Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ten Days - Day Eleven

You thought I had forgotten, that I had left you hanging on day three of our ten-day touristic splurge. But ah! You get more than what you bargained for with eleven days of tourist revelations where there should have only been ten!

How, you might ask, does one get eleven days out of a ten-day ticket? How did I work this magic, you ask? It wasn't hard. People in Peru have been all around very friendly with us and willing to negotiate. The security guard at the Pisac Archeological Site - aside from being very charming and handsome - was patient as I fumbled with my broken Spanish, and was very accomodating.

After the long voyage back from Moray and Pikillacta the weekend before, we spent the following weekdays going to Spanish class and visiting a few museums that were included on our ticket. We saved Ollantaytambo for the second weekend because it is another long bus ride from Cusco. We had pretty much decided to save Pisac for later when we live in the city with the same name. Besides, the ruins are within a few hundred yards of the girls' school - we are bound to visit multiple times.

On Friday, we set out to accomplish a number of very important errands in the Pisac area. First, we had to find a place to live; we also had an appointment with the director of Katie and Georgia's school. An added bonus was we got to spend two (or in my case, three) nights with the lovely Rocio at Casa de Mama Gloria in Calca. On Saturday, we were lucky enough to find a place to live that pleased us. On Sunday, we took the girls for their stamp of approval and sealed the deal with payment of the first month in advance. Then off we went to catch a bus to Urubamba on the first leg of our journey to Ollantaytambo, an historic and rare Incan town. Most Incan sites were built for religious or military purposes, so the fact that this one was also a city is unique. The first leg to Urubamba was via our typical mode of transport - a dirty, broken-down, overcrowded bus. But we had grown accustomed to this mode of transportation and didn't bat an eyelash. It was nothing like the jam-packed bus from Pisac to Calca the night before, where the girls were so stuck in amongst the hoards of people trying to get home, that, after Matt and I elbowed our way off, I had to reach back in to the jumble of arms, legs and packages, and pull my daughters out of the maw of what seemed in the dark to be a people-eating, deisel-spewing road monster. No, for this bus ride, we even had seats.

Thirty minutes later, the bus dropped us off at the Urubamba bus station, where we caught a combi - or collectivo. The combi concept is much like a bus - each person pays less than a private taxi ride, sharing the expense, but it is a minivan. This one took only the number of people who could fit in the seats. However, along the way, others were welcomed in if there was enough standing room. Luckily, it was not a busy hour, and we only had about 4 or 5 extra riders along the way to Ollantaytambo.

Although it had been drizzling throughout our journey, as soon as we alighted in the brick-paved central square, the rains got serious. It poured. We decided that then was a good time for lunch in a nearby restaurant. We ordered minimalist meals - the chicken sandwhich consisted of two slices of wonder bread with a slice of grilled chicken for five soles - and it came with a side of faux-Motley Cru blasted at near-deafening volume from the kitchen below. By the time we had eaten our lunch and listened to the best of no-name bands that cover famous heavy metal songs, the skies had cleared and were beckoning to us.

We walked the 400 yards to the entrance gate of the archeological site. It was right at the edge of the small town, with many colorful vendors lining the path. Up along the walls of what coud be called either a very small, very steep mountain or a very large rock, were terraces and stone structures leading up several hundred feet. We hiked up the ancient stairs while the sun generously warmed the backs of our necks. We climbed through the farming terraces and up to a temple for the sun where one wall appeared to be a single carved rock of about 20 feet long by 5 feet high and I don't know how thick. I looked down from the temple remains to see a small stadium filled with people - not tourists. An open-air concert or a party of some sort was going on in the modern town of Ollantaytambo below, despite the recent torrents of rain. But now the sun had evaporated half of the dark stains on the stone floor of the stadium and the umbrellas were put away.

A long, narrow path, lined with a 1-foot tall rock wall - apparantly put in place so that weary tourists would not plunge to their deaths 600 feet below - wound away from this face of the rock pinnacle, around the contours of the hillside to another group of structures and terraces. As I walked along it, I imagineed modern US standards for tripping hazards and thought this wall would qualify, making it as dangerous as if there were no wall at all.

