taste of the next three days comes when the cook set up a table and serve us hot tea with bread and jam/butter. We wolf down the food and then are on our way. Before long, Edgar begins to give us a taste of his wealth of knowledge. He knocks passionfruit-relatives down from nearby trees for us to eat, he grabs handfuls of herbs and roughs them up. We inhale the sharp, pungent scents he hands us, each keeping a sprig for later. Before long we are asking about all the trees, the flowers and he tells us about the biggest hummingbirds in the world that live in these mountains, the different plants that can be used as shampoo, contraceptives and medicines.

We learn later that Edgar comes from one of the farming villages in the mountains. In the dry season he works as a guide; in between he goes home and helps his family with the harvest. His first language is Qechua, and later we’ll hold conversations with the rural farmers through him.

I try to write as I walk. The path is steep, with sharp, torn mountains rising into diaphanous clouds. We run alongside a chattering brook for a time, threading amongst discarded shells of bark from the surrounding trees that have been harvested for homes. Romela (a relative of the pineapple) covers the hillsides. We’ll eventually climb over 1000 meters that first day, up to about 12,500 ft.

Passing clouds throw the green mountains into shadow, illuminating in the bright patches moments that my eye might ordinarily miss. Such a strange world, that all these plants would be completely new to me, the shapes of the flowers strange but still familiar. A hummingbird strikes upward in a cascade of notes. I catch my breath, in the light he is every bright color of the world around us, reflected a hundred times. My heart expands.

There are swallows here too, the size of my hand, chirruping with their swallowly cheek – my namesakes; I track their darting flight with reverence and joy.

We eat lunch near a stream – hot soup and a large plate of rice and meat and vegetables. We’ll have this for all our meals, but it will always come as a surprise and a treat. It’s better than anything we’ve had. The muleteers and cooks are efficient and attentive; we feel pampered.

Later, the sun sinking and the cold creeping, our legs slow to a trod. Our hearts pump faster. How strange these mountains, that bump upward like water boiling in a saucepan, while others hump forward like fat snails. Others are colonnades, and still others appear like the horny head of an ancient tortoise. Families in bright colors bend over the hillsides – it is potato harvesting time. At 5 we stop at last, the muleteers have arrived long before us and have already set up tents for us. We climb into warmer clothes and join Edgar in the eating tent for our first night of enlightenment. He tells us all about his education, about the school system, and more about the mountains.

But the nighttime brings a sight none of us will ever forget – high above us, glimmering softly, is the milky way. Within me comes a catch of breath; I feel a sweetness and fulfillment that I didn’t know I had missed. Here, the truth of all the legends and stories I read as a child, all those lovely illustrations of the Milky Way as a spill of milk from a pail, as a road created by the moon, all these things were before my eyes.

In those instances I understood why those stories came about. I too, felt that I could walk across to a lost lover, that animals soared within that gentle cascade of silver, that in the ebullient shower of stars were all the histories and memories of the old world. Deep into my soul I placed this treasure of the skies. When I am old and barely able to climb the stairs, I will remember my climb to this Andean prairie and the dreams I saw there.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008:
A knock on our tent awakens us; it’s one of the muleteers with a platter of hot drinks, served to us in our sleeping bags. The warmth mingles into our toes, and feels good after a restless night of chilled tossing – too nauseous from the altitude medicine to sleep properly. We’re up quickly and our bags packed; Edgar is eager to get started. He doesn’t ease us in, and although his warning to “take it at your own pace” rings in our ears, we sincerely doubt we could do anything else as we labor up to the first pass.

Frost sparkles. I remember this morning, villagers driving their llama to the highlands passing us, and one woman selling us her handmade scarves. Her name meant “beautiful river.” These llama and alpaca has been sacred animals since the Inca times. Treasured by the Inca for the resources that they offer, I find myself studying them often, and come to love their slenderness. There is something almost awkward about their legginess, and yet I find an air of nobility within their wildness that draws me.

Two hours pass, and finally we ascend to the top. Edgar congratulates us with a smile – his compact, powerful body has moved up the slope at twice our speed. He keeps pausing on this rock or that one to wait, his gaze steady and muscles calmly ready. We have an “emergency horse” too – her name is the Quechua word for a mountain begonia, but we can’t say it so we just called her Begonia. Her handler is a muleteer from one of the mountain villages – he’s 76 and faster than all of us.

These rocks are rich with minerals, says Edgar. He tells us of how “Orco” the mountain god feeds the Pachamama with his sperm from the glaciers, and how long these mountains have stood here giving life to the people who live amongst it. He speaks also of what we today call “sustainable living” – the way in which the people here live lightly on the earth, and how today’s living is breaking the mountains as we know them. We feel his sadness and his hope. He gestures widely to ridges that reach onward – beyond that the jungle. Down below are lakes that glisten like jewels or dragon eyes. We begin to descend.

