Monthly Archives: August 2008

Lima, city of traffic and fog

In the past two weeks I have flown over the desert in a light plane doing steep banks and turns, taken long distance buses on routes prone to plunging mountain cliffs and occassional robbery, and gone hiking through jungles known to house giant spiders and poisionous snakes. At no point was I as concerned for my safety as I was in taxis navigating the traffic of Lima today. Its really wild- it reminds me of visiting Shanghai when I was working in Hong Kong in 98/99, when it was all out of control boom and vehicles seemed to echolocate by constant honking.

That being said, and despite the fact that it was foggy and overcast for the entire day, I had a lovely time today. I started off at the Museo Larco Herrera, which has an outstanding collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. While the whole collection is impressive, the most popular part of the museum is the erotic art gallery that features pottery and sculpture capturing various and sundry sexual scenes. I learned that in ancient times men and women in Peru had sex. Who knew? Gods also apparently had sex with women, people had sex with skeletons and skeletons masturbated. Turns out skeletons are surprisingly well-endowed.

After that I went to the Monasterio de San Francisco, a Franciscan church with extensive catcombs beneath it. Something like 25,000 to 75,000 people are believed to be interred there. And then to Huaca Pucllana, an adobe pyramid smack-dab in the middel of the city that was expanded by successive cultures starting in 200 AD. That was my favorite activity for the day, among other things just for the sheer incongruity of being in an archealogical site and then looking up and seeing city all around.

Huaca Pucllana was on the edge of Miraflores, a well-off coastal neighborhood of Lima, so I took the opportunity to walk through there, ending up at the ocean. Lima, in its urban snarl, is not at all typical of the rest of Peru. Miraflores, in its comfortable affluence, is not at all representative of Lima. Im glad I apporached both at the end of my trip, it would have been very misleading and disorienting to see them at the beginning.

I finished with a very nice dinner on a cliff-side restaraunt in which I finally had the defintive Peruvian specialty dish, ceviche, seafood that is marinated and de facto cooked in lemon juice.

Sitting there looking out over a foogy ocean certainly got me nostalgic for home. Tomorrow morning Im going to the central cathedral, where Pizzaro is buried, and then have an afternoon flight home arriving in San Francisco around midnight. I look forward to returning to you all!

Welcome (and Adios) to the Jungle

Im back in Lima now after four days in the Amazon basin. I could say so many things about those four days that I think Im going to have to stick with highlights like:

– Taking an hour long bus ride from Puerto Maldonado to the port of Infierno (great name, isnt it?) and then going another hour upstream to get to the Explorers Inn Lodge.

– A room with mosquito nets, light only from candles, and a cold shower, which wasnt bad considering that it was around 85 degrees and humid even at midnight.

– Awakening every morning to the sound of Howler Monkeys.

– Getting up for a 10K hike through the jungle that started at 5:30 AM.

– Taking part in a Shamanistic ceremony in a jungle hut.

– Boat cruises at night to spot caiman (think crocodile, only slightly smaller) on the riverbanks.

– Complete darkness and jungle sounds every night.

– Sighting (and sounding) frogs, lizards, tarantulas, butterflies, several species of monkey and more tropical birds than you can name.

– Waking up in the jungle, taking the one hour boat ride and one hour bus ride in reverse, flying to two miles high in the Andes (we had a layover in Cuzco) and then being here by evening in a coastal city of 8 million- how is that even possible?

Speaking of here, 60 degrees and foggy, just like when I left 12 days ago! I guess it is a good way to get reacclimated for a return to San Francisco. I did my first ever proper Lima activity this evening, since on the way in I arrived and then took the the bus out the next morning without seeing anything. Said activity being visiting Chinatown. Which was a lot like any Chinatown anywhere in that it was bustling, had great food and was pervaded with stores crammed full of nick-knacks. One of my favorites was the silicone butt pad, for those looking for a more ample rear. Another highly idiosyncratic feature of this Chinatown was that some of the hottest selling items there, judging by how many stores they appeared in, are Bollywood movies and esoteric books on Yoga, Tarot, magic and the like.

Tomorrow Im going to spend the whole day looking around Lima, and then Im on a flight back on Sunday. So one more update, then Im home!

Cusco, Day IV: spending time with a Sexy Woman

Today was my most tourist day so far. I deliberately spent the morning being mostly lazy. I even browsed in many of the tourist traps shops in this neighborhood! In the name of neighborhood pride, though, I did go visit the Iglesia de San Blas, for which the area is named. Its a great little church and they even had an English audio guide that I could follow along with. It turns out to be the oldest church in Cusco, built in 1569, and was also the Popes favorite when he visitied Cusco back when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. There were a lot of need things there, including an indian Christ on a crucifix with bendable limbs so that they can take him down and parade him around in a giant urn (a la the mummies of Inca kings) during an annual festival, a painting of Mary with coca leaves strewn at her feet, and a carved wooden altar with a skull at the top that is rumored to be from the artist who carved it. Once again bad news for Protestants, as the whole latar was supported on the backs of carved figures of Luther and other Reformation heretics.