The other face of the mountain held a few odd, parallelagram-like storage houses for grain. The mountain face was so steep that the wall of the house on the uphill side was about 5 feet tall, while the wall on the downhill side was more than 18 feet tall. As I peered in through what was probably an opening used for dumping grain into the silo-like facility, I caught a glimpse of the young Peruvian family who had preceeded us to this site. A man of about 22, his equally young wife and their three-year-old daughter were grouped in the corner of the dim, earth-floored facility. The woman was squatting down, I assumed to rest or to take in the view through one of the low windows on the downward side of the building. When I hiked around to the door through which, by then, they were just exiting, I discovered a small river of liquid staining the earth, its origin the place where the three had been grouped. The smell was not the fresh clean smell of rain.

Go figure: a people who claim in all of the cultural literature to respect the earth and live in tune with it, but who pee inside of national monuments instead of in the great outdoors (or in readily available toilets conveniently located at the nearby visitiors' center). In fact, I can't count the number of times I have seen someone urinating or deficating in public - man, woman and child. Mothers in the busy streets of Cusco often take down the pants of their young children and instruct them to poop right there in the street or gutter. Little boys, without guile, send their yellow arc over the public lawns they were just picnicing on moments earlier. Dog poop is everywhere: no one picks it up or sweeps it off of their own front walkways.

The new (to me) pervasiveness and public nature of this otherwise private and, by US standards, foul bodily process, flummoxed me. I thought again about what it means to be in touch with mother nature. Peeing and pooping is natural. Animals do it, people do it. When in the forest or countryside, animals and people alike do it where they happen to be. This custom appears to have followed Peruvians into their cities to some extent. At least people don't appear to think of it as much of a problem. These body processes are just another part of the natural world.

My musings aside, Ollantaytambo was beautiful, our favorite site out of all of them to date. Our ride home was via a rare (for us) taxi cab, and this driver knew how to get places fast. He passed every car and truck and bus on the road in front of us, bringing us back to Urubamba in record time. Matt and the girls returned to Cusco, while I took a separate bus to Calca to sleep another night at Rocio's. I had another appointment on Monday morning to finish up paperwork at the school.

On Monday, I took care of business and then wandered (slowly) up the very steep path from the school to the Pisac site entrance - a 150 yard journey that took me a good 5 minutes! There, I met my friendly park official.

Pisac was the only unpunched site on my Boleto Touristico, and here it was, one day past the ten-day period. I explained to the very patient guard that I was about to set up residence at the foot of that hill and would want to visit frequently. Eventually, I figured out what he was saying: he told me that I could enter the park for a reduced rate. I was grateful and expressed it gratuitously, then set out to see this last punch on my all-around tourist experience.

This hike was by far the most grueling, but the first segment was such a treat, with waterfalls and beautiful greenery, cows grazing on the Incan terraces and hummingbirds fluttering at flowers that I could actually name from my gardening days in Portland. The botanical similarities between the Cuscenian Andes and Portland are striking! This place is as pristine and lovely as any natural space in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Northwest (but sans cows). I sat on a sharpish rock at the edge of the trail, not feeling the ridges digging into my thighs, and looked out across a valley, lush and beautiful in its natural flood-prone state, but made even more satisfyingly bucolic with miniature red-tile rooftops laid out in grids and curves, far below. The juxtoposition of the untouched green, giant mountains over linear patterns of crops, curling into swaying, corn-colored brushstrokes along the contours of the mud-flush river, represented perfectly our place as humans in nature. The scene below me coelesced humanity, living in harmony with the earth; development dependent upon the land; and nature in her powerful and generous form, providing for creatures with two, four and more legs.

From high up, there is no poop on the street, no diesel exhaust, no overcrowded busses. With the roar of the Pisac cataract in my ears and the smell of sweet Black-Eyed Susans in my nostrils, Pisac was the crowning glory of my Boleto Touristico experience. The sun warmed me, the butterflies fluttered gently across my fingertips. And I had only just begun exploring the amazing and awesome site way high up on the rock against which the modern-day city of Pisac rests.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ten Days - Sunday

Sunday morning, I awoke with the early dawn in a soft, warm, comfortable king-sized bed with wonderfully smooth sheets. Rocio’s bed and breakfast, La Casa de Mama Gloria, was like staying in the Hilton. We all eventually meandered down to breakfast, which Rocio generously cooked for us, and by 10 am, the Hastie family was ready for day three of the Boleto Touristico weekend odyssey. This time, Rocio agreed to join us as we worked our way back to Cusco by way of another set of ruins to the east.