Lunch is in a small village where we buy more scarves woven by the local women, Afterward, the older woman invites us to try her potatoes which she has just been baking – they are no larger than a child’s fist, but we scrape the skin off and they are golden and full of flavor.

Descent doesn’t come for long though. Edgar offers up the option to go around the second pass and straight to Lares – while the six of us discuss it in entirely too much detail, he proceeds to take us along the trail over the second pass anyway. One of us asks him if it flattens out, and he chuckles, says “It’s Peruvian flat!”

At one point, a shy girl of elementary school age shadows us – she’s coming back from school and lives in a house so high in the mountains that we can’t even see it. Everywhere we pass children, whose wide eyes hold more curiosity than I’ve ever seen. Still, none of them forget to say “Buenos dias” as we pass them. Rebecca asks Edgar if one of them can have her juice box, and the young boy drinks it all the while with big wide eyes gazing. His name is “Little puma.” When he finishes his juice, he will go to help herd his family’s alpaca back to their corral for the night. Edgar points to the ridge where alpaca are barely visible near the top. It seems so far for us, but for Little Puma is it part of the responsibilities he’s had probably since he could run.

The mule train finally catches up with us. We’ll later learn that they are all from the same village and that they own their horses. They get a call for muleteers by radio, and walk to the meeting point. They are always faster than us, always have camp set up by the time we reach our destinations. They pass us for the second time that day, and then out of nowhere bursts the younger cook, Arturo, with a terrified younger pony flying before him. I look at him startled, and he shouts “Ayy, Senorita!” as he passes. My laughter rises into the sky.

Our second night’s camp is next to a flat, still lagoon in the cup of the pass. We’re looking outward to where clouds spill over the edges of valleys below, like dry ice. Far above us, a cloud like a lion’s head floats. The porters heat water to heat our hands, and then for cooking. It’s so quite that my ears ring.

Peace, stillness. This is what I’ve been searching for. Here it is, at 4,000 meters in the middle of an Andean valley surrounded by green grass. Bundled up as I am against gray, olive lichen covered rocks, I watch the clouds moving further into the valley below us. The sky now like an unripe peach, barely orange. A bird trills. The porters seem impervious to the cold – they all wear open toed shoes that we see in every town. Later Edgar tells us they are made of old tires.

That night over dinner Edgar tells us about the poverty of these towns. They are fed well despite their lack of money, but all public schools cost money and families here struggle to pay for books and school uniforms for their children. He also speaks of the coca market, of the other areas of Peru on the coast, of his other travels around South America, and about how NGOs take more money than they give out. At last, we go to sleep.

Thursday, June 5, 2008:
Morning clear and beautiful. There are small fish hitting the water of the lagoon. Breakfast is a corn omelette and fried banana. I will dream of these meals later in my life. We take the last pass, it is minor suffering but it feels good, and at the top we are flying. Edgar lets me pass him once and he says “You are very strong, I am proud of you.” I think he says it to everyone, but it doesn’t diminish my pride.

On over the pass and down toward a string of blue-green lakes. My blood sings. The earth here on the other side is soft and loamy, still frosted. The path zig zags down the slope, but Arturo and the other cook take it straight down like billy goats scrambling down scree, scattering rocks everywhere. My brother says it must be from years of herding alpaca.

The mountains roll us down and forward. Before us is a pond strewn with green and yellow algae. The path flattens and we take the beauty with new eyes and slowing breaths. This is nearly the last stretch and it is warm and sweet. Edgar far outdistances us as usual, but we come to a crest and there he is with Begonia and the other handler, sprawled out on the funny plastic-like grass growing everywhere, looking for all the world like they’re going to sit for a five hour picnic.

Dropping quickly, the hummingbirds have returned and we are nearer to the modern world. Power lines criss cross the valley, powering mostly radios and TVs, says Edgar. These farmers have greenhouses for their vegetables, cement for the schools. A girl tries to herd her pigs – they don’t herd well.

At midday we reach the Lares hot springs. It feels good to wash clean after something like 28 miles of hiking and climbing over 4400 m and 4600 m passes. I ride Begonia part of the way, more to make her feel useful than because I need her. That is our last lunch. We tip the muleteers who begin the 6 hour hike back home, and leave in the van for Ollantaytambo. I am left with a deep gratitude for them. I imagine I would have trusted any of them with my life. Inside I thank them for the gift of their being; I hope that when I go home I will have taken some of their straightforward goodness with me. I know that for them it was a job necessary to help their families, but I still believe that when someone gives of their life’s work to you – in energy, in blood, in labor, you must desire to live better by it, to justify in whatever way you can what they have given you.

