I walked out of Cusco airport, a building shaped like a barn on an expanse of flat land, into the great wide open. Half a dozen cabbies stood in my way and shouted the same fare in English. I guess they assume you’re going toward Cusco and then Price-Is-Right each other. They caught me off guard. I needed some fresh air so I sidestepped them and parked myself on a fence forty feet away. I turned on some Tom Petty.
The altitude was higher in Cusco. The air felt thinner. I didn’t need fresh air as much as I needed more air. I needed to acclimate but to acclimate meant to chill. One look out at the horizon and I knew there would be no chilling. You felt like a cowboy just looking out at it. It went on as far as I could see. Flat and grand and with CGI mountains in the perfect places. That #nofilter stuff. The Andes felt like they were calling me. Inviting me.
Hello, my friend
Come, my friend
Where are you going my friend?
It wasn’t Mother Nature calling after all, it was this old cabbie who had snuck up on me while I had my headphones on. The old man came and posted up alongside me on the fence. He introduced himself as Jose Luis. Where are you from my friend? India. “Taj Mahal, oh yes. Wow. Come, let’s go to Cusco. You going to Cusco, yes?” He looked at me and gave me this OG look that said “Amigo, you know you have to leave the airport and go to town sometime.” He was half my size but gallantly picked up my tiny suitcase and scurried away to his taxi. I believe he was trying to show initiative, but technically that is the definition of theft.
Jose Luis charged me ten bucks less than the other men had shouted into my face. He also gave me a cool Lonely Planet-y introduction to Cusco and Peru. I could tell he had done the Welcome to Peru talk many times before, he had quite a few dramatic flourishes. He never missed a beat until I told him the address to take me. I had booked a place advertised as “an authentic neighborhood of locals” and reviewed as “Cheap. Dangerous after dark.” I wanted to see how modern Peruvian people are living. “Oh! You’ll see that here.” He mumbled an ominous laugh and gave me a weird look in the rear view mirror.
Jefe Jose Luis offered to drive me all over the countryside the next day for a fixed fare. I took his number and went inside my hostel. This woman Janet was cleaning the lobby. She had an infectious personality and a contagious smile. One could make a lot of disease-related compliments about that Janet. I always came back to the thought that she seemed to be facing a slew of chores and challenges each day and she still wore a huge smile as she folded tourist kids’ laundry on the lobby desk each night from 10PM to 6AM. I climbed the stairs and opened the door to my cluster of beds. No other bags in sight. Exhale. I closed the window, plugged in my phone, took off my jeans and brushed my teeth. Muy cansado.
I woke up at 5AM. I had slept well. I had cleaned up nice. My mustache was primed. I floated down the stairs and told “Javier from the Jastel” that Jose Luis had made an attractive offer. Javi came in hot with a competing offer from a tour bus company that would cost less, cover all the biggies and included a free lunch. In North America they say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but in Peru Javier said lunch was expected with a $30 bus fare. The only catch was the bus would pick me up outside in ten minutes. How is that even a catch dude? That is a selling point. I paid him in cash, he phoned up somebody, I heard a voice answer and ten minutes later a bus scooped me up outside the gate.
Maybe I should have researched better.
I climbed aboard the bus to the sound of a record skipping violently with the needle proceeding to rip the LP into two halves. Everyone stared, mouths agape, the guide was on the microphone and he stopped mid-sentence and turned around and asked me something in Spanish. I responded in English which threw him off. He switched off his mic and said “Hello. Do you know this is a Spanish tour?” I did not know that. He said that he spoke English but that the whole bus was full of people who only spoke Spanish. The bus had already pulled away so I told him Spanish seemed to fit the scenery and occasion better anyway. Who wanted to hear more of that same old clunky Queen’s English again? I took the last empty seat for one and put Built to Spill on. Cortez, Cortez.
Peru was playing Colombia in football that night and needed a win to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. Peru had not made it in since 1986, so people were tense. Half the bus was wearing the red and white Peruvian football jerseys and people were talking football amongst themselves over the majority of the day. I of course listened to the tour guide intently because I had no clue where we were going. I had assumed Javier had put me on a bus going the same places Jose Luis had mentioned but this was “all the stops” so I was riding blind. I had done no research. It was exhilarating. I was hanging on every Spanish word.
The guide filled me in loosely on what our plan was. I realized I was looking at fifteen hours on this bus. At a certain point, who knows when, we also started losing time. I only know this because people started asking the guide where they were all going to watch the big football match. They seemed to suspect we were not on schedule. The guide confided to me in English only moments after being eviscerated by a woman in Peruvian football jersey and hat that he didn’t care about football and totally forgot about planning around the match. He liked history more than sports, he said.