In the afternoon I went on my tour, on a bus with 30 or so nice foreigners (50% Spaniards I think, some Germans, a French couple and a smattering of Americans) and our guide Carlos and his flag so that we could keep track of him. The tour went to one site in Cusco, and then headed up in to the hills for a series of four progressively higher Inca ruins.

The first of these was Saqsaywaman, which is pronounced like sack-say-wah-man, but in foriegner speak often ends up coming out “Sexy Woman”. (Shame on all you salacious minds who thought something else- Abbey is the only sexy woman for me). Its on a hill overlooking Cusco and in fact was a key strategic point that the Spanish lost hold of and were nearly annihilated as a result during an uprising after their conquest. Even though only 20% of it remains, that 20% was plenty impressive.

We next went to Qénqo (which doesnt sound like anything amusing), which was a site devoted to astronomical observation and possibly mummification. Seeing the moon in the sky over the stones, and the large stone obelisk that creates a shadow in pre-arranged niches on the walls throughout the year got me all goosebumpy. It really wasn´t out of the question that I might grab a bone and start bashing it while howling, a la 2001.

Fortunately, I instead continued on to Pukapukara, which was a hill station that was one of the relays with shich Inca runners could bring messages (and seafood) from the coast to the mountains in a matter of days. And then we ended up at sunset at Tambomachay, at a whopping 3,765 meters (I hear thats roughly 11,200 feet to you and me). Springs are channeled through stone walls there, part of rites that used to be performed for the departed Inca emporers, with their mummies in attendance. We were advised to splash the water on our faces as it would keep us looking youthful forever, but not to drink it, since we might get diarrahea. Seems like theres always a side effect…

After that the bus wound up at a textile “factory” aka big tourist store, part of the commerical pitch that always gets included somewhere in these package tours. I remember this from Asia too! This was after having guest vendors board the bus between each stop selling their special wares. You have to admire the tenacity of their approach.

So that was my day as an official tourist. Tomorrow Im catching a morning flight to Puerto Maldonado, which is in the jungle near the Bolivian border. From there I´m on a four day jungle tour. I think of this as the downhill portion of my trip, both literally since Illl be back down at a nicely handleable 500 feet, and because all the big long haul extreme legs are over now. Not sure when Ill be able to write again. Well be staying at a lodge, which may have Internet, but then again its in the freaking jungle, so it may not. If now, you´ll hear from me next when Im back in Lima on Friday for the very last leg of the trip. Ill write when I can!

Machu Picchu: Trial by Fire (and mosquitos)

My day began with an “oh shit” at 5:55 AM, at which point I was awake, which was good, but seemed not have gotten up at my alarm going off at 5:15, which was bad in terms of getting to the station in time for the train to Machu Picchu.

I ended up getting out the door in 10 minutes, so I actually departed only 5 minutes later than I intended to, but considerably more flustered. Amazingly, I made it out with everything I really needed. Except sunscreen, on which more later. Some frantic searching for a taxi and a brief ride later I was at San Pedro station at roughly the planned 6:30 to line up for the 6:55 ride. The sene there was a little chaotic, some eople were in line to buy tickets and some had tickets and were in line to get on the train, except both groups were in one line and noone knew where to go.

I did end up on the train though, next to a lesbian osteopath from Vancouver, so all was well. What could not be well with a seatmate like that. Theres roughly a four hair train ride to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of the mountains that hold Machu Picchu. Incredible scenery along much of the way, narrow mountain passes, rushing rivers, that kind of thing. When we finally descended (to an elevation of 6500 feet, which, although high, is way down from Cusco) the landscape was whats known as “cloud forest”, the very lush neo-tropical rainforest feed by the precipitation on the eastern side of the Andes).

Aguas Calientes itself was suprisingly confusing to navigate considering how small it is and that its only purpose in life is to send people to Machu Picchu. Some sweating and panic later I finally found my way to the bus that rumbles up the mountain to Machu Picchu via a series of narrow switchbacks. The stone peaks swathed in green and mist on te top glimpsed along the way served to mellow me out a little. Getting there did the rest.

I wondered how it would hold up, being such a fmailiar image in a lot of ways, but Machu Picchu is extremely impressive in person. And much grander than the pictures convey. As you negotiate the maze of stone walls and buildings, you truly appreciate how big it is and what monumental effort it must have been to construct it there on the side of a mountain. It was a gorgeous sunny day too, with big blue skies streching to mist-capped mountains in the distance.

Therein lay something of a problem given my lack of sunscreen. I tried sticking to the shade at first, only to discover something that I have not seen adequately advertised- Machu Picchu is thick with mosquitos. Every time I got in the shade they{d descend. I think I got 15 bites on my left arm. Fewer on my right, maybe they were thrown off by its constant camera wielding. So back into the firty sun sans sunscreen.

