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.”

“Losing my passport was the least of my worries; losing a notebook was a catastrophe.”—Bruce Chatwin

My Moleskine notebook disappeared in Lima the other night, in a series of events too dismal to tell here. I had given up on it, mourned its loss and the loss of the cards and notes from friends it contained, and added a call to the American Express office to my to-do list (it held my emergency travelers’ checks, too).

Moping around Miraflores, I decided to see who I could complain to on Instant Messenger. And there was a note from PAUL LANDON—the name in all capitals, and already checked as spam before I noticed the subject line was ‘book’. A publisher?


   ‘You don’t know me, but I’m a schoolteacher in Peru, ‘ he wrote. ‘I have your travel book (just re-read all that and it sounds like a ransom note!)’

Paul had found my email address, and noticed that I’d written about the Cafe Z in Miraflores. He would be there at four o’clock exactly, on his motorbike, to hand-deliver my precious notebook on his way to soccer practice. And he was, and he handed it over before zooming off.

Leaving me dying of embarrassment that in order to find me he had to read through the most appalling, revealing, self-indulgent fretting since Bridget Jones. The stuff that doesn’t make the cut here. This stranger, I realized, knows me better than my best friend. When I wrote to thank him, he sent a gentle quote in answer to all the scribbled literary quotes in my book, this time Polonius’s advice to Hamlet:

‘Above all this, to thine own self be true,
and it will follow as the night the day
that thou cans’t be false to any man’

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Thanks, Paul.

Volcano Vaudeville

The Cotopaxi volcano, in the middle of Ecuador, looks like a sinful dessert. The crater is a smooth, dark cone with thick, creamy glaciers dripping down from the top. It’s as perfect as Mount Fuji and twice as broad. And it’s active.

Cotopaxi is the most-climbed mountain in Ecuador. For a few hundred dollars, a guide will take you up there. You start at one in the morning and reach the summit around dawn—it’s 5,897 meters high. You must get back to the base camp before the sun gets high enough to melt the surface snow.

I didn’t want to climb the mountain, but I wanted to spend time with it. So I camped for few nights in Cotopaxi National Park, hiking slowly across from one end to the other on the 4,000-meter-high páramo. The páramo looks bleak from a distance, a plain of grays and dull greens. Up close, though, you see a carpet of the same gentians and lupins found in the Arctic, and tiny orchids, and bright candlestick mosses. A silvery lichen, unattached to the ground, is scattered everywhere and looks like sleet.

For first time in Ecuador I saw no other people in days (and no mean dogs—yay!). The only trace of humans beyond the car park was two spent shotgun cartridges and one very rusty tin can. I found Andean fox droppings, full of feathers and mouse claws, and was glad not to run into the wild bulls I’d been warned about. I watched cara-cara eagles and cooked up my haul of ink-cap mushrooms over a sputtering campfire in a creek bed.

Occasional birdsong sounded like part of the silence, which the Inca believed was the sound of the gods talking. It wasn’t hard to see why they also believed that the spirits of these mountains were gods to be appeased. I camped early—enjoying the luxury of not having to hide my gear and myself until dark—in a broad plain where my little blue tent was ringed by volcanoes. There was Cotopaxi itself directly in front, Rumiñahui behind, Sincholahua and Pasochoa northeast, and the twins of Iliniza to the southwest.

The high plains seem to be always cloudy in this season, and mostly the volcanoes are hidden. But with nothing to do but drink tea and stare—I had run out of books—I caught glimpses of the flirting mountains as the clouds moved from left to right across the sky. The veil would part to show the rim of a crater, or the west glacier, or a swathe of red lava halfway down. I was a slack-jawed john at a stripshow, and it was a thrill at sunset when the biggest, fluffiest pink clouds obligingly passed behind the Cotopaxi crater, not in front. At sights like that, you can only cry or take a photograph, and either is inadequate.

The real show was at dawn, though. Camping on the equator means darkness from 6.30 at night to 6.30 in the morning, so getting up at half past five to see the first streaks is not so much a hardship as it is a relief from twelve hours tangled in a mummy sleeping bag. (I always wake several times, panicked, to find the hood on my face, and that night altitude sickness had kept me sleepless, too.)

The sun hadn’t yet evaporated the moisture from the páramo and so the sky was almost clear. All four peaks of Rumiñahui were fully visible, like a feeding dinosaur. Cotopaxi gleamed in the dawn light, and the others, farther off, were revealed in tribute to big mama. It was completely quiet.