Our initial destination from Mama Gloria’s was by foot - 200 yards to the street, which serves as an all-purpose bus stop. Just wave your hand as the bus approaches and it will stop for you, empty seats or no. We flagged down the bus to Urubamba; by the halfway point, seats become available and we got to sit (it costs more when you sit!).

In Urubamba, we disembarked and looked for a taxi. Rocio, being the strategic genius that she is, negotiated what we soon would find out was a bargain deal. The driver would take us to three historic sites, Salinas, Moray and Chinchero, and wait for us as we explored the first two. He agreed to what seemed like an astronomical price of 90 soles. I ran into the bus depot for two bottles of water – that and a few Power Bars were our only sustenance for the day trip. Little did we know we wouldn’t get home until dinner time.

The taxi driver took us first to Salinas – a site with a natural salt river that has been harnessed and redirected into hundreds of small salt ponds. The drive was long, and it ended with a very narrow winding road with blind curves and steep drops, not a favorite for the acrophobes among us. But when the hundreds of small brown squares, rimmed with rock borders came into view, it was strangely beautiful, like a vast earth-tone quilt sewn by a giantess. We drove down to the ponds and explored at close range, stepping along tiny little paths that wove between the shallow mud flat ponds. Below us on the terraced hillside was a woman in traditional dress with child and dog in tow, harvesting the salt. Rocio was able to take home a few handfuls for foot baths and massages.

The taxi driver adeptly brought us up and out of that precipitous area, honking to let any oncoming traffic know we were coming around the numerous blind corners, and slowing to save his shocks in the deep holes and small rivers we crossed along the way. We continued on to the second site – Moray. The sign to Moray read 12 kilometers, but after awhile no one in the car believed it.

We drove for another twenty minutes through beautiful green pastures and rolling hills, passing small hamlets with farmers and shepherds working on their land. At one point, we came to a small dirty place that almost seemed to be a ghost town. The rare signs of life included broken down trucks taking up half of the street, a few pedestrians hauling huge bundles wrapped in plastic tarps, and, directly in front of us on the one narrow road that led to where we wanted to go, a couple pushing their stalled vehicle up a small incline. Our driver played a slow motion game of ‘chicken’ with the poor couple who were pushing their inoperable car along the only lane. The man had to practically scold our driver to get him to back up again and go around on another block. But machismo aside, our driver successfully backed his way down the rutted alleyway and past a truck that was blocking the next street over, edging past within a hair’s breadth of both the wall on the right hand side and the truck’s mirror on the other. Further accolades to him!

Outside the walls of the little town again, the scenery opened back up to treat us to many variations on the same theme – natural beauty not unlike that found in the Pacific Northwest. February is the wet season, and everything is emerald green, except for the occasional red dirt color of bricks that make up the walls of homes and structures dropped clumsily into the loveliness of the picture. We drove on and on and finally arrived at the archeological site.

Moray is an Incan construction that uses the natural contours of a circular pit or ravine to create what looks like a hybrid between alien crop circles and Stonehenge. Retaining walls create at least 15 circular terraces. Each wall is about 10 feet tall, but the entire depth of the bowl is 150 meters from rim to bottom. The Incas used the terraces to experiment with varieties of corn, using different hybrids for the different temperatures and altitudes on each terrace in order to create crops that could bolster the Incan people in times of drought or frost.

We climbed down into the center of the bowl, which is said to emanate healing powers and a spiritual magnetism of some sort. Of course, a group of yogis were meditating in the center when we arrived, one standing with bare feet in the exact middle of the Moray forcefield, in a mud puddle. Luckily, the nice weather from Saturday had carried over and the woman standing there for what seemed like a selfishly long time - considering that there were five others in her group waiting to try out that mud puddle too - did not have to worry about frost bite.

