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.

Footprints

April 2nd, 2015

I stepped off my flight from Istanbul to Izmir with my schoolbag, a startling sense of excitement and three days to see this part of the country. All I had been told was that the people of this region were very attractive. I can confirm that now. I descended the escalator off the tarmac and into the airport and my nose was immediately smelling smells it had never smelled in an airport before. These Turks had a fully stocked professional florist’s right there, black escalator stairs ending in a mass of flowers of all colours and fragrances. It was a very strong first impression.

I was spending the day in Izmir before taking the train to Selcuk. Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey. It appeared more industrial, there were no tourists and people were genuinely surprised to see me almost everywhere despite there being a lot of people around almost always. I walked all along the bay in downtown Izmir, following a path past waterfront hotels and restaurants and bars all in soft pastel tones, like San Francisco on a post card long before Instagram filters.

I walked for five or six hours from an old bazaar with nothing but food and clothes, through a modern business area where I relaxed in a posh hotel lobby and put my bag down thankfully. I walked out of there and went down a side street full of kiosks all selling little trinkets. I found one man half asleep and all he sold were turkish artists interpretations of Hollywood movie posters. Framed. I would have purchased dozens if I could have but left happily with a Back to the Future and a Batman Begins that I added to my list of things to not forget somewhere.

I bought a delicious chocolate bar, Turkey has the best assortment of convenience store counter chocolate bars that I have come across in my life. They are clearly of a higher quality than American candy bars.

I listened to my short but sweet Turkish Gold playlist for hours and steadily walked in a drizzle that I frequently prayed wouldn’t turn into a rain. The preciousness of time is amplified even more while traveling, we are clearly at the mercy of the weather gods then, those powerful few known as weathermen in America. These were the sort of deep thoughts l had while listening to Paul McCartney channel his days in Africa.

All I need is a pint a day, if I ever get out of here, if we ever get out of here

I stopped and had a delicious coffee on a side street from an old man. We both smiled a lot and fumbled around trying to talk but neither of us communicated a single thing successfully. Well, actually, when I left he knew I liked the coffee and Izmir, and I knew I liked the coffee and Izmir. I paid him with a single coin.

Soon I was in the station. It was much seedier at night. Drug addicts and tough guys were popping up from buildings I had assumed were shuttered and boarded up. I found my platform and boarded my train and as I got within a few feet of my seat, my feet and knee ached. Maybe it was my imagination.

I found my hostel at 1am after sleuthing around the tiny village of Selcuk for the good part of an hour. I was greeted by somebody who made zero effort to pretend that I had not just completely woken him up. He showed me to my room and I fell asleep, exhausted.

I could hear loud noises. I heard them half-asleep and then they became louder. Now I was awake and could hear the sound moving. I lay there in my bed, under the covers and realized a damn bird was flying around my bedroom. I was alone in the room so I had to get up at some point, adult me lectured sleeping me sternly. I ran to the front door, hit the light, looked up at the ceiling and there is a huge bat flying around. I hightail it down to the front desk and wake up the guy for the second time that night.

He’s looking at the bat in disbelief. He’s asking me if I brought it. I’m looking at him in disbelief. I’m telling him no and that I’m not fluent in the language he’s speaking. I’m only guessing what you’re saying, dude. His plan is to throw the complimentary notepad from my desk up at the bat which is now stationary (pun intended) on the ceiling. Incredibly his plan works and works very quickly. I had resigned myself to sitting exhausted and watching him throw a stack of paper at a bat for at least the next thirty minutes but he grazed that flying rodent on his fifth attempt. It flew out the window and I closed it. We carefully inspected the room for more bats. There were none. He assured me this was not normal. He asked me if I would mention the bat on TripAdvisor.

The next morning, I woke up and ate breakfast. I guess everyone did.

I did not want to take a bus to Ephesus. From the Batcave, it was a 70 minute walk through the countryside so I elected to walk. I first passed cows and sheep and lambs aplenty on plots of farmland. There was a nice clearly designed path to walk alongside the road to Ephesus. That path was empty for many minutes at a time, but I did pass some interesting folks – some schoolboys, some old men, and a young woman exercising. She was really pushing herself through a demanding workout on the parallel bars at a kid’s playground. I saw some college-aged guys on a motorcycle and took one of my favorite photos of the trip. I was asked for a cigarette by somebody. I disappointed him and he too, did not hide it.

I had downloaded a Rick Steves podcast which was a walking tour of Ephesus. If you walked in and timed pressing Play correctly, you had a English tour guide in your ear for free. Directions, history, little facts and jokes. It was fascinating. They said that supposedly Julius Caesar or Cleopatra actually walked down that same narrow rock path. Following in Caesar’s footsteps felt amazing, Efes felt like a truly historic place, could easily imagine how this little place captured the attention of the world in 10,000 B.C.

I left there and walked back to Selcuk. I wanted a haircut. It was late, but Selcuk must be the barber capital of that state. Every lane has two or three salons or barbershops. I walked into an empty one. A very soft spoken gentleman named Salih gave me an immaculate cut. He even burned rogue hairs off my ears with a flaming Q-tip (Pun intended – you should be listening to A Tribe Called Quest). Most restaurants had closed. The village is so small, there must be about six square blocks in the tourist section, but there must be hundreds of restaurants. I was fortunate enough to not only have the best meal of my trip that night but to also become friends with my waiter. We talked about Syria, regional politics, Turkish basketball league, futbol and his plans for finishing college. We closed the restaurant and met with one of his friends for beers at a nearby pub. We then met their friends. Everybody wanted to be somewhere else. Guys who lived in Selcuk wanted to live an hour away in Izmir and those guys wanted to live in Istanbul. And those guys in London. And those guys just hoped the rain would hold off, like it had in Turkey today.

We shot the shit early into the morning and I drank too many beers. I was hungover the next day sitting in the courtyard eating my hardboiled eggs, papaya, berries and apple.

 

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