Last night we had to negotiate our Machu Picchu tickets. I have to say that neither of us are really too keen on going to this tourist glutted spectacle. It’s an effort entirely for the dads. For whatever reason, dads seem particularly impressed with the idea of Machu Picchu and if you are going to go anywhere near it, expect that your dad will likely be more excited about the prospect of your visit than you yourself. I wouldn’t exactly call it a vicarious thing; I think my dad and Gina’s expect to one day visit the towering ruin for themselves. For now, because we are closer, it seems that we are expected to go.
It’s not fair to put all the blame of Machu Picchu on my dad; he’s not forcing me to go or anything, he just thinks that a trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete with seeing the world’s largest miniature golf course. He’s not alone in his opinion. For that reason, there’s a well-established monopoly on visiting the site. Everything is priced in US dollars, to avoid startling tourists with astronomical sums quoted in Peruvian soles. Everything else in the area is relatively cheap, only in Cuzco do things go back up to western prices. For anyone traveling from Bolivia (like us) this is an incredible shock. Peru is a good deal more expensive than Bolivia and Cuzco is the most expensive place is Peru. For all that, it’s a matter of getting what you pay for. Last night, we had 4 dollar beers on a wooden balcony overlooking the Plaza de las Armas. The price would’ve been worth it for the view alone, but the beers weren’t too bad either. Later, when we attempted to go out to another bar, with another balcony, our efforts were foiled by a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint. I’ve eaten falafel in Syria; I’ve eaten falafel in Dearborn, Michigan (home of the largest population of Lebanese outside of Lebanon.) I have never in my life had falafel as good as the variety we were served last night. It may have been the shock of suddenly eating anything that had any flavor to it after over a year of living in Buenos Aires, where all the flavor is apparently monopolized by meat. It may have been that we weren’t expecting much from a falafel place in Cuzco. (We ate at a place in Uyuni, Bolivia that advertised falafel, but decided not to order it when they asked us if we wanted beef or chicken falafel-clearly, these people had no idea what they were supposed to be serving us.) We had eaten some fries at the bar, and to be honest, I was looking forward to having a night out, possibly having a few more beers and, for once, seeing one of the places that we had come to after 10 pm. But when I tasted that falafel, I was done for. The best thing I ate in Buenos Aires was falafel at an Armenian restaurant (in Armenia proper you’d never see falafel, even in eastern Anatolia, where most of the Argentine Armenians are from, I’ve never seen it anywhere except right in the Mediterranean ports, and even then it’s really more of a tourist dish), but compared to the sandwich we found ourselves eating on the street, it was nothing. The first bite was well-blended and creamy hummus, a piquant and spicy salsa, hot and crunchy falafel with just enough parsley and just a hint of cucumber and onion. The sandwich alternately ran hot and cold; it was some kind of epicurean masterpiece. By the time we finished the sandwich, I had no more desire for beer, or balconies. I wanted nothing more than to eat more falafel. I tried not to let on and we went off in search of another bar. After turning a few corners, we found ourselves in Gringo Alley, a narrow prospect off the Plaza de las Armas. In other touristy places of the former Incan empire, everything is alike; around the central square you can find eight restaurant serving exactly the same thing: Mexican, Italian, Vegetarian options! And it’s always the same over-priced garbage. In Gringo Alley, and around Cuzco, you have all the alternatives of a capital city. For one thing, Peruvian food makes much more of a name for itself than its Bolivian counterpart and everywhere you go someone is trying to entice you with calls of ‘ceviche, very good!’ There are also some other good-looking authentic Chinese places, which was something we hadn’t seen in a while, and just about every other kind of fare you could imagine. There was even a Korean place, that looked like the real deal. Of course, all of this passed me by in a blur and I saw nothing but another falafel place. Well, we had to try it, just to compare you understand. We sit around waiting for our sandwich speculating as to how it will match up to the other one we had. In the end, it’s every but as delicious, so much so that I am still having a hard time believing I am eating something so good. It seems to affirm so much for me: that my dreams of returning to my homeland are not just empty desires fueled by nostalgia and the craving for familiarity. No. Good food really does exist and it really is very important, given that it does more for my endorphin levels than anything else I can think of. Whatever her faults may be, America is full to bursting with such food and that alone will draw me back time and time again, at least until I finally visit Myanmar. If the rumors are true, I may never come back.