That was one of my favorite days of sights in my lifetime. Epic grandeur. Ansel Adams shit. So many cliffs, mountains, villages, landscapes, cowboys, stray dogs, farms, farmers and more that stand out in memory. Peru is a feast. It was hard to believe. All the while, the guide spun his yarn, the bus barely cared. Yawn. He started throwing in more English for me since I was asking a lot of questions now. At a certain point he told us we were stopping for our free lunch, and this is when he really lost the bus. First, he said that there were three different restaurants and that the bus would be divided into three groups. When we got to the first restaurant, he told the front of the bus (including me) to get off. He told us all at least five times to be outside in ONE HOUR. We assured him we were all going to scarf our lunches down and be ready early. He jumped back on the bus and we watched the bus drive away 66% full of confused and hungry faces.
Lunch was alright. Uneventful. Nobody wanted to chat so I strolled round nibbling on coca leaves. I got to the meet-up spot ten minutes early and every single person from my third of the bus was already in line and ready to board. Predictably, the bus itself went AWOL. For sixty extra minutes, we stood on the side of the road in some Peruvian village waiting. The hot sun baked. Dust was everywhere. Cowboys walked around. Hats and boots and everything. I loved it. I can imagine that for Peruvian tourists though, it was not cool on this day- the biggest sports day in their lives. When our bus finally made its way down the road, I knew our guide was going to get an earful again. Defense was futile. They peppered him from all directions. Men, women, old, young. He pleaded and said that the other two restaurants had not had enough seating for our fellow riders and so delay had led to delay. He got zero sympathy. Even I told him he should have chosen one restaurant. He said he should have been a teacher.
After picking us up, we still had to go pick up two more angry mobs from two more restaurants. I watched the guide get eaten alive by the rest of the day. A couple in matching jerseys exploded and completely berated him. They both stepped off the bus in the middle of nowhere. I was basically the guide’s shrink at this point, he was getting everything off his chest in English. He told me now that he hated doing tours for Peruvians because they were the first to curse him and the last to tip him. I hoped he already realized nobody on the bus was going to tip him besides me. Somebody else was probably going to curse him though.
The next place we drove to was magical. A very highly elevated village established centuries ago, sitting on a cliff of green grass with burnt sienna tiles on the roofs. There was the inside of a Church there completely covered in riches and gold beyond Scrooge McDuck’s dreams. I took some photos of some local kids there. As I walked around, it hit me… It was cold now and the altitude was catching up with me. It felt like I could barely move suddenly. I told the guide I needed to find some more coca leaves immediately. I had just got to Cusco the previous night. He was taken aback and said that I had screwed up by not taking a light day to acclimate to the altitude. I am tougher than I look, I thought to myself but I was feeling too weak and lame to say that. Maybe I was actually only as tough as I did look, not very tough at all.
I was fortunate to find a lady in a convenience store who had coca leaves and the best coffee I can remember. I had three coffees and kept asking anyone to confirm the coffee was stupendous. The lady spoke English in a very sexy accent. She said she had lived in the United States once. She didn’t miss it. She was one of the people I really wish I could have spoken to more, though she was busy and running a business. She had the air of someone who was always running from one thing to another.
When the bus finally pulled into Cusco, it was late. The football match was playing in every bar, on every tv, on every phone. People jumped off the bus and ran toward the town square. Nobody said much to the guide. I tipped him and said goodbye. Dragging my feet toward the square, I saw him again and we walked together, slowly. We appeared to be the only two people in no hurry. I asked him if he was going to watch the match. He said he couldn’t because he had to get home to his wife and kids.
We kept walking in silence. We got to one point and he stopped and he pulled out his iPhone and showed me the screensaver. He said “Congratulations for coming here to Peru. My whole life I dreamed of going to Egypt. I used to study the Pyramids and I always knew one day I would go to see them. Then, when I finished college – my parents were saying I should get married. Then, to have a child. Then, one more. I always did what others asked of me, but now I ask why? Why did I agree so readily? My wife isn’t happy. My kids only care about video games. Each day I see people’s eyes change and their face change when they see the sights of Peru and I wonder if I will ever see Egypt. Will I ever feel that way? Always make the best decision for yourself.”
The screen saver was a photo of his kids. He put his phone into his pocket and walked away.
Peru tied Colombia 1-1. With the help of a Chilean loss, Peru qualified for the World Cup.