Monday, February 4, 2008

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco is a resplendent Spanish colonial city in Peru, full of baroque churches and buildings built more often than not on the sturdy walls and foundations of previous Inca structures. The roofs of the houses are made of terra-cotta tiles that turn brown, ochre and golden pink whenever the sun's rays strike them. The weather was often overcast during the time I was in Cusco, but in the moments when the sun's rays escaped the clouds and bathed the city in morning or afternoon light, Cusco glowed like a rich Indian textile made of pink Andean roses.
Cuzco is 3, 300 meters above sea level, which is a problem for lowland visitors. At this height, the air is thin and one has to breathe harder to get more oxygen. The smallest chore, such as walking up a flight of stairs or opening a suitcase can bring a bout of breathlessness and fatigue that seems inexplicable. One can develop nausea, a pounding headache, watery eyes, and general fatigue. I developed all these symptoms on my first day in Cuzco. I had “soroche”, the Qechua term for altitude sickness. Thankfully I was able to sleep it off. But my sleep was not restful. I had to expand my lungs as far as they could to be able to breathe nicely. I dreamt that a giant snake would wrap itself around me and then relax its grip to let me catch my breath and so forth and so on.

I slept the whole morning and woke up at 1:00 in the afternoon. Strangely I felt good. I felt even better when I walked down from my hostel (Samay Wasi- Qechuan for “Place of Rest”) and discovered the colonial beauty of Cuzco. Restaurants, art galleries and hotels housed in colonial buildings lined the cobblestone streets of Cuzco. The square (Plaza de Armas) was even more beautiful than the one in Lima. Everywhere there were vendors hawking everything from CD's of Andean music to Spiderman finger puppets. There were even llamas being towed by Indians in brightly colored garb, for crying out loud. Stores spilled over with bright Indian rugs, native pottery, silverware, intricately carved wooden frames and retablos, with signs everywhere advertising tours, massages and of course, comidas. The bistros had more or less the same Peruvian specialties in their menus: trunchos (trout), quenua soup, alpaca, and that epitome of Andean cuisine, cuy ( guinea pig).

It was at the Plaza de Armas that I noticed an old-time streetcar (tranvia) plying the streets. Thinking it would be fun, I hopped onto it. I sat at the rear, which was like a balcony with tables and chairs in which two girls and two boys of probably not more than twenty, if less,were already seated. I thought they were Europeans, because both boys were blond. They turned out to be Argentinians, and I was soon to discover that Cuzco was crawling with Argentinians. As it turned it, school was out in Buenos Aires, and the Argentinian youth were “en vacaciones”. This was like the American Spring Break, except that instead of drowning in beer, the Argentinian youth were hell-bent on doing the Inca Trail. After all, didn’t Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine, go up to Macchu Picchu in the days before he was “Che” and was himself stunned by the glories of the Incan empire, or the remnants of it (cf. "Motorcycle Diaries") In contrast to the Peruvians, the Argentinians tended to be tall, often blond, and spoke a rapid, precious kind of Spanish. Argentinians like to say “che” a lot, which was how Dr. Ernesto Guevara got his nickname in the first place.

We had a conductress on the tranvia. She was a pretty Peruvian named Maricar. As the tranvia lumbered along, eliciting delighted looks from locals and tourists alike, she pointed out the various historical buildings in downtown Cuzco. The only building thus far that I had bothered to enter was the Cathedral. It had a baroque altarpiece swathed in Inca gold. It seemed obscene, but perfectly in place.

Before soon, the driver coaxed the tranvia up the steep highway above Cuzco and pretty soon we found ourselves parked beside the Cristo Blanco, a giant figure of Christ in white stone, 300 feet above Cusco. This was on archaeological grounds that included impressive remains of an important Inca ceremonial center, Sachsahuaman, where they held the annual Inti Raimi festival. In this respect, Cuzco was like Rome. The juxtaposition of Christian and Inca buildings led to a stunning study in contrast. The overall impression was of a dramatic, harmonious wedding of opposites.

After paying homage to Cristo Blanco and Sachsahuaman, we made our way down back into the Plaza de Armas. This served as my city tour of Cuzco, and although there was still a lot to see, I figured I’d just enjoy the ambience of Cuzco. That night, I slipped into a small restaurant,. The hosts were overwhelmingly glad to see me, as business had been slow due to the fact that  January was low season in Cuzco. Here I had my first taste of quenia soup ( a soup made of fresh spinach, cheese, and a local lentil that seemed like sorghum.) It was delicious and filling. Feeling adventurous, I then ordered the alpaca lomo saltado with three kinds of sauces. ( I could not order the roasted cuy, or guinea pig. Just the sight of it made me think “rat!”) The alpaca cut tasted like veal. I could not finish it though, because it was too salty. Thus did I discover that Cusquenian cuisine featured a lot of salt! Cusquenians love to salt their food to death! Not good for people like me who were watching their sodium intake! As always, whatever digestive problems I had were smoothed over by a hot cup of mate … the tea made from coca leaves that is a staple here in the Andes, and which I was to find out later, would be instrumental in helping me accomplish my Inca Trek. Partaking of this herbal tea has nullified one of my misconceptions. The coca leaf and the cocaine that is derived from it are not the same, nor do they have the same effect on the body. Coca tea is sort of a green tea with hints of guava and seaweed. Quechua Indians chew the leaves with some sort of alkali, like ash, and doing so releases some of the potency it has, but not in such strength as to make it as addicitive and destructive as pure, extracted , and of course, illegal cocaine.

* Just a note: Cuzco is sometimes spelled Cusco or Qusqo.