Wendy and Nils

Peru Story

     In February of 2008 Congress and George Bush passed the Economic Stimulus Package, which allowed the federal government to send my wife (Wendy) and I a large sum of money, in the form of a check, for no particular reason.  It seemed we were undeserving considering that fact that we had zero tax liability the prior year, but after a bit of research, I decided not to complain.  A quick Google search allowed me to get the facts on how much income tax liability the wealthiest taxpayers in the United States owe each year, and it seems any half-baked lawyer can get them into the zero percent tax bracket after a few loopholes and deductions, and they were still receiving their stimulus checks.  Guilty conscience aside, we decided to travel to a foreign country to make sure that the United States Government got none of the money back that they had sent us.  Flights to Peru were only $699, so we decided Machu Picchu would be our destination.

     Preparations for a trip of this caliber can be overwhelming to say the least.  Aside from the typical logistics of travel, we needed to get vaccines and immunizations, learn to speak Spanish, and prepare for an unguided high altitude hike thru the Andes.  The cost of my visit to the travel clinic was about the same as the cost of the flight from Boston to Lima, and I even opted out of a few essential treatments.  To stay healthy I would just hold my breath when I was near people who looked sick.  I would also avoid eating exotic animals and I planned to drink beer instead of water.  I knew learning Spanish from my Pimsleur book would provide me with far too many useless generic phrases, so to learn swear words, I watched dirty movies with the Spanish sub-titles turned on.  To prepare for hiking in high altitudes, I just held my breath a lot.

     One convenience of traveling to Peru is that you do not change time zones, so we arrived to Lima in the evening with no jet lag.  Jorge Chavez International Airport was unusually crowded and people were cheering and holding up welcome banners.  I figured that their professional soccer team was returning from a World Cup victory or something, but it seems when someone you know flies home you greet them at the airport like they are a celebrity.  Nobody greeted us, and we had no place to stay, so we found a cozy spot on the floor near the McDonalds in the airport and slept there for the night.

     The next morning our flight left for Cuzco: The only city in the world bold enough to retain their rainbow colored flag even after the Gay Pride Movement hijacked it from the rest of us.  The city and it’s Inca heritage holds a large historical, cultural, and religious significance that I was excited to learn more about, considering that the only relationship I could make to the Incas was that Tupac Shakur, one of my favorite gansta’ rappers, was named after an Inca leader, Tupac Amaru, who waged a semi-successful rebellion against the Spanish Conquistadores.  Our arrival to Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cuzco reminded me of a trip to Nepal that I had never taken.  The surrounding mountains were huge and I practically remember the airport having dirt floors.  Arriving passengers are funneled to a third world style marketplace were they can buy anything from alpaca clothing to climbing gear and oxygen.  Cuzco’s premier Peruvian Flute Ensemble was performing at baggage claim.  Our hostel “The Hostal Corihuasi” arranged a ride for us, but I was hesitant to accept it knowing they (those operating the shuttle) often spend the whole afternoon trying to sell you tours etc. Fortunately they didn’t speak English very well, so they didn’t try to sell us anything, and they just brought us to our hotel.  When we arrived, an energetic excited hard-working man about half my size picked up all of our bags at once and brought them to our room while simultaneously seating us in the hotel restaurant and serving us coca tea which he obviously had too much of for himself.  I was excited to drink cocaine, considering that I had never involved myself with the drug because of the dangerous fatal effect it had so many people I personally knew.  To finally be able to get it in an unpurified non-chemically altered state seemed much safer to me.  Its effect on us was the opposite than we expected.  It made us tired!!  The hyper-very-friendly man who helped us upon our arrival recommended that we go to our rooms after finishing our drinks and get some rest.  After confirming that the toilet flushed in the opposite direction (counter-clockwise) we slept for a few hours, then we woke up to a cloudy day and toured the city and it’s museums for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

     Good weather arrived the next morning while we toured Cuzco and the surrounding area.  We stumbled upon a farmers market that sold dead pig heads and other animal body parts that were left un-refrigerated.  A man there was selling an item that drew a large crowd of onlookers…. Can you guess what he was presenting to the audience??  Yeah… A cheese grater!!  Not an automatic food processor or anything, just a manually operated cheese grater!!  We stocked up on some coca toffee for our trek through the Andes and hiked up to some nearby ruins called Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy-woman).  Near the ruins is a statue of Jesus with his arms spread.  The proximity of the Inca ruins to a Christian landmark combined with a sexy-woman was a bit confusing but also exciting.  In town, we visited many of the old churches built by the Spanish.  We marveled at the beautiful architecture and artwork found at those sites.  It was ironic to find that most of the churches were built upon the original foundations of Inca temples.  That night we ate at a tourist restaurant that hosted an excellent Peruvian band who were accompanied by an entourage of women dancing and kicking their legs in the air until you could see their panties making me feel as though I was watching a live photo shoot for a Victoria Secret catalogue.