And I wanted every one of you to be transported there, just for a few minutes. Dragged from your beds in New York or Phoenix or Vancouver, from your desk in Johannesburg or Ipswich, from your classroom in Tokyo, from school in Limerick, from your study in Tehran, and plonked on a cold plain in the Andes to sit in silence with me, watching the sun rise over the volcanoes of Ecuador.

I hope you get to see it some day.


Through the thin walls of my Baños hotel room, I reluctantly followed a courtship from start to finish. She was American, very young, and thought Ecuador was, like, amazing. His deep mumble was harder to place—he talked less, for one thing—but after many hours I was fairly sure he was Australian.

They had met on the gringo bus from Quito, and they started the evening in separate rooms. Doors squeaked and there were coy giggles across the corridor as they planned a night out. Drinking piña coladas without fake ID here was sooooo fucking cool.

At four a.m. they came back, bumping the walls and fumbling with the key. The giggles were louder now. Cigarette filters make good earplugs; I wished I smoked. For two hours they rutted, vigorously and inexpertly, inches from my headboard. I lay awake, cross, and wondered if the final Valley Girl shriek would be
´Like, oh God.´

Young flesh triumphs over piña coladas and lack of sleep. By 8.30 am she was chattering again and begging, as far as I was concerned, for a sound slap. Or maybe a pillow over her face.
   ´So, like, I couldn’t believe it when the doctor turns around, toe-dully casual, and goes, ‘Oh yeah, like, by the way, your cervix is twisted.’ And I’m going ‘What? What are you talking about? My cervix is twisted? What does that mean? Am I in-fur-dul?´

The Aussie mumble grew perceptibly less enthusiastic as she chirruped on. He was probably stealthily chewing his arm off at the shoulder, coyote-style. I would have.
   ’I mean, can you believe she just drops that a pretty important piece of my body is twisted out of shape, like it’s no big deal? I was so freaked out. I was looking up ‘cervix’ on the innernet to find out what shape it was supposed to be…’

Some day, when I know more than I know now, I’ll write an update of The Rules™, a how-to-deal-with-men guide for women who are not diamond-hungry, blow-dried freaks. And somewhere in there, very specifically, I’ll instruct girls like my neighbor in Hostal Pedregal.
   ´Sweetheart, if you ever want to see him again, skip the vagina monologues the morning after. And give the poor lad more than two hours sleep. Your neighbors will thank you, too.’

Speed freaks

Speed was an odd choice of movie to show on a ten-hour bus journey through the Andes. While Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock tried to keep their zooming city bus from exploding, I gripped the armrests as we cornered on hairpin bends. Still, Keanu in a tight t-shirt was a welcome break from the endless live informercial we’d suffered during daylight.

Until now, I’d taken little country buses, mostly, where the hawkers sold fruit, mote, and soft drinks. But the Quito to Cuenca route connects most of the major towns down the Panamerican highway, and both the vehicles and the salesmen are slicker. They jumped on the bus whenever we passed through a town. The pitches hardly varied, and could have moved straight to the Home Shopping Channel with little help.

They introduced themselves, sometimes with a sob story, and threw out some quiz questions to engage the audience, complete with trinket prizes. Then they switched smoothly into a fast-talking hard sell, flogging tinny chains with birthstones that would open your chakras and release your creative and healing energies, or leather belts with hidden money pouches to foil the thieves who were everywhere these days, waiting to steal every dollar you had, or purses in the shape of cowboy boots that were ingeniously hand-tooled by master craftsmen. We passengers were amazingly fortunate, since we would pay much, much more in stores for items of such quality. Luckily for us, our vendors—no, our friends now, surely—were hooked up with terrific wholesale (but legitimate!) deals that allowed them to offer these perfect Mother’s Day gifts at such low, low prices, ladeez and gennelmen…

Then they would saunter down the aisle, dropping a sample on everyone’s lap.
   ´Gemini? Charming and versatile. Pisces, ma’am? Sensitive and loving…’
Finally, they collected their money and their samples, still pitching all the while, jumped off the bus, and crossed the highway to catch a bus going back the other way. On the Panamerican you never wait more than five minutes; these people made their living surfing the road.

No pitch lasted less than twenty minutes, and the machine-gun delivery sounded like a cattle auction. I was three seats from the front, stuck in the prime sell spot, and as they lined up to shower me with spittle I briefly considered flinging myself off the bus. But it was a long drop. And I wanted to get to back to Cuenca.