Despite my misgivings about booking an itinerary that went Los Angeles – Panama City – Lima – Cuzco, all three flights departed perfectly on time and I could not have hoped for smoother travels. The Panama City airport had stellar free wifi and Lima’s what seemed like an excessive amount of people (second only to Guatemala City in my experience of airport crowds). The taxi driver who met me at the Cuzco airport didn’t speak English so we spoke the whole way to the hotel in Spanish, and I think he told me to go to a different market than the ones around Plaza del Armas to get better prices. And I think we also had a conversation about how old American kids are when they finish high school, but I could be wrong about that. I may have told him that students in the U.S. finish college at 17. Oops. Now he’ll think we’re all savants.
The hotel where we’re staying could not be more charming. Behind a big iron door is a reception desk and a sitting area with a fireplace and armchairs, and beyond that is a three-floor courtyard with rooms that open to the center. I’ve got a single room — one of the perks of organizing the trip — and it’s small and sweet and a little too cold, even with the radiator turned up high. It somehow didn’t register with me that it was winter in Peru and that Cuzco is up at 11,000 feet, or maybe I was listening too much to one of the trekkers who posted online that the daytime temperature in Cuzco was 90. It’s actually more like 60. So I arrived here with a stack of T-shirts, none of which I’ll probably wear. Laurie and Cindy, both from Motherless Daughters of Orange County, got here a few hours before me and I caught up with them in the sitting area where we had a few cups of coca tea to hedge against altitude sickness. Coca tea is basically hot water with a small handful of leaves stuck in it to steep on the spot. It doesn’t taste like much — slightly sweet, a little green. I added some Stevia and that made it more interesting.
Here’s a picture of my teacup:
Laurie is so completely on top of technology on this trip. She has a Sim card on her iPhone and Viber and all sorts of ways to be wired everywhere she goes. I’ve got wifi and Skype. Though I’ll give a shout out for Skype here: when my husband Uzi Skyped me in my hotel room about an hour ago the connection was so clear it sounded like he was in the next room We didn’t try video because I look purely frightening after 17 hours on airplanes.
So, back to the night. After our coca tea by the fireplace, Cathy, Lori and I we walked outside the hotel to explore. The streets are narrow and paved with uneven cobblestones, and the stores and residences are like smooth stretches of plaster with doors opening to the street. It reminds me a little of Antigua, in Guatemala, except with more traffic and more noise. It’s a mix of tourists and locals on the street at night, and the locals seem to be split between indigenous and Western. The indigenous women wear colorful A-line skirts, square hats that look Bolivian in style, and North Face puffy jackets against the cold. It’s a truism about global commerce that wherever you go any more, there are always Toyotas and Starbucks and iPhones. We wandered in and out of some small shops in the alleyways and I bought a red and gray alpaca sweater so I won’t be too cold tonight. Also some alpaca gloves for about $5. We finished the night at a cafe where I had what was possibly the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure it’s even fair to call it a hamburger; it was seasoned ground beef shaped into a disc and fried and put on an enormous grilled bun with lettuce and tomatoes. I will eat this there every night, I think.
Something just happened outside that sounded like a large explosion. Twice. Do I want to know what it was? I think maybe no. First rule of Third World travel: many things will happen that will make no sense. Just go with it.
The rest of the 18 trekkers start arriving tomorrow morning and all should be here by Wednesday afternoon. So tomorrow is a free day to explore Cuzco. I don’t know at what point altitude sickness might make itself known…I don’t have a headache and at 11:30 p.m. I feel neither tired nor restless, but my fingertips were tingling earlier and that’s a mild symptom. I’ll keep drinking the coca tea and hope for the best. And for explosives. Till tomorrow…