     We woke up very early the next morning in order to allow us enough time to make decent progress on our hike thru the Andes Mountain Range to Machu Picchu.  We took a high-speed taxi from Cuzco to Mollepata with a taxi driver who apparently had dreams of someday becoming a famous stock car driver.  We drove on every side of the road and picked up as many local travelers as we could fit in the car.  Our planned route had us hiking on the Salkantay Trail.  The Peruvian government recently started charging tourists a fee of $40 per a person to access the Salkantay Route, but our taxi driver told us about a secret bypass trail that would allow us to avoid the fee station.  As a side note, I have to mention here that English is not really an international language.  All conversations in Peru are done in Spanish and our trip at times felt like an extensive course in the Spanish language.  By the end of each day, I needed to rest just because I was so confused from speaking Spanish all day.  Now our taxi driver told us the directions to the secret bypass trail in Spanish under noisy driving conditions, so I wasn’t completely confident that I knew where I was going, but I figured getting lost in Peru would just add to the excitement so we aimlessly continued on.

     We had some conflicting maps of the area and a GPS unit with a topographical map that marked the Salkantay Trail.  This gave us the confidence we needed to do this hike without a guide.  I called my cousin Jesse a few weeks before heading to Peru and he mentioned he had made it to Machu Picchu using poor maps and no GPS, so we figured we were at least better off than he was.  We also asked everyone we saw if we were heading in the right direction, and they were all very helpful so we managed our way without getting lost too many times.

     All we did for the next four days was wake up – hike – sleep.  Our only breaks were to filter water with our broken water purifier.  The first day of the hike was on a dirt road strewn with puddles of horse piss and piles of donkey shit.  We had about ten local vehicles and tour busses pass us on our trek that day.  We wondered what the point was of hiking this portion of the trail when we could have just taken a bus.  Lots of men guiding packhorses used the trail, so we weren’t alone.  We didn’t see many other trekking tourist groups along the way, although we were following the itineraries that they posted on their websites.  Apparently we camped that evening near a sick or dying farm animal because he/she moaned all night.  Fortunately we were extremely tired from our hike, so we slept without any issue.

     The next day we hiked to the highest point of our trek to an altitude of 15,420 feet.  It was absolutely treacherous.  Hiking at that altitude makes no sense, especially with all your supplies on your back.  I was blue from lack of oxygen.  My whole body was numb.  I had an extremely painful nitrous whip-it headache.  My stomach was in constant puke mode.  At one point, a few locals watched us with deep concern as they worried we would need to be rescued during our ascent.  We were in horrible condition and Wendy seriously considered turning around.  It was surreal to see a bunch of Japanese tourist who helicopter-ed to this pristine high altitude location so they could sleep in their heated tents and suck on oxygen.  Aside from the pain of high altitude hiking, the view was out of this world.  We were in the heart of the Andes Mountain Range.  You could hear the glaciers bending and breaking on the nearby mountains.  The sky was dark with a hint of blue almost like we were in outer space.  It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to, but I was also in the most pain I had ever intentionally inflicted upon myself.  This made for a serious clash of sensations.  In any case, our descent brought me pure joy, as I realized we were not going to die.  The geography changed dramatically as we entered the “Cloud Forest”.  This side of the pass was not as sunny.  It was a completely different environment than where we had been hiking the prior day.  The lifestyle of the villagers was brought down to the lowest rural level I’ve ever seen.  The connection that the people in this area of Peru have to the land and life’s spirituality was very apparent and it’s something to covet.  It’s tempting to leave the greedy luxuries of United States to live in a place where there is a better understanding to the point of life.  We spent that evening camped on a big pile of cow shit or as Wendy lightly put it “cow apples” in a valley reminiscent of Jurassic Park.

