Meeting Simon in Cusco

I had arranged to meet Simon in Cusco to do the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu. We’d met only once, for three hours in London last July, but I was confident that he was a sound fellow who would make an excellent traveling companion. I later found out that he had been nervous about flying all the way to Peru to meet a half-cracked Irish girl prone to scrapes and escapades. This was reasonable. Two weeks is a small fraction of my journey, but a huge proportion of his annual holiday allowance. I was up for either a wonderful experience or a nightmare yarn I could exaggerate to entertain myself, but Simon wanted a Nice Holiday as well as an adventure.

I was in a slight sulk while I waited for him at Cusco airport. First of all, this being Peru, they had canceled his morning flight from Lima because there weren’t enough passengers to pack it like a local bus. As usual there was no information available at Cusco, so I assumed they would jam him onto the afternoon flight, which meant a five-hour wait for both of us. And second, this being Peru, I wasn’t in Bolivia. I had fallen in love with Bolivia on sight, as quickly as I’d disliked Peru. I wrote to Simon the week before he arrived and asked him to come to Bolivia instead, promising Lake Titicaca, jungle, and salt deserts. Long-range travelers think nothing of swinging left to check out a new country but sensible holidaymakers balk. Simon feared I was deranged at this fourth suggested change of place, and counter-proposed that we meet in Cusco as planned. I sulked on the night bus from La Paz to Cusco and nursed the grudge up to, but not beyond, his bleary arrival. I couldn’t stay cross at an Englishman who was so discombobulated by a welcome hug.

For the first day or two, we were Stanley and Dr. Livingstone. He solemnly filled me in on the C-list London celebrity gossip I crave. I proudly showed him the running water in a hotel that was five times as posh as my usual fleapits.
   “Hot, look, all day! Just ignore the concrete chips on the shower floor. And here’s iodine water for brushing your teeth.”
(Simon is a consultant who lives in hotels, and was not as thrilled as I was by the little bars of soap, nor as impressed by the fabulosity of a television set, which showed only Peruvian gameshows.)

Next he handed over the loot. Vogue, The Economist, Private Eye and, for some reason, three issues of New Scientist. Three Crunchies. A giant bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, “for hiking”. Earl Grey teabags. A jar of Marmite. Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love. Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. I stacked a triumphant little pile of treats, and decided we would be friends.

We inspected his kit, which was several degrees cooler than mine. I wondered if he had special-issue English Gore-tex hankies too, as we admired the Camelbak drinking pouch, the fully waterproof backpack (I use a sack to cover mine), the Oakley shades, the Windstopper jacket, the titanium cookset and teeny stove, the hi-tech walking trousers. (Which I was to stop referring to as ‘pants’, he instructed. ‘Pants’ are underpants in London.) I showed him my little immersion heater for making bathroom-water tea, my coca leaves for chewing, and my two pairs of socks. Finally we went outside to take a look at Cusco.

Cusco is Peru’s treasure, the capital of the Inca empire later ransacked and rebuilt by the Spaniards. At 3,310 meters, it’s crisp even in midday sunshine and chilly at night. Mid-range hotels rent space heaters for an extra two dollars a night. On the sloping, cobbled streets, the sidewalks are so narrow that hierarchy is apparent: indigenous people step down for mestizos and criollos. No one makes way for tourists.

During the Inca empire, every important citizen tried to visit the sacred capital at least once. Whenever they conquered a new region, a handful of earth was brought to Cusco to be mixed with the soil of their great square, Huancaypata (the Place of Tears). The Inca, or king, was paraded on a litter here, wearing costumes too heavy and magnificent to walk in. Later, the Spaniards executed Tupac Amaru, the last Inca here, too. They tied a limb to each of four horses, then spurred the horses to tear him apart. Then they built the Plaza de Armas where Huancaypata once was. Archeological digs still turn up remnants of rituals held in the Place of Tears: tiny bone llamas, jewellry.

A baroque cathedral stands now in place of Inca Wiracocha’s palace. Inside, it is glitzy with gold crucifixes and a high altar made of beaten silver. I startled Simon by genuflecting out of habit: cathedrals are best admired on your knees. The tourists gathered in front of a Last Supper scene that showed the apostles ready to dine on guinea pig and chicha beer. We giggled at the stiff Cusco School paintings: picture after picture of smug, redhaired Virgins trampling seraphim and clutching two-dimensional Baby Jesuses shaped like Victorian lampshades. One local painter hadn’t grasped that cherubs had wings, and his fat little angels clung to the curtains during the Annunciation.

Outside the cathedral, toddlers too small to make change for postcards beg when they remember. Even breadwinner three-year-olds are easily distracted.

The Companía de Jesús church is just southwest of the cathedral, its splendor a direct challenge. The audacity of the Jesuits angered the pope when it was built, and to curb the church’s magnificence, he decreed that the entrances must be small and off the main square. Along one side of the church, a side-alley is walled with Inca stonework (or, more accurately, Inca-style stonework, which the Spaniards admired and forced their new slaves to reproduce after they had destroyed the city to conquer it). Huge, irregular stones were worked to fit each other with perfect, mortarless joins. Each edge and corner is rounded. The alley is narrow and the walls slope inwards, as comforting as a cave. Simon ran a hand over the curved granite. He read Geology at university, and could see stories in stones that I couldn’t read.

I couldn’t take to Cusco despite the beauty of its red roofs in the evening sun. I’ve been spoiled with leisurely time in ordinary towns and villages, and the gringo capital of Latin America made me feel suddenly like a tourism product whose yield must be increased.
    ‘No gracias, no gracias, NO, GRACIAS!’ we chanted wearily as we skittered down the steep cobbles, refusing an endless offering of shoeshines, postcards, restaurant menus, cigarettes, tour group flyers, ugly ponchos, finger puppets, alpaca sweaters, marijuana, and watercolors. One old bag hit me with her hat when I stepped off the sidewalk she was blocking in a panhandling holdup. Every hotel and guidebook warned tourists to take taxis after sunset, even for a few blocks, now that strangle-muggings are Cusco chic. A huckster with twangy Miami English offered to take us on a personal guided tours to see the real rural Peru.
    “Around Cusco? I don’t think so.” I spat in Spanish before dragging Simon to the market for a respite.

We drank a 30-cent pint of orange juice each, perched on stools on a street corner, watching the bargainings with not a baggy khaki backside in sight. I tried to see the market through his fresh eyes: the mangy dogs, fed or kicked depending on a stallholder’s mood, the babies tied on tightly in bright shawls, the piles of strange merchandise, the English-language instruction tape played on public speakers.
    “Warrr-drobe. Warrr-drobe. Guardarropa.”

There were pyramids of maize, chirimoya, and prickly pear; a whole crispy pig hanging up for chicharron (crackling); torsoless mannequins modeling jeans with more booty than J Lo. As usual, I grew babbly with excitement.
&nbps   “We have to try leche asado. It’s a milk pudding tart. And I’ll get you some salteños later. Have you ever had chicharron? It’s brilliant.”
    “Okay,” said Simon doubtfully.

On the way back, we attached ourselves to a religious parade that was in full swing. The Virgin—several mid-sized Virgins, in fact—swayed overhead on a litter as the crowd swayed behind the brass band. A man was selling popcorn and Inca-Kola.
    “What’s the parade for?” asked Simon, unused to the daily procession that is Peru.
    “Who knows? Probably because it’s Tuesday.”