Cusco

3

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.

4

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.

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Justice for a line-cutter

After nearly twenty minutes on line, I finally reached the front of the brightly lit store where I stood waiting for an open register. A screen read Register Eight was now open. I saw a young clerk ten feet away and he waved me over. I took one step toward him and this lady darted her cart in front of me from behind, blocking me, and she looked at me and said “Oh, he’s my friend. I need to talk to him about something. Mind if I go ahead of you?”

Now I will admit, I was so stunned I froze up completely. She had caught me with my guard down. Really snuck me. She repeated herself as she overtook me from the inside lane and looked at me with pity like I was a toddler who just didn’t quite get it. The best I could muster was a meek little “What? Your friend?” She mumbled something about her son, and her man and her were now in front of me pushing a cart full of things and I was standing behind them with one white shirt in my hand. How did I lose pole position here?

Goodness. I had to regroup. Recalibrate. Now I saw past them. And the clerk had a very dramatic perplexed look on his face. So I said quite loudly (but very calmly, think James Earl Jones) from ten feet away “Hey dude, I am the next customer here. But this lady [pointing at perp’s back] says she is your friend and that she needs to talk to you about something. Do you know her?” The clerk looked from me to right into her eyes, and he looked back over at me and YELLED “HELL NO, I DON’T KNOW HER!” And he told them to get back in line and waved me over!!! It was surreal. Truly a magical moment, the only way I can describe it is I felt a wave of gratitude come over me like how people sometimes describe the birth of their first child. This was that big, at least.

I walked up and put my shirt on the counter and told the clerk “Hey, anybody ever pretend to be your friend because you work at Marshall’s before?” Guy is laughing hard now. He is slapping the counter and everything, and the couple is right there ten feet away. I thought he would want to change the topic of conversation but he proceeds to comment more on the fraudulent friendship.

Loving that he seems to want to roast the line-cutters, I remind him that she had also hastily thrown in that she knew him through her son to which we both started giggling now. He is fanning the flames. “Damn! She cooked up a whole backstory for her son too!” Finally, I said bye. The woman walked up to the clerk again and so I had to throw in a “I’ll let you two buds catch up!” He laughed right in her face and said “How are you going to make up a story like that to get in front of a guy buying one thing?”

She said “I know you.”

Damn.

He kept saying he didn’t know her. She wouldn’t budge. She didn’t know where she knew him from, but she knew him.

The sociopaths of today are a brazen and dangerous lot. We see it each day. That’s why I want to commend the clerk at Register Eight for stepping up and shutting that nonsense down hard. I will never forget the day somebody finally looked a line-cutter up and down and proceeded to roast them in front of the whole store.

Justice. All you line-cutters run and tell all your little line-cutting friends that order has been restored.

Let’s Eat Together

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

No red carpet when I come into your restaurant.

I eat alone frequently. I’m often on the phone while doing so. My headset is on so you don’t even know whether I am talking to you or not.

I eat at weird hours. Your schedule matters little to me.

I’ll stomp in thirty seconds after you open with blatant disregard for your pre-coffee drowsiness, I’ll swoop back in ten minutes before you close.

I look forward to eating weird things in strange places. Yet, I can be a finicky brat giving your serving spoon a long once-over if it’s a little dull.

The right side of my jaw makes a loud audible click when I bite down. People look over.

I ask for a re-fill on my water at least five times usually.

I ask a whole lot of questions.

I interrupt your answers with bad jokes.

Then I repeat the questions again. Obnoxious.

I eat half of this, a quarter of that, ask for more bread, confide in you that none of it was great and then ask you to box it all.

I ask what your Signature item is.

I always ask you what makes the Special special.

I follow that up with a specific request for the Top 5 most popular items.

Then I ask you what the chefs eat. They know best, I explain.

Serving staff can lose patience quickly. I’m exhausting.

I usually lose them early. The goal is to get back in their good graces sometime before we’re through. Send them off to the kitchen happy.

My manners are good, but I would not know what fork works if given the Titanic tableware Buzzfeed quiz.

Eating out is a phenomenon. Eating together is a phenomenon.

I have always been curious about it. In music, in movies, in art… people get jazzed about going out to chow.

All over the world, families and friends look forward to breaking bread in the environs an entrepreneur has selected for their best grub to be slapped onto some wholesale trays and plates. The goal of a restaurant should be to offer hospitality and nourishment. Community, even. It’s a place for connection.

When I hear stories of African-American athletes in the civil rights era, it particularly stings me when they share stories of not being allowed to eat with their white teammates. I simply think that each person deserves the right to eat at any food spot as long as they are respectful and not breaking the law. I have acted the fool in more bistros, cafes, diners, restaurants, inns, taverns and speakeasies than I can recall and I can’t remember ever being asked to leave. Well, there was one time I was asked to leave The Brixton but I understood because I had just seen somebody in an identical Court Jester Halloween costume to mine destroy a whole lot of their property. They also asked me once I was already kind of on my way out so I took it as a suggestion more than a rights violation.

