Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hare Krishna and Sapa Inca

Tuesday July 5th Cusco - Afternoon and Evening

There is supposed to be a car waiting to take me from the airport to the hostel, but there isn’t. So I turn to one of the million drivers who swarm the entrance and say, “Taxi? Taxi? Señorita, taxi?” and talk him down from 30 soles to 25 which still seems like a lot to me. But I remind myself that I would have paid 16 soles for the hostel’s transport and I’d saved at least twenty soles by taking the bus to the airport that morning. I also remember that 25 soles is really only about 9 dollars and then it doesn’t hurt as much. I’m cheap, what can I say. Or perhaps, I should say I’m thrifty. I’d better watch my language in this place. These boys get all kinds of ideas.

The sky is brilliantly blue. The sun burns hot and something stronger than joy fills me up full. I try to see everything, breath the place in, memorize it all while the cabbie drives. It’s like love at first sight. Me and Cusco. The beauty, the mountains, the lack of humidity, the elevated air, it reminds me of home—of Colorado.
The cabbie drops me off at The Flying Dog Hostal and I get marked in on the sign-in sheet. Right away I book a trip to Machu Picchu. I’ve arrived just in time for the 100 Year Anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s scientific discovery of Machu Picchu and Thursday the 7th’s trips there are by invitation only and I don’t want to miss out on a chance to go on another day by not booking in time. I get it squared away and then Wilson shows me up to my room.
I’m sharing a dorm room. It has two single beds and a bunk bed. Wilson tells me that one of the beds is already taken by an Australian named Pete but I can have the choice of any of the others, so I snag the bottom bunk bed.

I throw my stuff on the bed and head downstairs. I’d read that it’s advisable to take it easy on arriving in Cusco because the elevation is 11,000 feet. I’m not a total altitude newbie, but I have been at sea level for the past two months and don’t want to get sick. The hostel has coca leaves to chew on and mate de coca (tea) to drink. The coca is supposed to help ward off the mal effects of altitude sickness. I ask the girl who’s working in the kitchen about the proper way to use the leaves. She tells me to chew them and then hold them in my cheek for an hour or so without swallowing them. Like chewing tobacco, I think. Not that I have personal experience with that of course. I stick some leaves in my mouth and walk out the door.

I’m on Choque Chaca street heading downhill toward a cross road that’ll take me to the Plaza de Armas. Above me, an Incan flag flies from a balcony showing all the colors of the rainbow. A strange cat like creature with chalked pink eyes gives me not a thought as I pass. Shops line the street. I gaze through windows. I stop in at one that sells art of the Nasca hieroglyphics. I get to talking to the lady who is tending the store. She tells me that I just missed the worst and coldest weather they’d had in ten years. Rain like you wouldn’t believe and “un viento helado (a freezing wind)” she says pulling her calf-length coat more closely around her. I admire the artwork, remind myself I don’t want to acquire more possessions, finish up our conversation and go out into the sun.  

The streets are packed with vendors. They’re selling jewelry, clothing, postcards, artwork, knickknacks, snacks and treats. A girl reaches out a flier to me and asks, “Massage? Manicure? Pedicure?” Her name is written on the card and I assume she must get some kind of commission. She tries to steer me right in to the parlor. “No, thank you,” I say. Another two steps later another girl asks me, “Massage? Manicure? Pedicure?”  Another three steps and another girl puts a flier in my hands and asks the same thing.
Others are selling the rights to have a picture taken with them in their native garb; girls in colorful wraps and with lambs in their arms, women in bright skirts and hats. A man dressed up like an Incan King hands a tourist his golden scepter and poses for the photograph. A wizened, crumpled older Cusceña sits against the wall with her hat at her side gazing at me with doleful, imploring eyes. Begging for a sol or two.

The Plaza de Armas is a pretty square surrounded by shops and blocky, impressive churches. The Spanish influence hit Cusco with a heavy hand. Despite that, the Cusqueñas still relate to their Incan ancestry. A statue of Pachacuti, the ninth Sapa Inca, stands proud and golden in the middle of the square.
I walk the steps in front of the Cathedral. Two guys see me and head my way.