Friday, June 6, 2008:
After some shenanigans with the hostel in Aguas Calientes, where we arrived by train late last night, we’ve been installed in another lodging and settled in. This morning we awoke early (there was no sleeping in at all during this trip) and headed for Machu Picchu. Due to the hostal mixup, our guide couldn’t find us but then we found him. He is thin and tall, slightly hunched over but with an eager energy that I find captivating. He’s an archaeology student of some years, and throughout his tour of Machu Picchu continually refers to his “teachers” with whom he’s done many exciting things (mostly related to seeing sun shining in certain directions during the solstice and equinox).

Machu Picchu was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham, 80% complete and untouched by the Spaniards. Due to subsequent excavation work by Yale, most of the statues and gold and silver found in Machu Picchu are at the museum in Yale. This is sad.

Because it was built on a rocky outcropping, MP is not at all prone to earthquakes. Everything is still intact except for a few walls that have become sacrifice to erosion. Here we see some areas where the Instituto Nacional de Cultura has restored some of the roofs to the buildings – from this we understand how the Inca thatched their roofs and tied them on with llama skin.

In the living quarters, there is some clay inside of the rock walls to hold them together, or perhaps for warmth. The stonework here is messier, more livable. In stark contrast, buildings like the temple of the condor and the temple of the sun demonstrate the neat perfection we saw at Sacsaywaman and Coricancha.

After our tour, we decide to hike Huaynupicchu, the enormous rock peak you see behind Michu Picchu in so many of the postcard photos. We climb thousands of stairs, and wonder why they're cut so tall when all the Peruvians we've met have been relatively short, until finally we reach the top of this Incan world. From so high up, MP looks almost insignificant, but its architectural merits make it a feat of beauty – the geometric terraces on the emerald hillsides, the solid walls and simplicity of the temples with their trapezoidal windows and ancient gardens – all these things are stunning.

The surrounding mountains fall down into dense and dark creases, a tangled afghan of forest that reaches into the crevices and streams back upward to the sky, blending muzzily into blueness. Far in the distance, snow capped peaks strike upward to the heavens and the sun.

Our next adventure takes us down the other side of Huaynupicchu, away from Machu Picchu. We scramble down steep staircases and ladders, feeling for all the world like Indiana Jones. Here we find the Temple of the Moon, and the “large cave” which demonstrates how the Inca built their temples into the existing rock structures.

Finally, many hours later, we labor our way back to Machu Picchu. Exhausted after our long up-and-down hike, we are out of water and out of energy. Still, we find time to explore some last landmarks, and I find the peace to watch a new flock of swallows darting into the abyss beyond the ruins to capture early evening insects.

We go back to the hostel and shower (you have to ask them to turn on the hot water here) and then have a delicious meal at a restaurant whose name I don’t remember, but whose walls were covered with business cards from all corners of the earth.

Saturday, June 7, 2008:
The train leaves Aguas Calienes at 5:45a, and we doze the whole way back to Ollantaytambo. We’re met there with a van who takes us back to Cusco, stopping at a ceramics factory, and a weaving school. We are tired, but we buy a few more things at these stops, as well as at one of the vista points where the women have their wares spread out on large blankets. We get back to the hostel in Cusco.. Ravi and I discover bed bug bites. This is unpleasant and a number of people take their clothes to the laundry. Somewhere in the day, his camera was also lost. This is also unpleasant.

It is 2 then, and my time to go. I thank everyone for their company, say my good-byes and climb into my taxi to the airport.

All I can think about is throwing my clothes into “hot” in the laundry when I get home. But in the meantime, I try to reflect. There is a lot of time for reflection in between 11 hours of airplane rides and 14 hours of layovers.

I write about my gratitude, about my explorations and adventures, about having walked where once the historical Quechua and Inka king did. When I leave Cusco, the Andes look beautiful as ever from the window of the airplane, the city tucked as it is inside the valley. They are not so forbidding now, now that I have seen the fertility of the earth, have known in a small way the life springing from them.

For long moments I feel restless and incomplete, as if I’ve missed something. I urge my mind back over the week for some glimmer of what was, of those moments of utter happiness and it gives me these moments: a vision of stars in brilliant night, leaning up against the rocks next to a small beautiful lake before the last ascent, and coming down off the peak and into the embrace of the mountain, the earth green and plush around me.

Even then I feel barely within myself, as if something is unfinished. My mind is returning already to work and dance, and the small uncertainty that my world is still missing a piece. I give myself peace in that moment, bide my time, knowing that many things are yet left to run their course.

The clouds are raining like enormous flying jellyfish into the earth. Descending into Lima, these are my last sunlit views of Peru. These glowing mountains with their flat, wind-swept clouds. Hazy ridges hidden like secrets in gauzy garments, for I am gazing outward to the braided cord of life, the Andes. Part of my heart is there still, in the warmth of the sun’s evening light on the engine of the plane, on the smoke covering the cities below, in the gold glow of mist surrounding something unknown. Here is the triplet of the Condor in the sky, the Puma on the earth, the Snake below. There is much waiting, travel hassles with baggage and layovers and boredom ahead, but for now, for now, I am only me in a moment, waiting.
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