After a relaxing rest on the grass in the healing circle, we started back up the stone outcroppings that were inlaid into each wall, serving as steps. Twenty minutes later, huffing and puffing at the top of the bowl, we looked back down to enjoy a last look at the amazing manmade pattern below us. The woman in the mud puddle was still there. Her yogi friends had given up and left her.

Our ride back down the long road and through the small ghost town met with no obstructions. Another 30 minutes of great out-the-window photography and we arrived at our third and final site of the day. Chinchero is a town with an Incan ruin right in its midst. A catholic church sits atop former Incan foundations and is surrounded by toppled Incan walls. Sundays bring many people to the market that takes place both at the main square in front of the church and below, near the main road. We browsed the wares and met the women who actually made the goods on display. Unlike the markets in Cusco and even small Pisac, these textiles were actually made by the women who sat next to them in uniforms of traditional red wool jackets and navy blue skirts atop layers of square-dancing underskirts.

We were tired and only glanced around at the Incan stones. Most of our time was spent sitting inside the small church, gazing up at its hand-painted, rough-hewn timbers. Every wall was adorned with relics and religious iconography. There were a total of 5 Jesuses within 15 feet of where we sat. Strangely, the smallest was the 2 foot tall golden statue at the main altar in the front of the church. The two to our right made a life-sized matching set, with the same Rastafarian hairdo and blue, Miss America-like pennants across their chests.

As the sun began to edge towards the horizon, we set out to find a ride back to Cusco, about 15 miles away. Rocio bargained a shared taxi ride for 2.5 soles each, but after we got in the car, the driver started arguing with another man – he said he was his brother. The discussion turned into a smallish fight, complete with head butting and threatened violence, but it was all in Quechan, so the Americans didn’t understand a word of it. I was, however completely disgusted when the second man’s wife, with a baby on her hip, demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the life of her child by standing in the road at her husband’s side, contributing to the argument. Traffic in Peru slows down for nobody. A bus, speeding past, came within inches of the woman and her child, but the argument continued unabated. This was our signal that these people were truly crazy and we would not be riding in a car driven by any of them.

We found another cab driver up the street who hesitantly agreed to take us to Cusco for 20 soles. It is unlikely he made much of a profit, considering traffic and gas, but he stopped in a nearby city soon after we started and picked up a man for 5 soles, turning our private taxi into a combi – a communal ride. The man, dressed well enough, climbed into the back with our luggage. It made Georgia and I a bit uncomfortable having him behind us where we couldn’t see what he was doing, but in the end, he was just an honest guy trying to get home.

The taxi driver dropped us at a bus station, steering clear of more convenient places where, we assumed, police might issue him a citation for not having a license. The driver, surprisingly, seemed grateful for our fare. Like our first driver from Urubamba, he shook our hands, smiling, and seemed genuinely happy to have served us. This man made 25 soles with a dirty, weak, rattling car in 45 minutes. It seemed at times that even he wasn’t sure if he would make it all the way. Our Urubamba driver made 90 soles over the course of 5 hours, was as cool as a cucumber and offered the Peruvian equivalent of a classy, comfortable ride. The two men and their livelihoods were fascinatingly different, and yet both part of the same machine that relies on tourist money to churn economic sustenance for most of the people in the Sacred Valley.

We were back in Cusco, relieved after a long, bumpy, exhaust-filled ride, and hungry, having partaken only of a bottle of water and four Power Bars since breakfast. Half a chicken each and a plate full of fries was a feast that had our concave bellies protruding from our waistbands within the hour. We headed back to the apartment, satisfied with a good day’s adventure and looking forward to a good night’s rest.

Ten Days - Saturday

Transportation is everything here. Saturday's adventures started with a 3-sole taxi ride to the bus station, about 1.5 miles from our apartment (3-soles equals approximatley one US dollar). Next, we paid 9.6 soles for assigned seats on the bus to Pisac, which is 20 miles away. With bus gears grinding, we bumped along atop ancient struts past Saqsayhuaman (which we reached by taxi for a bargain basement price of 10 soles the day before) to our first stop of the day - Q'enqo, a mere 2 miles from Cusco.