I am concerned by this trend (Has happened twice now, is that a trend?) of public figures being asked to leave restaurants in Washington DC because their fellow diners disapprove of their work. Even if they were not asked, just making them feel like they would be better off leaving is disturbing. It is a slope-ery slip. I completely understand that there is important debate happening currently in America and in the world. I understand that as people, it’s important to be vocal, to be involved, and to be cognizant of all that is going on.

That said, what is the goal? Isn’t it to be better? 

If I am upset with somebody and I imply they are not being empathetic, that they are being cruel in the execution of their job – how is it excusable for me to spot them in public and shame them or their family? How can you excuse making them so uncomfortable in public that they have to leave before finishing a meal? Isn’t that hypocritical? Even if it isn’t, it brings nothing good.

This is certainly not a comparison. I’m not here to compare one wrong to others. I am from a country of in-your-face poverty and have closely followed immigration for twenty years. Those are problems and debates I do not have enough information to dissect but I empathize on a personal level with those on the border, now and previously.

What I know about this is this: Americans should not be going down the road of  Democrat Diners and Republican Restaurants. If you celebrated those two women getting pressured to leave their respective eateries – just imagine it happened to you or Michelle Obama. It easily could. How far are we from having people with red hats being asked to leave restaurants? How far are we from other restaurants saying you can’t come in without a red hat?

Are we as a society going to strive to only eat with people who we agree with on everything?

If any kitchen out there doesn’t want to see a certain mouth again, just give them crap food with molasses service, that time honored tradition has steered away many an unwanted visitor.

——————————————–

April 5th, 2015

Izmir, Turkey

Had the most costly dinner of my trip so far. Adana kebab. Great meat. Clean taste. First proper sit-down meal and it was fresh as can be. Was advised “Go into any place with a crowd” but it was so late, it was a drizzle, all the places were empty and their waiters were standing in each lane trying their best to usher the last few tourist bucks of the night their way. This one guy spoke English and told me he had the best kebabs so I followed him. How did he know I wanted kebabs? He and his uncle wound up keeping the place open for me. He was only nineteen years old but he spoke some of the best English I had heard in Turkiye. After we shut the place down, they invited me to a “FIFA Bar” where buddies drank beer and played Fifa on a massive wall. Eager to destroy them, I tagged along and it turned into a great night despite never actually playing a game. 

What is most memorable now is at 3AM we were drinking on the street boisterously, there were about eight of us and I kept asking questions.

Where you from?

Where you now?

How did I get here? 

Where you going?

Where do you want to go?

The thing I remember is that nobody there lived where they said they wanted to. But some of us lived where the others wanted to be.

The conversation landed on an upcoming election.  The beer goggles cleared suddenly and one of the boys started kind of needling my buddy, and suddenly these two twenty-ish kids were very intensely and loudly debating each other on this quiet street. As people left one by one, including the bald and mustachioed bar owner, we sat in his outdoor patio with 1 more pitcher of Efes as sunrise and the sounds of birds came calling. 

I asked the two what they had been arguing about. My buddy told me in his smooth broken English while his friend peppered me with some jabs of English he retrieved from parts unknown. That’ll happen when you want to win an argument. I do not know how accurate the history/geography specifics are but what they shared can be paraphrased as this: My buddy was born in Izmir, a few dozen kilometers away. His friend was born across a border within hours of Turkey. He had personally crossed a border at some point in his early childhood at risk to him and his parents. That was done for survival. In the upcoming election, my buddy supported a candidate that would close the borders completely, as my buddy and family obviously wanted for their own safety. His friend only wanted that candidate specifically to lose the election, because he wondered about his future, and he still had people dear to him on the other side who wanted to cross into Turkey, who wanted to survive.

One friend exclaimed to the other at one point: “You would vote for my death?” 

___________________________________

On the train the next day, I thought, if these two can have some beers and debate a subject that hits this close to home with passion and jokes, then I should strive to be able to have a civil conversation with anyone about anything.

I hope their friendship survives.

Peru

1

The first thing was that long line for money. Endless.

I didn’t have any Peruvian cash, and there were two ATMs in the airport terminal. It was hot, and the two enormous ceiling fans cooled nobody. They spun in slow motion thirty feet above as our queue inched forward even slower.  The disgruntled tourists were of varying levels of sweat and tan. There were orange white people, there were black brown people, some sun-kissed, copper, pale and all other things draped in hats, tanks, and slippers of every bright color.

The people were getting upset. Eyes were being rolled.

I was muy cansado.

I remember standing in that line almost two hours and promising myself I’d request bills at home next time. From a bank long before departure next time. And next time I’d be a better man damnit!

Come on now, I thought next, don’t start a journey of self-discovery by bullshitting yourself. You know this isn’t the last high-surcharge cash machine line you’ll see.

2

I got outside and took immediate offense to the fares taxi drivers quoted me. I mean, the fares were barely out these cabbies’ mouths and I was irate and throwing my hands up. Insult!!

This was all part of my plan to hyper-localize. My hair was slicked back to remove any trace of South Indian curls. My playlist was 100% Latin.  My hope was my terrible Spanish only suggested that I was unable to string a sentence together because I was so upset about Diego Rosales trying to charge me the max suggested fare.