By the end of the night, between us, Gina and I have eaten four falafel sandwiches. It’s not even ten o’clock when we climb the worn colonial stairs to our hostel. We sit at the top of the stairs and share a carton of mango juice. It too is delicious. We’ve booked our tickets for Machu Picchu and I’m sure that despite the crowds and the steep prices, it’ll will be something worth remembering, but in my heart of hearts I know that I will remember the falafel just as well and when people ask me about Machu Picchu I will dismiss it with a wave and start giving them directions to “this little place of Plaza de las Armas, oh god! You’ve got to go…”***
I’ve had too much coffee; I’ve been having too much coffee all day. It’s not that I’ve been drinking copious amounts of the stuff, but rather that I’m really tired; so tired, in fact that one cup of coffee seems to be making my heart flutter. Since five this morning, I’ve been vacillating between jittery and comatose. The trip is almost over and my ankles are covered with bed bug bites from all the cheap places we’ve stayed. I keep scratching myself. I keep nodding off. I keep drinking coffee and shaking. There is no longer any standard of behavior. It would probably be best if I drank a couple of beers, but I fear that the sudden shift of drug would overwhelm my already throttled sense of self.
Luckily, this neurosis only just now overtook me and everything has already been crossed off the itinerary. We finished the trip by going to Machu Picchu yesterday. We now only have to take a bus to Lima, wait around a day and then catch our flight. The Machu Picchu thing went slightly better than expected. But, the trip was still odd enough to warrant writing about.
After a day hanging around Ollantaytambo, we were able to get on our train going to Machu Picchu. Because the train is the only direct way to get near the sight, it is fairly expensive and owned by a private company that has nothing to do with Peru, despite the fact that the service is called Peru Rail. It is possible to get to Machu Picchu by alternative means, such as walking the tracks of the train, or by hopping around through a few pueblos by shared taxi, but since we didn’t have a lot of time (nor energy for that matter) we decided on the train. Because we wanted cheaper tickets we ended up with the most inconvenient times for both our arrival and return tickets.
Hanging around Ollantaytambo was much more interesting than I had expected. Although the center of town went out of its way to cater to the transient tourist crowd, everything outside of the center seemed like a world apart. We walked down a narrow cobbled street and crossed the paths of sleeping dogs, playing children, and rutting pigs. The sound produced by all these events acting in concert created a medieval impression. It led one to expect hay carts and morality plays.
The streets eventually opened up to a dirt road and the town ended abruptly at a bridge, almost like something supernatural unable to cross water. A large black lab crossed with us and pranced back and forth the way that labs do when they are with people and near water. We went through two Quechua-speaking villages and eventually had a motely of stray dogs following us until we stopped too long in an attempt to feed some intractable sheep. Along the path we saw several familiar sights, fragments of the pictures we had seen of Machu Picchu: terraces built up on cliffs, stairs built by longer rocks sticking out of a wall at even distances, gradually ascending and everything of the same emerald green and shale gray color. Seeing these traces of Inca culture for free and in a bucolic setting, made seeing the zenith of its accomplishments much less interesting after we had finally attained it. There is no avoiding it though; you simply cannot reason yourself out of going to Machu Picchu when in Peru.
