Saturday, March 11, 2006

Escape from Peru

Last month my wife Nancy and I took a cruise around South America, starting in Buenos Aires and ending up in Lima. I posted a tiny snippet of our adventures over on Xooglers but then decided that a travelogue really wasn't appropriate over there. So here is the rest of the story, just in case anyone was wondering.

I'm going to post the rest of the Peru story first even though that happened at the end of the trip.

I have to tell you a couple of things to set the stage for this story. First, I've been to a lot of places. My parents were (and still are) big-time travellers. They were born in what was at the time Palestine, and I was born in Germany, so we took a lot of trips to Europe and the Middle East when I was a kid. One of my earliest memories is being allowed inside the cockpit of an El Al 747 at 40,000 feet over the North Atlantic. I hung out there for half an hour or so gazing in wonder at the cloud deck far below. I am deeply saddened that no child will ever again have that experience, at least not for a very, very long time. We also toured all over the United States. I don't specifically remember it, but my parents are fond of recounting how one of the few times they were able to get me to sit still was driving across the Arizona desert in an unairconditioned Volkswagen squareback. It was just too hot to move.

So I've been to a lot of places. I've been to beautiful places, and I've been to ugly places, rich places and poor places, cities and wilderness. But the most beautiful place I have ever seen is Peru.

It is also the ugliest. But first things first.

Machu Pichu is just beyond words. You have to experience it to appreciate it. I'd read about it and seen lots of photos, but no third-hand fascimile can even begin to do the place justice, so I won't even try. I will tell you a few things that you'll need to know to appreciate the experience though.

The only way to get to Machu Pichu is by train from Cuzco, which is a fascinating place in and of itself. If you ever go (and you really should) plan to spend at least one full day in Cuzco, one full day at Machu Pichu, and one full day at Aguas Callientes, which is the little town at the base of Machu Pichu where the train drops you off.

(Aguas Callientes, as one might imagine, is so-called because there is a hot-spring where you can go swimming. The road to the hot spring is lined with little stores that rent towels and bathing suits. Unfortunately, the packaged tour we were on didn't allow for a full day in A.C. so the ticket booth at the end of the row of shops is as far as I got.)

From A.C. a shuttle bus takes you up a onee-lane dirt road which traces out a gut-wrenching series of switchbacks to the Sanctuary Lodge, which is the only structure on top of Machu Pichu besides the Inca ruins themselves. From there you have to walk a few hundred yards to enter the ruins.

Go to Machu Pichu while you can still walk. It is literally impossible to see it any other way. One of the members of our tour had had a bad recorvery from knee surgery and couldn't walk the few hundred yards it takes to get to the ruins. He went all the way to Machu Pichu but was never actually able to lay eyes on the place. It was heartbreaking.

Like I said, Machu Pichu itself (the name actually refers to the mountain where the Inca ruins lie, not the ruins themselves) is the most beautiful place I have ever been to. Zermat is like Gatlinburg next to Machu Pichu. And it's not just the surroundings, it's the Inca ruins themselves. Nothing prepared me for the scale of the place. It's simply enormous, and the Inca trail, still in very good repair after hundreds of years of neglect, stretches all the way back to Cuzco and beyond. The Incas give new meaning to the term rock-solid. I walked many miles through the ruins and along the trail and not once did I encounter so much as a loose stone.

On the shuttle ride up the mountain your bus will very likely stop to pick up a Peruvian kid dressed in traditional costume. The point of this will become apparent on your way down: these kids are called "goodbye boys" and what they do is put on a little bit of street theatre (or dirt-road thatre) by racing the bus down the mountain and magically appearing at every other switchback to bid the tourists goodbye. The wave and call out "Aaaadiiioooosss goooooood byyyyyyeeee" and something in the traditional Inca language that I can't recall. At the bottom they board the bus to pose for photos and collect tips. It's hard work. Some of those kids have to have some wicked shin splints.

Back in A.C. we had an hour before our train left and I wandered around town a bit. It's a very safe place in part because the place is crawling with a special security force designed specifically to protect tourists. They are very discreet, but once you notice them you realize that they are absolutely everywhere. This could be the reason that, although street hustlers and vendors giving you the hard sell (sometimes a very hard sell) are ubiquitous in Peru, we saw very few actual beggars, despite some pretty crushing poverty (about which more later). Everyone has at least an ostensible trade, even if it is nothing more than standing around hustling for tips to have your photo taken with a llama.

(This is not to say that there are no heartbreaking scenes. One little girl of about seven years old dressed in traditional costume had a perpetual smile on her face as she walked around asking, "Photo? Photo?" But as I watched her from the bus I saw the smile crack a bit when she thought no one was looking. Her parents were nowhere to be seen.)

Anyway, we got on the train, got back to Cuzco, back to our hotel (the Monestario, which is interesting because it is the only hotel in the world that pipes oxygen into the rooms to help guests suffering from altitude sickness), and crashed in preparation for a 5 AM wakeup call the next day. Our plane was supposed to leave at 7:30, but as you already know, it was solid overcast and heavy rain and the airport was closed. We hung out waiting for a break in the weather, watching as one flight after another was cancelled, the crowds at the airport grew, and places to sit became harder and harder to find.

I found a wireless internet connection, but it didn't seem to work (no DHCP) so I went up to the counter to ask how to use it and was told that it wasn't working. I thought for a moment that I might be able to help them fix it, that maybe all it needed was to have their router's DHCP server turned on, but I decided that the language barrier (they spoke no English and my Spanish is rudimentary at best) was too great to overcome on a matter like this. But having nothing better to do I decided to try to see if I could hack it. Without going into too many boring details, I succeeded after only about five minutes. Not only did I have wireless Internet at the airport, but it was free! Except for being stuck in the middle of nowhere in a third-world country, I was in hog heaven. The first thing I did was check the weather in Cuzco, and it did not look good. They were predicting two days of solid rain, which seemed plausible given the situation on the ground: no wind. Apparently a stationary front had parked itself over Cuzco and wasn't going anywhere any time soon.