My mustache accompanies me to the negotiation. It protects me from the onslaught of arrows reserved for tourists con fannypacks. Not me, commandante. El ‘Stache seems to habla just fine and we find the hermano to drive us forth to Lima.

The cabbie pulls up to my door. It’s very dark and a residential area. It’s uncannily, exactly what I love most in a neighbourhood. Leafy. Airy. Lagoons overlook city lights and some clean and modern, black and white graffiti. Lima is illuminated. I hear some European girls above me singing Cyndi Lauper. They just wanna. They just wanna.

Oops. It’s not my hotel, they say. Wrong place. El Mix-up. I’m walking round Lima at 1AM with my bags, yes I’m stuck outside-a-Barranco-with-the-Lima-blues-again. I see one of those places that does the new type of ice cream that is cut very fine and scraped off onto a cracker. Done. You just made the list.

1.Machu Pichu

2.Pisco

3.Ice Cream

I find my room, it is at the top of a black spiral staircase about four floors tall. I’m greeted by a delightful host, I am forgetting his name but we had a semi-long chat despite the hour, my Spanish and me being completely zapped. I was chomping at the bit to use the Spanish I had studied on a clearly chill native Spanish speaker, but I soon discovered Amigo was from Brazil, and spoke Portuguese. He was letting the stories come forth more boldly now after each sip of beer, language be damned as long as we could find a glimmer of understanding.

It was one of those moments when I wished my energy matched my excitement. However, it didn’t – and I had decided to be strategic about that and trust the energy.

I hung up my jacket, plugged in my charger. Somebody had left a black Cowboy hat in my closet. I hit the bed hard. I was so exhausted my eyes closed themselves shut as I debated napping and going out in an hour.

I woke, hit the lights and I set my alarm for 20 minutes before the Complimentary Breakfast ends the next morning.

I fall asleep wondering how many others did the same thing and if that’s the worst time to go to breakfast.

The 2017 Siddos

Oscar Schmoscar! 

Nobody cares about that antiquated three-hour celebration of fuddy-duddies and their cold clammy takes on movies anymore! Roll with the times…it’s time for an awards show that gets that you’re too busy.

It’s the 2017 Siddos! Put your hands together for The Chats!

Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes, and none of that wrong envelope shit either! Plus, we are NOT trying to milk the suspense here. Here are all the winners:

    Best movie: Get Out
    Best Writer/Director: Jordan Peele, Get Out
    Best Man Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
    Best Woman Actor: Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
    Best Male Scene Stealer – Lil Ren Howery- Get Out
    Best Female Scene Stealer – Allison Janney – I, Tonya
    Best Accent: James Franco, The Disaster Artist
    Best Cartoon: Coco
    Best Friendship: Lady Bird, Get Out
    • Best Soundtrack: Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Brandy, You’re A Fine Girl… 

    • Best Score: Phantom Thread

Regal AF 

    • Coolest Clothes: Phantom Thread

FRESH AF 

    Best Non-English movie: Okja
    Best Badass: Jeremy Renner, Wind River
    Best TV performance: Walton Goggins, Vice Principals (RUSSELL)

NSFW Language, worth it 

    Best Movie Theater: American Film Institute, Silver Spring
    Best Movie Snack: Chick-Fil-A strips (4 count)
    Best Sauce: Sweet & Spicy Sriracha
    Best Deal: AMC Stubs card=$5 Tuesday movie
    Best TV show : Vice Principals Season 2
    Best TV episode: Black Mirror, Hang the DJ
    Personal power rankings 2018: Jordan Peele, Jake Gylenhaal, The Rock, Issa Rae
    Lifetime Achievement Award: Owen Wilson

This is Owen’s third lifetime achievement Siddo! The man just keeps living life to the hilt and firing up this one-man academy. 

    Best Thing: Exposure of the dirty creeps working in the movies. Within a few years the movies being made will be more diverse and intelligent as a result of more women being able to get greater positions of power. Gonna be awesome.

Reykjavic Day 1

So here’s the thing I learned on my last day in Iceland. The colours on the Icelandic flag represent the majestic and beautiful nature of the island, something they have been proud of since way back in the day (way way back as in when the first visitor got there). The blue is meant to represent the Atlantic ocean, the white represents the snow and glaciers and the red the lava of the active volcanoes. Save that little tidbit for a swank cocktail party, and watch it kill.

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Views from halfway down a stairwell

Since I am usually taller than the person I am photographing, and I often shoot photos from my eye level or even from an elevated position, I really loved the perspective of shooting from halfway down this staircase outside a very busy metro. It was new. It was Mexico City and it was hot, it made me sympathize for the musician. Why was he dressed like a policeman while he played an accordion in the street?

Photos taken September 2015 with a Nikon D3100 in Mexico City

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Tepoztlan

Sitting across the aisle from me on my flight from Dallas to Mexico City, Ulysses said to me “You go to Tepoztlan. That’s your place. They have Queso ice cream there.”

I was in.

He told me the metro to take to the bus station and which bus to take where. It would be a couple hours. It was a Sunday morning and it was sunny. It was perfection- warm in the sun, with a hint of a chill on each breeze. It was September of 2015 and the town was straight out of a movie, set in another time.