The integration into Cuscan living was a little more rough-and-tumble than our swift apartment find had led us to think it would be.
First our apartment, despite being pretty upscale and modern, was not of a high enough echelon of modernity to warrant central heating. The nights were cold which took some getting used to, and the apartment would take until the afternoon each day to warm up again. Second, Tracy and I got violently ill within 48 hours of move in. Details are sketchy, but the money’s on the black beans which were soaked for a day in water that hadn’t been boiled in advance. For two days we both underwent complete and involuntary system flushes, and that was our veritable moment of weakness.
World Tour just wasn’t looking that good. After the rough stint in Cuba and generally a lot of being on the go, we were hungry for settling in to more real and regular life that didn’t so much resemble the oft-tiring backpacker’s lot. And yet here we were, cold in our home, afraid to drink the water we’d boiled, and practically plastered to whichever horizontal surface seemed a fitting resting spot at the time between bathroom visits. Adding to the distaste of the situation was the suddenly fresh memory of being similarly sick in the Philippines, the last time we traveled out of the country. It seemed all too recent, like an undeniable and unpleasant pattern was revealing itself.
We did what there was to do: give ourselves permission to frankly explore the possibility that we were getting too old for this sort of adventure, that world tour wasn’t such a great idea, and that it might be really nice to retreat. We did this to keep it real. For you see a part of the ego and identity of both Tracy and myself is the notion that “Yay! We’re good travel people, we do cool travel stuff and that makes us interesting, yay!” So what if we’re not good travel people, then what does that make us? We were of sound enough mind to realize it would be a fool’s errand to pretend we were enjoying ourselves when we were not, just to keep that piece of our egos in tact.
Our conversation to vent about and explore the degree to which World Tour was sucking lasted about 10 minutes. With all complaints on the matter out in the open and ripe to catalog & objectively assess, we recognized that not all in fact was horrible: it just can seem that way when you and the only person around you are both in the throws of bodily distress. Really you can only take the misgivings of someone as sick as us only so seriously, for when it passes one’s outlook changes mighty fast.
Sure enough, when we were fully recovered a day or so later, the world seemed beautiful, and World Tour once again a darn good idea. There’s nothing quite like feeling near death for a few days that has being up and about alive seem so fantastic.
Which then thus takes us to the matter of living in Cusco. Let me start by saying I just DIG Peruvian culture: I dig the music, I dig the food, I dig the art, I dig the women dressed in traditional garb leading their alpacas through the streets. Cusco is delightfully walkable (we never have to wrestle with getting a cab and attendant gringo taxation), and while winding through the narrow cobblestone streets there is no shortage of opportunities to see instances of these four categories and more. Tracy has fantastic pictures of both the main plaza and the streets of Cusco. (In fact you should probably click around to others posts: her Cusco coverage is quite comprehensive.)
Shortly after regaining my appetite, I discovered the ubiquitous Cuscan “polloria”. They are like carbon copies of one another, a simple and well replicated model for selling chicken dinners. Five soles ($2 US) gets you a decent sized piece of chicken, a bowl of soup, a pile of fried rice and french fries, and access to the salad bar (a few metal tins filled with tasty cooked beets, a carrot and onion medley, and some other prepped veggies). Oh, and the chicken, prepared as it is upon a bunch of rotating skewers over a wood fire oven, is like the best chicken you’ve ever had at a summer BBQ with someone who really knows what they’re doing with chicken.
Talk about a ready made meal. It has come in handy on more than one occasion, and for 19 soles you can get half a chicken, which I refer to as “strategic reserves”.
In the interest of adjusting and fostering a certain resilience in our cold apartment, I set out late in the first week on a small shopping spree of warming alpaca garb. Knit gloves with the fingers cut out, long knit socks, and a pair of alpaca slippers that to me are both goofy and loved marked my spoils, and I’ve had less to complain about ever since.
Speaking of commerce, entrepreneurship is alive and well in Cusco. Many laundromats, restaurants, yoga studios, general stores and more can be recognized as simply the front room to someone’s place, meaning it appears as though setting up a business can be as simple as setting a “Laundry – 2 hour service” sign outside your door and having the right appliances in back.
Reliability, reputation and customer service seem to be equally casual affairs, though. Three for three times I’ve had to return to the laundromat at least twice because either our clothes were not ready when promised or the proprietor was just, well, out. One night I was particularly peeved by the situation as I’d paid double for same day service1. The owner of the store next door told us “she’s out, try back in 30 minutes.” Lemons to lemonade, we took a walk up the steep hill from our house and enjoyed a spectacular sprawling night time view of the city. Cusco is nestled in a valley, so there is no shortage of high perches from which to look down upon its charming, skyscraper-less neighborhoods, dotted with warm lights at night, and featuring the Andes in the distance during the day. We’d lived here for two week and still not come up for the view, so this was a win.
My irritation mellowed from time well passed, we returned 30 minutes later. “She’s not here, just wait, I’ll call her.” With my mellow once again harshed by 10 more minutes of waiting, we found solidarity in another gal who came along and knocked upon the vacant door. “Necassitas sus ropas tambien, eh?” I asked. “Si.” “De donde es?” “Angleterre.”2 “Ah, well in that case we’ll have no trouble conversing in English!” And that’s how we made the acquaintance of Tammy, a med student from England. In ten more minutes of waiting we learned that Tammy was well traveled and a great conversationalist. After we all got our laundry and headed our separate ways home, we learned she was our downstairs neighbor, sharing her flat with 3 other med students from England.
I figured it fitting to secure our new acquaintance as a friend: “Listen, we were down by the plaza earlier today and there’s this bakery that has these big, amazing looking cakes. Tracy and I would never get through one of those on our own. What do you say you and your flat mates come up for cake some night next week?” And thus a plan was made for the next Wednesday, and that’s how we got to host our first gathering at our place since moving out of our place in Denver. A lovely time, too: three and a half hours of chatting over cake and tea and we’ve got peeps in England.
The days here spent working have been uncommonly productive. Perched at the dining room table with laptop, gloves, hat and ear buds the outside world just sort of melts away whenever I go in for deeply focused programming. So much so that Tracy has declared spousal neglect once or twice, and for it insisted I unplug and get out to enjoy the town with her. Yesterday it was a hike to Sacsayhuaman, the ruins of an Inca fortress on grounds high above the city. Fantastic views of the city, larger than life Inca stonework, and watching a group of 10 alpacas graze about were the rewards of this mandated unplugging. Again, Tracy’s photography does our experience more justice than my words.
Truly, despite its rough beginnings, this town is growing on me.