Finally at about one (six hours and three cycles through the check in line after we had arrived at the airport) our guide decided it was time to give up and wait until the next day. This was really bad news for us because it would mean that we would miss our flight back to the U.S., which left at 7 AM the following day.

Then, just as we were assembling to get on our shuttle bus back to the hotel, the rain stopped, and the clouds began to lift. The airport was still closed and bursting at the seams with people trying to get the hell out of dodge, but it was starting to look like we just might be able to make it. Two options eventually presented themselves. Our tour company had booked us on a flight scheduled to depart at 5 PM, four hours later, and our friend Tom had called his travel agent back in Santa Barbara who had somehow managed to snarf the last four seats on a 2:30 departure to Lima with (we thought at the time) two stops. The 5:00 flight was direct and we'd be able to stay with the group, but I've had too much experience with mountain weather turning on a dime and the stakes were too high not to go with the bird in the hand.

Until the day I die I will sing the praises of Lima Tours. If you ever go to Peru, hire them. They were just absolutely terrific. Somehow, a second guide magically appeared just to sheperd the four of us (me, Tom, and our two spouses) through the check-in process for our 2:30 flight, and it was a really good thing too. We almost missed the flight. It took literally an hour to get us checked in because we had to upgrade our tickets and pay a surcharge to take the earlier flight. This turned out to be a major production because we didn't have enough cash in our pockets to cover the cost and had to pay with a credit card. The infrastructure for taking credit cards is not as well established in Peru as it is in the U.S. and Europe, and it often involves a lot of manual processing, phone calls, and filling out of forms. (One of our fellow tourists told us about one poor shopkeeper who had to use a pay phone to try to call the credit card company to verify that the card wasn't stolen. After half an hour or so she finally just gave up and helplessly conceded that she would just have to trust them.)

I'll spare you all the gory details. Suffice it to say we made it to Lima.

A more shocking contrast I have never experienced. Not twenty-four hours earlier we had been in Machu Pichu, surely the most beautiful place I have ever seen. And Lima is just as surely the ugliest. It hit us as soon as the plane touched the ground and they start piping in non-recycled air from the outside. There was a stench that I can only describe as a mix of rotten eggs and raw sewage. Like the rest of the coastal desert on which Lima is built, it never rains here. And I don't mean that it never rains like it never rains in LA. It really honest to god never rains in Lima. Ever. (Well, that's not quite true. It rained for an hour or so about thirty years ago. The locals still talk about it.)

Lima is perpetually enveloped in a fetid haze ranging from a tropical humidity in the summer (it's only 12 degrees south of the equator) to a drizzly mist in the winter. Throw in eight million people and their non-emission-controlled diesel-powered vehicles, their untreated sewage, their unburied trash, and an admixture of God only knows what, and you have Lima. Or at least you have the air in Lima. The city itself is a whole nuther thing entirely.

Because it never rains, roofs are a luxury, not a necessity, and very few Limaians can aford them. Driving out of the airport there is nothing but mile after mile after mile of raw cinder block buildings with no roofs, and there is no doubt that these are not abandoned buildings because every one of them has a clothes line full of laundry. And all this is bathed in a murky soup of diesel exhaust, humidity, and whatnot.

Even when you get to the beach there is no letup. Physically it looks a lot like the California coast, with beaches backed up by cliffs that look as if they'd come down in a good rain, except that California's cliffs are regularly subjected to such tests whereas Lima's never are. There are people on the beaches, but they are not sunbathers because the beaches are used as landfills. The people are either dumping trash, or picking through it. After the trash dumps there is actually a section of beach that is used by surfers, but even there the water roils under a thick layer of brown foam.

It is the ugliest thing I have ever seen. It is heart-wrenchingly ugly.

I will never understand how Limaians keep themselves from sinking into a morass of despair (I surely would if I had to live there) but they don't. Without exception everyone we met was cheerful and friendly and, as far as I could tell, working hard to make their city a better place. (I am also sure that there are nice parts of Lima that we didn't get to see because we spent all day just trying to get there. I am equally certain that none of those nice places are near the airport.)

Of course, we rich Americans were whisked through all the blight to Miraflores, the Riviera of Peru. Our tour company put us up in a five-star hotel, world-class in every respect, from the sweeping curved staircase in the marble-floored lobby, to the the granite slab countertops in the bathrooms, to the huge pool table in the cherry-clad walls of the lounge. The contrast with the world we had driven through to get there was jarring.

We had a restful if short night, and I am writing this on our flight to Miami. Ironically, the Peruvian plane we took from Cuzco to Lima was much nicer than the American plane we are now on to Miami. The LAN plane was a sparkling new Airbus A320. This AA plane is a leaky old Boeing 757. (I mean that literally. Among other problems, there is something dripping from one of the overhead bins.)

I have never been so glad to leave a place (twice). As we took off, Nancy and I jokingly called out "Aaaaaadiiiooooos Lima, goooodbyyyyeeee Peru..."

But we both left a little piece of our hearts on Machu Picchu.

1 comment:

Alberto said...

I'm Alberto, from Lima (Peru). You're right Lima is not a very nice place. It has a lot of nice places, but it's a city with a lot of contrasts. Poor zones next to "firts world" ones.
When you live here yo sometimes forget about that (you kind of "get use to it"). And that's terrible.
Although, you're also right when you say we are cheerful and friendly people.
About Machu Picchu, it's really great, but there are other places in Peru that are equally great (I know, you are going to say that's imposible, but is true... I'll try to send you some information).