The train left at 9:30. By then it was dark and all the windows, both by the seat and in the ceiling, framed nothing but darkness. Nearly everyone on board slept. The luxury journey took on the appearance of a Greyhound on the second night of a three-day trip. There was a little more room in the seats and the lights shown more brightly but the attitude of the people was just as undignified: their shoes were off, their mouths were open. There weren’t too many people still awake when they came around to offer coffee and tea, but I was still barely clinging to my book and ordered a coffee with the haughty superiority of the sole passenger still awake in a cabin racked with snores and wriggling socks. It all backfired; the coffee was great, probably one of the best I’ve had, but, as frequently happens with excessive coffee drinkers, the small dose of caffeine made me drowsy as hell and within minutes my head was lolling back and forth.
It wasn’t a long journey and I had probably only dozed about 15 minutes when we reached Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo. It had been just enough sleep to thoroughly confuse me and, stepping off the train into the carpet of train track slag, I was almost overwhelmed by the dark and empty spaces of an inorganic town, formed by the push and pull of the tourist industry that stretched out too long in some directions and broke off too quickly in others. A steward tried to direct us to the main square, but for some reason, I ignored him and continued walking down the tracks, perversely, in the direction from which we had come.
I stopped to smoke a cigarette and conferred with Gina. There wasn’t much to confer about. We agreed on the obvious: find a hostel and go to sleep. To keep walking the tracks seemed like a good choice, it was taking us farther away from the touristy stuff, but there were still thousands of hostels, hospedajes, hotels and inns to choose from. We went into the first hostel that had a dim light and a name that didn’t have ‘Machu Picchu’ or ‘backpacker’ in it. The prices were listed on the board. ‘Doble’ 65 Soles. ‘OK, fine we’ll take that one. Wait, what? Dollars? 65 Dollars for a room?! Oh, hell no! I can tell just from this ‘lobby’ that the sheets haven’t been washed and that I’m going to wake up with bedbug bites.’ And we’re back out along the tracks. Everything else looks dark. The hospedaje next door looks like it’s out of business, but wait, what’s this? There’s a light behind that door. Let’s see what’s down here.
Here’s what was down there:
The stairs are rickety and they lead about 8 feet down to a basement lounge area that looks like something out of an old house rented by decades of hippy college students who have been re-using the same furniture since the 70s. “Hey, cool! There’s already a couch in here!” This ageless furniture has been placed in a semi-circle; there’s a scarred coffee table in the middle with too many packs of cigarettes on it. There’s five people sitting around the table; it looks like there’s about 11 packs of cigarettes. For obvious reasons, the air is really heavy with smoke, but it’s precisely the wrong smoke. Given the way these people sitting in this circle are acting, I would’ve loved to smell marijuana. I don’t like the way marijuana smells, but it would’ve greatly set my mind at ease as it would’ve proved that these kids were stoned on something familiar. As it was, there wasn’t the smallest hint of weed smoke in the air, and yet the crowd on the furniture seemed to be gazing through me, or looking at me as though I were a talking lamp. A guy gets up when I ask him about habitciones. He seems confused by my question, telling me he’s only got room for two. ‘Yeah,’ I say, gesturing to Gina, ‘ somos dos.’ He still seems confused. ‘Somos dos y quieremos un habitacion, si possible.’ He asks me where I’m from and he’s scowling slightly. I notice that there’s a girl sitting on the couch who’s been holding a lighter to a blackened pipe ever since we walked in the door. There’s no way whatever’s in it is coca-based, these people can barely seem to keep their eyes open. What then if not weed? Opium, heroine? I tell the guy that we’re from the US. I ask him where he’s from. ‘Argentina? We lived in Buenos Aires for over a year! Oh, you’re from provincia, how about that! Can we have our room now?’ He fumbles around for a while and finds some keys somewhere. He unlocks a door right by where they are all sitting. It’s not terrible, two twin beds, a private bathroom. It’s filthy, but that’ll probably take the price down. ‘How much?’ ’20 soles.’ For each of us?’ ‘No, for both of you, but you have to wait until the woman comes back. It’s her hostel.’ ‘Ok, thanks.’ I shut the door. I make sure it locks, not that it matters since he hasn’t given us the key. ‘Well, the price is good, but damn, this place is weird; what the hell are those kids all on?’ Eventually we decide that it’s not too weird, after all they’re all kids and I’ve never known anyone with dreads to be too violent. We decide to get up early and leave. I’m about to go out and tell the guy when he knocks on the door. I open it and he tells me if I need a bathroom there’s one down the hall. ‘There’s one right here in our room,’ I tell him. He doesn’t seem impressed with this new information and tells me once again that the woman will be here soon and I’ll pay when she shows up.