Mosquitos and suburn to one side, I wandered around the area for an hour and a half and loved it. It truly lives up to the hype. And on the train on the way back the porters put on a fashion show of fine alpaca clothing accompanied by the sounds of Abba and the Pet Shop Boys. Thats a whole attraction in its own right!

Tomorrow Im going to seel out and take a guided tour around Cusco and some of the outlying ruins. So far Ive done everything in this trip by myself, and while I appreciate what Ive learned about my resources and the ways that things work themselves out, I think its time to sit my ass on a bus and have someone else show me around for a change!

Second day high: yo amo Cuzco!

You know, high as in altitude. 10,900 feet, to be precise. Mind you, this would be a great city in which to be an active addict. Products made from coca leaves are a cultural mainstay, I was handed a flyer to a hemp club with “special homemade brownies” and get getting massage offers as I walk down the street. Thank goodness Im not practicing anymore.

So, I just flat out love this city. Its very laid-back and mellow, and the vistas are consistently stunning- mountains in every direction, steel blue skies and big puffy white clouds. The whole place is pretty much geared to tourism, which is double-edged. On the one hand, you cant help but reflect on the us and them divide and any time you pause or make eye contact, somebody trying to sell something will intercept you. On the other, it makes everything so easy to do and to find and figure out, which definitely was not the case in some of the smaller towns I was in.

Today I started off in the Iglesia de Companeras Jesus, a Jesuit church with one of the most stunningly ornamental gold altars Ive ever seen. Like 30 feet tall and stuffed with sculpture and paintings. I was drawn in just by the church aspect, Ive always been powerfully drawn to Catholic things. I think I probably was Catholic in a past life. Not a very Christian notion, although we could have an interesting discussion about early Gnostic beliefs, but thats why Im not Catholic in this life, so I can entertain notions like that.

In any case, yes, wowed by the church, but even more intrigued by the things I learned from the student guide. The Spanish clearly co-opted the local culture- building churches on the remains of Inca palaces, planting crosses atop mountain worship sites, converting and intermarrying with Inca nobility and installing them as figureheads, etc. But the new pseudo-Inca elite did some coopting in return. Hence pantings of Christ as an Indian, statues of Mary in the style of an Inca goddess, and angels with parrots wings in imperial Inca colors. There was also an anti-Protestant painting that I thought was hilarious- Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, readings his rules of religious practice to cowering figures labeled with the names of Protestant leaders- Luther, Calvin, John Wyclffe, etc.

Later in the afternoon I visited two museums, one devoted to the Inca and one to the pre-Inca pre-Colombian period. This later one was my favorite. While it featured historical and archeological information, it treated the exhibits as an art musueum would. It featured descriptions of the artisitic aspects of the artifacts juxtaposed with quotes from modern artists- Matisse, Gaugin, Klee, Picasso, etc. that made clear the influence that so-called primtive art styles had on Cubism and other areas of modern art.

I finished up the evening by going back to the Iglesia for mass (something about the visit in the morning had inspired me to) and then heading back to the neighborhood Im staying in, San Blas, for dinner. The area is kind of an aglomeration of tourist and local artist hangout spots, so I had dinner at a place that was a combined restaraunt and art gallery. Cause thats how I roll!

Tomorrow I am rolling, extremely early, to Macchu Picchu. More to follow…

Cuzco is ridiculously beautiful

That´s largely what I have to say for the moment.

I got in by the overnight bus this afternoon, with zero kidnappings, robberies or ravine plunges. I think it was good that the trip started at night- I could tell myself that those dark spaces by the side of the steeply winding road were just five foot drops to a field of flowers, rather than 500 foot mountain cliffs. We´d gone through most of the really rugged passes by the time dawn came, and then we were simply in the Andes, way high up, with stunning peaks and mountain valleys all around. Early in the morning, though, we did pass a tourist bus that had it´s front end smashed up, and on the other side of the road a truck equally smashes up, with one wheel over the edge of the road. Ulp.

But alls well that ends- this was always going to be the most grueling part of the trip, and I´m done with long distance buses now. Hallelujah! I´m doing pretty good with the altitude. Every ten minutes or so I get a little hammering heart action, and doing seemingly simple things like sitting down and then standing up again make me a little woozy, but it´s not as bad as some of the “we were laid out for a whole day” stories I´ve heard. I think I did the biggest adjustment last night on the bus as it was climbing, when I did feel headachey and naseous. Hard to tell if that was altitude or just switchbacks and trying to sleep on a cramped bus seat.

Anyway, due to fitfullness of said sleep, this is about as ambitous as I plan to be for the day. Off to bed, and then in the morning I´ll tour sights around the city center. Which is, may I say again, ridiculously beautiful.