Dreadlock boy and his friend
Want to weave my hair
A special price for you they say
“Everyone always says that,” I reply with a slight roll of my eyes
I laugh at them
They laugh along
I tell them I’m not going to buy a weave
They feel my hair
Touch it
“No, but for real,” they say. “For you a special price.”
“How special?” I ask.
“Fifty soles,” dreadlock boy says.
You’ve got to be out of your mind, I tell them in so many words.
Dreadlock boy shows me my hair. “Because it’s so long. Come on, a memory of Cusco for you to keep.”

All along the square it’s like that. I take some pictures, say no thanks to a million different offers and then head down the way looking for a place to eat. Down another street there’s a sign advertising vegetarian food so I go through the opening and into the store and then back into the restaurant.
 It’s a Hare Krishna restaurant and worship place and while I’m waiting for my bowl of quinoa soup I take some pictures of the banners of the gods to send to my dad since he and I and my mom had been to Kalachandji’s, the Hare Krishna restaurant and temple in Dallas, numerous times and I feel it’s a fun connection between us.
The guy who brings my food asks me if I’m a Hare Krishna because I’d taken pictures. He sits down and talks with me for hours about Karma and Krishna and consciousness and love and peace and reincarnation. His Krishna name is Vamsi. While we’re talking he gives me a loaf of bread that he’d baked. “Even this,” he tells me, “is Karma. This interaction this talking, everything we do.”

A little bit later he brings me a plate of sautéed vegetables and rice. Then a little later a cup of tea. When I get up to go he tells his coworkers he’s going out for a while and walks with me. I ask him all about his path to Krishna, about his bread baking business and about his life. He shows me another Krishna shop just around the corner and invites me to come to a Fire Ceremony the following Sunday. At some point we part ways and I go back to the hostel.
It’s dark. I glance at my watch and it says 4:18. Holy smokes, I think. It’s dark super early here. Then I realize my cheap dollar watch is no longer keeping proper time and has fallen at least two hours behind. I go up to the third floor and sit in the reading chair and stare out at the night view of Cusco to collect my thoughts and relax for a moment after the travel and activity of the day. Some time later I head back down to my room.
A church sketcher in the Plaza
Pete and I have another roommate, Juan Jose from Columbia. He’s full of life. I can see it right away in his eyes and in his smile. Through whatever magic there is in the world he and I are instant friends. We exchange the usual “what is your name” “where are you from”s and then he grabs his things and heads to the bathroom. “All day on a bus,” he tells me. “It’ll be nice to clean the road off.” Pete is getting his things ready to go. He’s trekking across South America and leaving in the morning for a three day hike to Machu Picchu. He’s got the book Water for Elephants on the edge of his bed and we talk books for a minute.
Our final roommate arrives with about fifteen bags. Maybe three for clothing and then twelve (or a million) plastic bags that he rummages through the entire time he’s here. His name is Carlos and I think he’s a reporter of some kind from Lima. We all make introductions.

Carlos asks Pete where he’s from.
“Brisbane, Australia,” Pete says, “It’s half way up and on the right.”

As we ready to go to sleep Pete asks me if I have a phone with an alarm. His had been stolen and he didn’t want to miss his trip to Machu Picchu. I set the alarm for him and hand it over.

“Does it work? Is it set for the right time?” he asks.
Suddenly paranoid I take my phone back and double check. It’s freezing cold in the room. I slide under the covers and consider asking if either Pete or Juan Jose (or both) would like company for the warmth. I pass out into a chilled and light sleep afraid that my alarm won’t go off.

All through the night while I’m dreaming of who knows what and in the background is the constant noise, like a strange sort of lullaby, from Carlos sorting through his bags.
Since Pete has my phone and my cheap dollar watch died I have no way to check the time when I wake up. The sunlight oozes in underneath the red curtains and I panic because I don’t know what time sunrise is. I sneak out of bed and go find a clock. It’s 6:20. Whew. Pete had requested a 6:40 wake up call. I breathe a sigh of relief and lie in bed waiting for my phone to go off.

Pete must have been set to an internal clock too or I woke him when I got up because he gets up a few minutes before the alarm. “Here,” I whisper, “hand it over and I’ll turn it off. Good luck, have fun.”
“Maybe I’ll see you Friday at Machu Picchu,” he tells me. “I’ll look for your books too when you’re published.”

I stay in bed another half an hour and then unable to fall back to sleep I get up and go look for my next adventure.


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