The day was blessedly warm and clear, making it that much more enjoyable when compared to the thunder and lightning of Saqsayhuaman. The girls frolicked in the grassy courtyards as we passed sunbathing students studying atop some fallen Incan handiwork. We walked through dripping caves with sculpted homages to the lightning, one of the Incas' spiritual incarnations thought to be the source of life. Some naughty local boys climbed on top of a Incan wall and received a sharp whistle as a reprimand from a Ministry of Culture employee still sitting at the entrance gate 400 yards away. I told our girls, "Don't do whatever those boys just did."

We walked back up to the main road after we had had our fill of peaceful Q'enqo, and waitied no more than 10 minutes before a bus from a different bus company appeared. We took it to the next stop - Puku Pukara.

The bus was packed and we stood for this leg of the journey, hanging onto the overhead rails and trying not to bump our fellow passengers with our overloaded backpacks. The highlight of this ride was when I let go of the bar for a split second to adjust my pack, just as the bus rounded a sharp, steep curve. I lost my balance and fell backwards in slow motion, but we were all so tighly packed together that the result was more like leaning heavily on the young Peruvian teen behind me, as if I were a heavy sack of traditional weaving and alpaca sweaters to be sold at market. He might have thought it was funny, the big clumsy American woman who didn't know how to ride a bus properly, but I couldn't tell. I was so tall in comparison to both my fellow passengers and the front windshield, that I couldn't see the boy's face nor what the road promised ahead of us. I apologized to the back of his head and resolved to hold on at all times from there on out! Puka Pukara was only 2 miles up the road. The fare was 4 soles.

Puka Pukara was a military lookout post. Although the ruins were simple and not much to write home about when compared to the enormous stones of Saqsayhuaman, the view won top prize over all other sites. From left to right, when standing at the former tower site, the vista encompassed sheep with their brightly-dressed shepherdesses roaming over green fields; the long, deep valley leading towards Pisac on display with various other shades of green; smallish blue mountains in the near distance; and the gigantic grey masses of the Andes further off. The bright blue sky with nary a reminder of yesterday's heavy, black storm clouds topped off the photogenic scene like a South American cherry on the top of this deliciously beautiful Incan sundae. Closer to us on the right were four burros, tied up below the tower to graze in small circles, conceivably providing a public service by cropping the public grass.

Across the road was another site - Tambomachay - a resort and ceremonial center for the Inca and his princess built in 1500 AD. The famous ritual fountains, built by carving out pipe-like cylindrical passages in the enormous stones, provided spring water year round. It was a little less impressive than the other sites due to its middling size and view, but it was a well-preserved working example of Incan technology in action.

We ate lunch on top of another Incan tower foundation - peanut butter and jelly inside of traditional Peruvian bread rolls - then headed back to the road to hail another bus, this time one with the same company who issued us the original tickets. We had 15 twisting miles to get to Pisac.

Originally, when we planned our day, we knew that we would have to pay the extra cost for the leg from Q'enqo to Puka Pukara because we would be riding with a diferent bus company. But when we tried to board the bus owned by the original company with our original ticket to Pisac, we were denied. It seems that the ticket was only good until we disembarked, even if it were only 10 feet from the front door. We had to pay another 6 soles to get the rest of the way to Pisac, and of course, we stood, packed in like sardines between the luckier sleeping passengers who had boarded in Cusco - something we had done 4 hours earlier.

In the end, it was only $2 more, and regardless, we arrived in Pisac intact, not too weary, and with nothing picked from our pockets. Everyone on that bus had a purpose and it wasn't to take home a pair of cheap American sunglesses or a half-used Boleto Touristico. I began to relax about the numerous tourist warnings we had read against robbers and scoundrals. Most people were just going about their daily business of commuting to and from work or buying supplies in town. Nevertheless, I still insist on zippered pockets for me and my girls whenever we go out (mostly to guard against accidentally tripping and spilling the irreplacable contents of our pockets down a grate in the street - I like to call it being careful, although I know others might label it paranoia).

We hung around in the town of Pisac for awhile, drinking cold fruit juice and tepid coffee and peeking in the gate of Kusy Kawsay - the school the girls will attend in March. We saved the ruins of Pisac for when we move there next month. The main square is small and manageable; the city welcoming and not too big. I can't wait to start looking for apartments!

