Sunday, October 11, 2009


October 11, 2009

So, technically, I'm traveling alone, right? However, since I've left Canada, I've hardly ever actually been alone. The hostel I'm staying at in Cusco - the infamous social hub, Loki - is buzzing with backpackers and travelers from all over the world. You'd have to be the most unpleasant, antisocial person in the world to not make friends here. Each time I come back is like a little homecoming, a chorus of different accents asking, "how was your day?". Almost everyone hangs out together in the lounge or the bar, eats and drinks and shares their stories with each other. People that you've known for an hour become fast friends.
Oh, and for those of you who are a touch worried about me traveling alone, almost every other girl I've met at the hostel is traveling alone as well.

In the mornings, I've been waking up relatively early, as soon as the light comes through the windows and my dorm mates start rummaging around. I make plans for the day while getting ready and these plans are almost always shot as soon as I go down for breakfast. Why do laundry or talk to the pushy tour agencies when I can do it manana? Instead, I wind up wandering around town with a hostel friend, exploring the markets and eating at random little food stands that may or may not include the parasites for free.

Cusco in Quechua means "navel of the earth". To me, it has been a carnivorous navel, swallowing travelers whole and keeping them here long after they planned. A benevolent carnivorous navel, to be sure. But nevertheless, I had planned to stay for 5 days and now I have been here for a week and I have no concrete leaving date as of yet. Not that I'm complaining. Quite the contrary, I'm loving every minute of Cusco. It's an adorable european-style hotpodgeof Peruvians, Quechua and visitors from all over the globe. Most everyone speaks english but you'll hear a mulitude of different languages.
The Plaza del Armas is Gringo central, with hawkers of every shape and form peddling clothes, paintings, tours, and massages, among other things. Wandering outside of the center brings you into a more Peruvian experience: old Quechua ladies reading coca leaves on the sidewalks, endless tiny shops packed to the rafters, taxis zipping around at breakneck speed on the cobblestone roads. On Saturdays there is a thieves market, where Cusco sells it's pilfered goods. You can get literally anything you want here, from car parts and tools to cell phones and ipods, to socks and underwear, clothes, shoes, music, movies, food; everything. Makes me think all of the pre-trip shopping I did was for naught; I could have got it all here, for much cheaper.

I participated in the requisite gringo activities that Cusco has to offer: the Sacred Valley Inca ruins (Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero). The city tour: Saqsaywaman - sounds like "sexy woman" but nothing sexy about it, Q'enqo - the Inca labrinth with (my favorite in this tour) and Puka Pukara, an administrative and road control center, and the Qorikancha Museum, a Spanish monastery/convent that was built right over top of an Inca temple, with some of the Inca walls still intact (the ones the Spanish didn't completely destroy).

The Sacred Valley is gorgeous, with ruins high up on the mountains, terraced farming and endless stairs. The Incas must have had a thing for stairs, and for making their buildings staggeringly difficult to get to. Probably a good defensive strategy, but now, even a million stone stairs can't keep the hordes of gringos away. Out of breath and complaining though they may be.
Ollantaytambo looks like a giant's stair case. As our tour group jumped out of the van and looked up at the second round of physical activity before us, you could hear a collective groan. (It is, of course, worth it in the end, but they really do make you work for it). A German guy in our group said, "Oh don't worry, there's an escalator over there". Before thinking, I said, "really?"with an excited smile on my face. In my defence, the tour began at 8 am and I had been out dancing with the hostel people until 4:30 am.

Our tour guide left a little to be desired. He lectured like a dull history teacher in grade school. He'd ask questions like, "Why do you think this rock is here". Um, is that a rhetorical question? A couple of us (myself, the german escalator comedian and an irish guy) eavesdropped on another tour guide who was wildly and excitedly explaining Inca construction methods, arms waving in the air; he looked like he was about to kiss the giant, perfectly chiseled stones. The Irish guy dubbed him the "Steve Irwin of Archeology".

Inca ruins, the good: The ruins themselves are spectacular. The Incas were brilliant, and insane. The sheer amount of work that went into their construction is amazing and mind boggling: Rolling masive rocks from one mountain to another, carving them laboriously and perfectly and piling them on top of each other. They must've been the most physically fit people ever to have lived. I got tired just thinking about it.

The Bad: being herded around by an unenthusiastic history teacher like camera toting cattle, with tons of other simiarly bovine tour groups milling about. All in all, though, sunburnt swarms of gringos aside, the ruins are still quite magical.

My Israeli Safari:

After returning to the hostel one night from another bout of cattle imitation, I agreed, very last minute, to sign up for a three day rafting tour with a friend from the hostel, starting early the next morning. Three days white water rafting and two nights of camping on the Apurimac River (Quechua: God of the talking river), navigating class 3, 4, and 5 rapids. Why not?

Unexpected randomness: the rafting group was comprised of me and 20 Israelis, with the Peruvian guides, who spoke a little hebrew themselves and even cooked kosher versions ofeach meal on the trip. It was like traveling to Israel while being in the middle of thePeruvian mountains.

The trip was fantastic; the river and the canyon were beautiful, the adrenaline rush from the rapids kept energy levels high (not that Israelis have any trouble with that), and each night we camped on the beach, under the stars, next to the talking river and ate Peruvian/kosher food. I learned a lot about Israeli culture, even a few words in Hebrew and told stories of Canada. They made fun of me for being the worst Canadian ever - I was the only one who was ever cold.

When I got back to Cusco it was sort of strange to understand the languages again - Spanish soundedmore familiar than it ever has before.

In a few hours, my Israeli friend and I are heading up to Machu Picchu. We decided against booking it with a tourgroup - I am very much over being herded and rushed through these things - and are going to take the bus on our own, stay the night in Agua Calientes and walk up to the ruins early in the morning.
To lower the admission price (machu picchu is crazy expensive) we both got student cards through an Israeli friendly travel agency (there are so many Israelis that come through here, that there are a handful of tour agencies that cater to them, Israeli run hostels and restaurants and even some of the 60 year old Peruvian ladies speak Hebrew) and they put my nationality as Israeli... so I guess after my three day crash course in Israeli culture, I get to be an honorary Israeli!

Well, I'm off to Machu Picchu! And afterwards, I will try to extricate myself from the Cusco vortex and continue on...

Love and miss you all,

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