I’m lying in bed, Gina’s showered and asleep and there’s no woman. The place seems relaxed enough, but after the window-breaking incident in Tupiza, I’m slightly paranoid and am wondering if I should go out and ask for the key. The back wall of our room is a window that looks out to where everyone was sitting on the 30 year-old furniture. The curtain won’t draw all the way so I can see that there are still a few people out there. The girl with the pipe and the lighter had earlier retired to the room across from ours. I saw her in there still holding the flame to the glass when the Argentine guy came in to tell me about the bathroom down the hall, should we not want to use the one in our room. While I’m considering what to do, I fall asleep.
When I wake up the next morning, I am slightly surprised that our stuff is undisturbed and that we ourselves are unmolested. It’s about 5 AM. No woman had shown up and I can tell that everyone else is asleep. There’s no front desk, nothing except the front lounge area. I have the feeling that I’m 17 again and that I just woke up at the house of some acquaintance after a night of drinking. It seems odd somehow that I should even be expected to pay for the experience. Who’s going to care if we just leave? The girl with the lighter? Shit, is anyone from last night even going to remember that we were ever here? I decide to do the right thing and leave a 20 on the nightstand.
Outside the morning is wet and grey, but already the temperature is beginning to rise. As every morning, I’m looking around for a place to get hot water for our coffee. There’s a hostel open down the street that looks like it’s got a breakfast table, maybe they’ll sell us some. ‘Hot water? Sure!’ the desk girl tells me, ‘how much do you need?’ Gina’s got the coffee stuff in her bag, so while she roots around for it, I tell the girl that we need about three cups full for our thermos. I can already smell the coffee brewing as we sit on a stone wall on the path to Machu Picchu. Gina’s still looking around in her bag and having run out of things to say to the desk girl I turn to help look. The thermos isn’t there. I check my bag, it’s not there either. The only place I can think to look is the hostel. I don’t want to go back. I’m afraid that someone’s going to be awake now. I’m afraid that the quoted price of 20 soles isn’t going to hold up in the light of day and someone’s going to try to charge me more, or say that they didn’t see any money left on the nightstand. Reluctantly, we go back down. The basement is still quiet. The couch seems to seethe with its own dust in the quiet morning. Gina goes in a checks the room, it only takes a second. No, the thermos is not there. Which means it’s gone. The thermos that my mom sent me when I was in the Peace Corps. I used it to do my laundry in Armenia, I peed in it on a bus in Bolivia and I’ve drank everything from Fernet and Coke to green tea out of it everywhere in between. Strangely, I wasn’t really upset. It was just a thermos, with so many others like it. It was bound to get lost somewhere, better now near the end of our trip that at the beginning. Eventually, I was able to communicate to Gina that I really didn’t care that much about the thing; I don’t think she believed me, but at least we were able to get past it and climb up the endless staircase to Machu Picchu for the day.
We came back down around three PM exhausted and, almost impossibly, slightly more sunburned. The crowds and the rules of Machu Picchu had slightly annoyed me (there are a lot of people telling you where to go and what to do), but overall it had been a good day. I was also immensely happy after finding a cheap hostel (not 20 soles, but still cheap and much cleaner) and taking a long hot shower. After we had both showered, we were on our way to eat when I heard someone say ‘hola.’ Gina responded but by the same I had swung my head around there was no one there. ‘Did you see who that was?’ Gina asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘who was it.’ ‘It was those girls from the hostel last night.’ ‘Hmm, well, I guess it’s a good thing that we decided to pay. How is it that they even remembered us? They were so stoned.’