Tuesday, July 19, 2011

There and Back Again

Sunday, July 10, 2011 – Calca and Machacancha

I get up at four AM. Two of the boys who work at The Flying Dog and I plan to go to Lares which is about an hour or so outside of Cusco and is rumored to have some really fantastic hot springs. Seven different pools. Nearly boiling hot, they tell me. This sounds pretty great.
“Let’s go,” I’d told them the day before. We have to be up and ready to catch a bus early. So I am. Flying Dog Juan Jose is working the hostel and he’s already there, swimsuit packed and ready. We wait for Flying Dog Wilson. And we wait. We wait some more. The girl who relieves Flying Dog Juan Jose from desk duty arrives. Still no Wilson. He’s not answering his phone. “What do you want to do?” Flying Dog Juan Jose asks me.

“You want to still go?” I ask, enticed by the idea of really really hot water.
He shrugs. So we grab our bags and head out.

We walk for miles. So it seems. I have no idea where we’re going and I hope FD Juan Jose does. The morning air is crisp, cold. I debate pulling out my chullo and looking like a tourist. I tough it out, wrap my arms across my body and walk a little faster.
The streets are lonely, empty of people. At the most unlikely spot, we pass through a gated area and are at the bus station. Flying Dog Juan Jose asks the person in the ticket booth if these buses go to Lares. They don’t. We leave the station and trudge back out.
There’s a taxi pulled up to the side of the road. We ask if he’s going to Calca thinking that if we can get there then we can leg it on to Lares.
Sure enough he’s going that way. “There’s two of us,” Flying Dog Juan Jose tells the cabbie when he sees the back seat already has three grown men seated in it.

The taxi driver encourages us to get in. He wants a full car. One of the men gets into the front seat and Flying Dog Juan Jose and I press ourselves in. We’re scrunched--four adults in the confines of the back seat. I’m grateful that I’m relatively small, but it’s not enough, each time we take a turn (and there are many turns around the mountains of the Sacred Valley) I nearly crush the life out of Flying Dog Juan Jose who is up against the door. I feel a little bit bad for him. Just a bit. At least we’re warm.
We get out at Calca. By now it’s about seven o’clock. The sun is gaining in strength and I’m eager for its warmth. Through another maze of streets we come to the corner where the buses supposedly leave for Lares only to find out that it had left at six and won’t go again until three.

Now what?
Breakfast sounds like a good idea. We almost retrace our steps through Calca to go to the market, but decide to take a taxi right then to Machacancha instead where there are also hot springs. It’s a gorgeous drive. The cabbie has his window down and I’m about half frozen by the time we arrive. We pay three soles a piece to get into the baths and then decide to wait a bit until the food arrives before we hot spring it.  
We take a quick tour inside the bathhouse. I dip my fingers into the water to test out the temperature. To my disappointment they’re not hot, more like lukewarm. Outside again we sit on the trail that leads up the mountain from the bathhouse and wait in the sun.
It’s relaxing. Sunning is one of my favorite pastimes. Flying Dog Juan Jose wants to talk. Not me. I want to block out the trucks that are doing construction on the road behind us
and listen to the water tumble in the stream, to the birds that have been awake as long as me, to the sound of the wind’s hands in the hair of the trees and just exist there for a moment.
I’m in a ruthless thinking mode and I’m a little glad for FDJJ’s sake that I’m limited by my Spanish. It’s the kind of ruthless thinking mode I use when killing off or maiming my fictional characters when I write (I’m sorry, really I am). I may not be sharp tongued per se, but I can be sharp penned for sure. It’s times like these I’m very glad no one can read my thoughts. It’s times like these that are great for writing--just the right kind of wicked mood. The reluctant (on my part) conversation takes an interesting turn and for some reason we discuss what would happen if he died where he sat on the trail. I tell him I’d leave him there and go. I guess I can be ruthless in Spanish after all. It’s a good creepy story premise so I write down, “She left his body there, and went on her way alone.”
I let my mind travel down a fiction trail. I’m sure that line will turn into a short story someday soon and this makes me happy. FDJJ’s further attempts at conversation bring me back to the real world. Our stomachs both growl.
I have a couple snacks in my bag and Flying Dog Juan Jose has an orange. We share our provisions, but they’re scant. About a half hour later the food arrives. A girl, probably all of twelve years old, puts a giant pot on the table before her and sets up shop with bowls and spoons. Unfortunately for me, it’s chicken soup and that’s all there is. I convince FDJJ that I’ll be fine without an immediate breakfast and encourage him to eat up.
When he’s done, we head to the bathhouse.

I’m not really feeling overly excited by the idea of tepid water. But we’re here, so what the hell? I change quickly and submerge myself neck deep in the pool. A bit later FDJJ joins me. There are quite a few people already in the baths with us; a lovey-dovey couple, a grandfather and his granddaughter, some siblings and their friends, a family with their downs-syndrome son, and mothers who strip their babies naked and baptize them with the water without getting in themselves.