     I did not eat anything and lost ten pounds during the hike.  We brought processed food from home, peanut butter sandwiches, and tuna fish.  None of it sounded appealing mostly because the altitude sickness had ruined my desire to eat anything.  I continued hiking nonetheless, and considered it a cleansing experience, whatever the hell that means.  We hiked thru the jungle and across a few sketchy suspension bridges.  We got lost a few times, but we always crossed paths with a local person who was helpful enough to guide us in the right direction.  That afternoon we encountered two very young girls on their way home from school.  This confirmed that the schoolchildren in Peru really do walk two hours each way to and from school everyday.  They asked us how our day was and they offered us some flowers that they had picked.  I told them the flowers reminded me of Hawaii and then I remembered that Wendy had brought a few finger-puppets that she purchased at Whirlygigs to give to some of the local children so we exchanged gifts and said goodbye.  For some reason that experience seemed to perfect to be true.  The end of our day brought us to the town of La Playa were most trekking tour companies spend the last evening of their hike before heading to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu.  We saw almost no tourists on our whole hike, but this town was full of them.  It was exciting, like a spring break beach party with girls gone wild and everything.  We decided to keep to ourselves and hiked an extra half hour.  We slept on the side of a mountain road with cars driving past us all night in a much more peaceful place than La Playa.

     We were a bit concerned about losing our way on this last day of the hike, so we made an extra effort to tag along with the tour groups.  On this day we got our first view of Machu Picchu as we sat at the ledge of a nearby mountain.  I was tempted to celebrate by rolling up big fat joint and smoking it, but I don’t really smoke pot anymore, and I didn’t have any herb anyway.  Our trek ended at a train station that services the employees of a Hydro-Electric plant.  We got a plate of veggies and rice at the local market.  It was the best Peruvian dish of the whole trip and it only cost a dollar.  The train was three hours late, as you can expected in a third world country, so we had plenty of time to hang around and watch the locals.  We also made friends with members of a tour group that we had followed to the train station to avoid getting lost, so it was interesting to see how the trek went from their perspective, and it was nice to speak English to some people other than each other for a while.

     Aguas Calientes is a beautiful tourist town with cobblestone roads and no cars.  We stayed at a fancy hotel.  Our room had it’s own personal hot tub, which was more a like a warm tub, but it we didn’t care considering we were covered in four days of dirt, horse piss, and cow shit.  The atmosphere at the restaurants in town was amazing and the food was good, but I found it difficult to eat considering that my stomach was still atrophied.  I could barely even drink my first beer of the trip (I didn’t drink any alcohol yet in Peru because it dehydrates you and makes you more susceptible to altitude sickness).  A funny thing about dining in Aguas Calientes was that you could negotiate with the managers at the restaurants to decide on a fair price to be charged for dinner.

     Most tour groups go to Machu Picchu in the early morning to experience the hippie meditative sunrise of the Inca spirits over the soul of the earth… blah…blah… blah…blah… blah.  That’s what they tell you, but I noticed the mornings were usually cloudy and wet, so I think they just get you up to the ruins in the morning so they can shuffle you out of the area on the afternoon train and avoid having to pay for another nights stay in the more expensive town of Aguas Calientes.  Instead we decided to get some much-needed rest and take the late bus up to the ruins.  The location of the ticket office to enter Machu Picchu is a bigger mystery than the ruins themselves, so we didn’t get into the park until twenty minutes after our arrival.  Apparently, almost everyone who visits Peru purchases generic all inclusive travel tours, so it is very uncommon to have someone want to buy tickets to Machu Picchu on location.  In any case, our day at the ruins was incredible.  We hiked to the nearby Intipunku ruins and spent much of the day lounging around the main area of the park.  My co-worker Rich had done a high school project on Machu Picchu, and he explained how accurate the stones that were used for the buildings were cut.  We constantly noted the amazing construction that was applied to design of the original city, but it wasn’t until we read a book at our hotel the next day that we realized the significance of many of the structures at the ruins.  The ten-minute bus ride back to town was $20, so we hiked back through a jungle trail, which was really cool, and stayed at a small family run hostel in town.

     We took the train the next morning to a nearby town in the Sacred Valley called Ollantaytambo.  When we arrived to our bed and breakfast “El Albergue” the owner offered us some “snot fruit”.  It felt like snot, but it didn’t taste anything like boogers or snot.  It was sweet with crunchy yummy seeds.  Looking back at Mount Salkantay from Ollantaytambo and realizing that we had hiked around in those mountains helped put things into perspective.  It was incredible.  The ruins around Ollantaytambo were some of the oldest we would visit.  Because of the dry surroundings, I got an especially Middle Eastern vibe from those ruins.  Most visitors don’t spend the night in Ollantaytambo, so the town is overwhelmed with tour buses and their diesel fumes, but I still had a headache from my altitude sickness, so the exhaust didn’t seem to bother me too much. 