It was only mid-afternoon when we took another bus to LaMae (4 miles, 4 soles) with our friend Rocia. There, we got to know Sandra and Sandy, the couple who run the organization where Matt will volunteer. We toured their beautiful property by the side of a gushing river and met their children, age 12 and 14 who also attend Kusy Kawsay. We spoke Spanglish and ate a wonderful home-cooked meal as we listened attentively to the other guests - the best way to learn Spanish in my opinion.

Bedtime came too early and we caught a taxi to Calca (10 miles, 15 soles), where Rocia housed us for the night in style at her beautiful bed and breakfast, "La Casa de Mama Gloria". The gifts of friendship had warmed us, fed us and made us feel at home in this new territory. In all, we spent 62 soles - about 24 American dollars - and 12 enjoyable hours getting from Cusco to Calca, Peru and, more imporantly, getting to know our new friends and new home. What a day!

Ten Days - Friday

The Boleto Touristico - the tourist ticket - allows you to visit 16 archeological sites and museums in the Cusco area, but limits entrance to one 10-day period. We thought about the timing of our purchase, and selected a Friday in order to squeeze two weekends into our 10 days. Coincidentally, on Friday "llueve cubos" - it rained buckets! But our faithful guide Israel, a masters student in archeology at the Cusco university, wearing an ill-advised outfit consisting of white jeans, white tennis shoes and a green windbeaker, met us at the Plaza de Armas in the center of town.

He managed to lead us through our first archeological site, Saqsayhuaman, for three hours in the mud-inducing downpour without one shiver, grimace or stain on his seemingly supernatural attire. His clothes must have been made by Edna Mode. Perhaps all Cuscenians have an 'Mr. Incredible' gene, because most make their way thorugh the alternately drenching and frigid weather without the benfit of lycra or gortex. It is not uncommon to look out our dining room window and see young men walking to work in a downpour with nothing more protective than a polo shirt and slacks, but through some optical illusion, they appear dry. Drops of water run down their faces and their shirts must be saturated throughout to maintain that consistent color scheme from shoulders to waist, but to the casual observer, these guys could be walking down the sunny sidewalks of a balmy beach town. Maybe this speaks to their abilty to persevere without complaint, or to a lifetime of living without unnecessary baggage and articles of clothes.

Throughout our archeological visits, however, the Hastie family was well prepared for our climate-adaptive inadequacies. We lugged along with us a backpack full of gloves, raincoats, extra socks, food, water, and of course, books. Starting with the wet Saqsayhuaman with its collasal, man-made assembly grounds and 130-ton foundation cornerstones for ceremonial builidings designed as resting spots for the sun, we set out to see what Cusco had to offer its visitors. Israel walked us through pitch-black tunnels and across a courtyard big enough to play five NFL football games simultaneously. He showed us roads and doorways that purposefully dropped off into thin air (they were built for luminary beings greater than us - the sun has no use for stairs) and terraces where crops were made to bloom out of the rocks - a promise the great Inca Yupanqi made to his people if they would accept him as their leader. Israel knew where to find "the most beautiful Incan artifact in all of Peru": in a cracked and dusty greenhouse in the basement of the site administrator's office. The artifact is a stone circle of about 3 feet diameter, wrapped with a lounging, smiling 'feline' - Israel's word for the puma, one of the three main spiritual icons found repeatedly in Incan artwork. The other two are the anaconda and the condor.

This site, along with numerous others near Cucsco, was built surprisingly fast during Inca Yupanqi's (and another ruler's) 77 year rule with the labor of 360 extended families (adding up to a pool of millions of people). It was left unfinished when the Spaniards invaded in the early 1500s. The foreigners destroyed everything they could in their greedy quest to steal and melt down the multitude of gold and silver adornments they saw in the Incan ceremonial buildings, and later, to rid Cusco of all signs of non-Catholic belief systems and culture. Needless to say, words cannot do justice to the grandeur and mystery of this site and all it represents.

At the end of the day Friday, drippy, happy and tired, we walked back to town: Saqsayhuaman is less than a mile from the city center.