I sift through the water searching for the hot spots. Occasionally I find one and stand as still as possible in it until the water circulates around me taking the warmth away with the motion.
All in all, it is relaxing. But after some time I’ve had enough. “You want to get out?” I ask FDJJ. He’s had enough too, so we change into our land clothes and go back outside. I find a good spot in the sun and we sit there for a while just enjoying the day.

Eventually we go out front and take a taxi back to Calca.

I have no idea if Sunday in Calca is any different from the other days, but it seems alive with people. The market is a flurry of busyness. I want to go explore the vegetable and fruit booths, but FDJJ steers me toward the indoor market where he says there is real food. I don’t have the energy to have a “real food” conversation so I follow along.

We go up some stairs and sit at a long booth-table. They’ve got coffee. The girl serves me an empty cup, a small amount of black-thick coffee substance and a vial of hot water. Make it yourself Café Americano! She also finds a small loaf of bread under a pile of I don’t know what after I ask if she has any. “The last one,” she says. Flying Dog Juan Jose gets café con leche. The milk is in a giant pot on a side counter. It was probably milked straight from a real live cow only hours ago.
The FDA would faint over dead if they saw such a place, but I don’t care.
It’s the best coffee I’ve had in my life. The girl serves milk into FDJJ’s mug from a soup ladle. The milk is soapy looking and thick, I want to smell it but refrain from asking. She passes the milk filled mug over.
After that bit of fortifying we go back outside. I think I’m the only foreigner in the entire town. We’re walking past the snake charmer and past the other booths when a little girl runs up behind me, lightly punches me in the back and says something akin to, “boo.” “Boo!” I say back to her. I shake my head, laugh a little and keep on walking. Many Calcans stare at me from under half closed lids, others aren’t as covert about it. They stare at me without smiles, but also without malice. I feel a bit like a celebrity and a bit more like a zoo animal let out for a walk.
The Snake Charmer

The Snake
Staring People
We’re heading back the way we’d come and I’m a little eager to get back to Cusco. It’s been a long and eventful morning. The characters in my head are crowing for attention and I need some quality time alone with them.
Flying Dog Juan Jose and I come up to a door. We stop. I have no clue where we are. He knocks. No answer. He pulls an ID card out of his wallet and tries to slide it under the lock. I’m not sure if we’re breaking into this place or what. Maybe this is the start to my life of crime. (“But, Officer, I was only an accessory to breaking and entering.”) His card gets stuck. He tries to get it out with another card when suddenly the door opens. The door opens to reveal a dark entry area and the silhouetted figure of a man. FDJJ steps over the threshold and I, unsure, step over too.

We walk through the entry way into a sunlit courtyard that sits in the middle of a two storied housing structure. FDJJ and the mystery man talk in the clipped sentences of men who know each other really well.
“This is my brother,” Flying Dog Juan Jose tells me and then he disappears into the house.

“I’ll just wait here then,” I think to myself.
Apparently this is his family’s house, where he grew up. If he told me this sometime earlier during the day I must have been too busy plotting fictional deaths to pay attention. That’ll teach me to stay in the present instead of in my imagination.

“Are you his girlfriend or just his friend?” Antonio asks me.
“Just friends,” I say, knowing that this answer puts me into the Available category. Sigh.

Antonio tells me about his tourism work. It’s a growing industry in Peru. He brings down a map he’s working on for bicycle and trekking tours and points out the routes. We talk there in the courtyard for a long time. I’m afraid that Flying Dog Juan Jose has come home to stay. I’m wavering a little on my feet.   “I think my brother is resting for a bit,” Antonio tells me, “come on upstairs we can talk up there.”
Over the course of the next hour we talk about politics and socialism and world affairs and literature and tourism and Imperialism and democracy and the second amendment. Antonio loves tourists, he loves tourism. I wonder if I’m just another tourist to him. I feel like a tourist specimen in a test tube. I ask him if he’s ever been to the States and he says no. “I’m a little afraid to go.” I ask him why. “From what’s on television it doesn’t seem like Latinos are very well received there. And everyone has guns.”

Ah, TV. How you distort our views of everything.
I try to assure him that every American does not have a six-shooter strapped to their hip. That every neighborhood is not a gangster warzone. That unless you do something to break the law you really have nothing to fear. Then I wonder if that’s really true, the last claim, I mean.

He said he’s never heard such things before.
In the middle of my discussion regarding the right to bear arms and the sadness I feel that we need guns to feel safe from other humans, FDJJ comes in.

He looks at me a little sheepishly. “Sorry, I fell asleep.”
“Sit down,” Antonio tells him. “We’re not done talking yet.”

Oh man.
After hashing ideas out a little more, we wrap things up. I’m exhausted. It’s been an interesting afternoon, but I’m ready to go. We bid farewell to Antonio and to FDJJ’s mom whom I’ve just met and leave.

We make our way across town back towards the taxi station and pass an older man. As he crosses just a foot or so from me he mutters, “Mira lo que me encontre (look what I found).”
“Did you hear what he said?” Flying Dog Juan Jose asks me after the man’s out of earshot.

“Sure,” I say. But to me it was just muttered words.
“It’s the lyrics to a song,” he tells me. He thinks it’s funny. Then so do I.

Look at what I found.

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