     The next day we caught a taxi to Cuzco.  I pre-paid the driver so he could fill up on gas, but a couple of miles into our forty-mile drive his car broke down.  He got out of his car to fix it and actually hit the engine with a rock in hopes of getting the car to run properly.  I would have been really impressed if that Inca trick worked, but it didn’t.  Even though I pre-paid I somehow knew we weren’t going to get ripped off.  Our driver limped his car to the next town and paid another taxi driver about half of what we gave him to take us thirty-five miles to Cuzco.  We got dropped off in a poor neighborhood of Cuzco, but it was still notably safer than many areas of Boston.  We checked into our room at the Orquidea Hostal, which had a spectacular view of the city, and we spent one more day relaxing in Cuzco.  Our hostel was located in San Blas, an especially high-end tourist area of Cuzco that we decided to avoid for much of the day because of its inauthentic atmosphere.  We ate lunch near the Plaza San Francisco and noticed an unusually large number of vendors on foot.  Then we noticed a tourist bus.  Then the tourist bus drove off, and the street vendors disappeared.  There was definitely a pattern to how the street vendors worked.  The men that sold artwork had the most interesting system.  They would tell you that they were students of art at the local University in Cuzco and that they painted the pictures they were attempting to sell.  All the paintings had the same themes and style.  My theory has a brutal underground Peruvian mafia controlling this section of the tourist market.  They hire children or women to paint the pictures in an assembly line fashion.  The low quality productions are sent out with the less experienced salesmen.  The higher quality paintings are sent out with the more experienced salesmen.  The story about them attending college is untrue.  The Peruvian mafia obviously gets a large cut of all the profits.  There are probably some drugs and prostitution mixed in there somewhere, just to make the story more disconcerting.  In any case, that evening we finally broke down and ate a guinea pig, eyeballs, toenails, and everything.  I should have avoided that little rodent, because I felt like it trying to escape from my stomach the next day.

     We flew to Lima in the morning the following day.  We had a twelve-hour layover, so our plan was to visit some of the tourist attractions in the city.  I had guinea pig-ititus, so I didn’t feel confident that I could go anywhere far from a toilet.  Then I miraculously felt better and we made our way to the beach.  Lima was a completely different world.  The traffic was insane.  Every time our taxi driver passed a cop car he cursed to himself and started putting on his seat belt.  It seems Lima has a seat belt law that is strictly enforced.  Actually the seat belt law appears to be the only traffic violation that is enforced considering the chaos on the roads of Lima.  We went to a beach section of Lima called Miraflores.  It is a very nice safe section of the city with a beachside walking trail as well maintained as anything we’d have in America.  The waves were big, and you could rent surfboards and wetsuits on site.  I wasn’t confident that my illness was completely gone, so I opted out of a surf adventure.  We me a local surfer named Marco who lived in the United States long enough to get citizenship only to move back to Lima.  He gave us a really good idea of what life in Lima is like for the average person.  He described the bureaucratic confusion that you would encounter if you wanted to get any government services, he told us about the surf scene in Peru, he warned us that many places in the city were not safe, and he openly expressed his dislike for black people.  We ate lunch at La Rosa Nautica, one of the finest restaurants in Lima located on a pier with a wonderful ocean view.  Because the clientele is so upscale at this particular restaurant, the only taxis were in the parking lot were limousines, so our ride back to the airport was deluxe. 

     Our experience in the airport at customs was nuts.  Everything was rolling along fine; we were next in line and then… nothing.  It seems the computers shut down and they couldn’t let anyone thru.  There was over a thousand people behind us with scheduled flights and everyone was freaking out.  They started opening up random entry points and people started scattering to get thru the checkpoint.  They did delay our flight, so nobody was going to miss it because of the breach in customs security, but it reminded us how messed up things are in foreign countries.  When we landed in New Jersey, we were very happy to be back in America.  That fuzzy happiness only lasted a few hours.  When we boarded the Silver Line to return to our parked car, I was immediately reminded of the gluttonous American excess, as almost everyone on the bus/train was obese and had more luggage than they could figure out how to carry.  After visiting some of the most renowned historic sites in the world, eating at the finest restaurants in Peru, and hiking through the most majestic place on earth in the Andes Mountains, I realized I had learned my biggest lesson from the simplest place…  The people of Peru.  They live within their means in what we consider to be poverty, but they appear to be much less impoverished than us.  They maintain a strong spiritual connection between themselves and others, which directs them to many positive traits.  They are helpful and care about uniting their community not dividing it.  They are humble, tolerant, respectful, generous, etc...etc...etc...  This experience made me want to continue to travel the world not to see any phenomenon’s of nature or any man-made wonders, but to meet people from different places, to understand their point of view and adopt the positive values that they have, thus making myself a better person.

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