Catching Up

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
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Trip End Aug 2006


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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Last Monday, a little after 2 a.m., I stood waiting in line with dad at Chilean immigration at Santiago's airport. Having just returned from an exhausting whirlwind tour of Perú, and at such an early hour, handing my passport over to the official felt laborious. And it was certainly strange to re-enter a country that I saw myself in the process of leaving.
The prospect of two weeks in Chile after such a successful tour drained me, and as I settled into bed at the hotel, sleep came easily. In truth, I think I was simply unhappy to be back in Santiago, the city whose air had made me sick for several months, and where I had a list of things to do in a short period of time-with the host family, with the few friends left in town, and with my grades. Besides that, the weather wasn't good; it was cold and very rainy.
Call it a hangover, if you will. In ten days, I'd seen Lima, Cuzco, Machu Pichu, the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca and the "White City" of Arequipa. I didn't keep my journal those days, and I wasn't taking notes-the days were too full, and I ended them too tired to do so. If you want a synopsis, go to www.aventouras.com and find the "Discover Peru" tour. In essence, I ate well, flew all over the country, saw strange and unique cultures surviving into modern times (like the inhabitants of the "floating islands," a chain of thick, man-made reed rafts floating on Lake Titicaca) and I wandered a dozen Inca and Pre-Inca ruins, but not enough to sour my taste for them.
It was an "adventure tour," so parts of the travel were done either by foot hiking, pedaling on bikes or paddling in rafts and kayaks. If I were to attempt a comprehensive review like I wrote on my trip to San Pedro, the result would be far more than I want to write and far more than you would want to read-at the very least, you wouldn't be entertained.
So, I'll give you an anecdote that, hopefully, will be interesting and agreeable ... sorry, no vast descriptions of the mountaintop ruins of Machu Pichu or of the strange dressing habits of the residents of Taquile Island. I'll do what I can from here in La Serena, a city 7 hours north of Santiago in bus, where dad and I have escaped to clean air, lower population density and sunlight.

At the very least, I've got 30 pictures up on the previous entry.


As I said in San Pedro, tours become a story of guides, and perhaps the most compelling-and strange-character to drag us through a ruin waited for us at the train station in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Pichu. Everyone on their way to that "Wonder of the New World," must step off the train in Aguas Calientes, wander through a handicrafts market full of overly aggressive salespeople hawking alpaca clothing, find a hotel and take the bus up the hill (barring those who walk four days on the Inca Trail). Standing silently outside the depot, dressed all in khaki, with a clipboard, a placard bearing our last name and a hat embroidered with the name of a "certified guide school," was Rubén.
Perhaps five-foot-four, of dark Quechua complexion and black-hair, Rubén had very feline features. He quietly took my father's bag, instead of jerking it out of his hand like everyone before, and led us down to the hotel, only to reappear an hour later-wearing a t-shirt and carrying a backpack-to take us to the top of Putukusi, a large hill overlooking Machu Pichu and not frequently visited by tourists.
Quietly, and without a bead of sweat on his forehead, he led us up the 1500 feet of vertical rise, half of which had to be climbed on antiquated wooden ladders (6 of them, with 224 rungs) supposedly like some the Incas built. He took his job more-than-seriously, and confidently believed that he knew where the best photo-ops were, carrying our walking sticks up the ladders, climbing with one hand, egging us on toward exhaustion. As we caught our breath, he dispensed information in slow and well-pronounced Spanish ("Castellano"), as we had requested-too many guides had given us partial and garbled lectures in broken English up to that point. Highly professional, each series of factoids rolled off his tongue as if they had been memorized.
Off the clock, though, Rubén's strange side came out. And it was such a contrasting personality that reconciling the two became impossible.

All of Perú, it seemed, was celebrating the festival of the "Virgin of Carmen." The tourist-loving town of Aguas Calientes was no exception, and every night they hosted some sort of celebration in their Plaza de Armas. That Tuesday night (perhaps it was a Wednesday-in the morning we would tour Machu Pichu), a loud parade led six groups of dancers and their brass bands past our restaurant to the Plaza.
The restaurant was openly "turistico," and the meal-pizza and ribs-was eaten silently as the brass bands' noise drowned out our very thoughts. Once the party had reached the plaza, a band came into the restaurant to play Andean Music. Only three things separated them from all of the previous groups we'd seen-in the baggage claims of every airport, on street corners, in plazas and in almost every restaurant we ate in-they only played "El Condor Pasa" once, their bass player used an amp and they had dancers.
One of them was a tall, homely girl of about 16, who seemed to absently lope across the floor. But the other, who appeared lively, though she must have danced the dances a thousand times before, caught my darting, almost shameful, glances. She couldn't have been over the age of 15, but she was absolutely gorgeous. Her black hair was woven into a pair of braids that curled down behind her ears. She flashed a smile that could immediately disarm anyone whose eyes she met, and I had such a sinking sensation in my stomach more than a few times. There was a large, open grill in the middle of the room, where everyone's food was being cooked, and she spun toward and away from it with a gleeful distance that seemed to carry her miles away. Yes, I was captivated.
At one point, though, the music stopped, and everything appeared to be over. I looked toward the bar, thinking that Rubén might go over there to sort out the check, but instead saw her walking vaguely in my direction. I assumed she was headed for the door, to watch the remains of the procession outside, but she continued straight toward me. She put her hands on the backrest of my chair and asked me the question that had killed my spirits a hundred times before: "would you like to dance?"
My head sunk into my hands. Could she have asked nothing else of me? Certainly, I would have joyfully obliged her by doing anything other than dance. (That sounds wrong, but I say it with the purest of intentions.)
The opening notes of "La Bamba" began to play in the background. A girl at the next table, an American, leaned over to encourage me, "Do it! I did it!" But she clearly loved dancing; on the way to the restroom, earlier, she'd spontaneously danced with the cook. Dad and Rubén egged me on. I had to dance; there was no courteous way to opt out.
So, for the three and some minutes of that ditty, I did a self-conscious, hesitant, almost pathetic twist with her. She smiled the whole time. I attempted to make witty statements in Spanish. When it ended (mercifully) she was still smiling, and I brought her two hands together by the curled fingertips and thanked her. I never got her name.
But halfway through the song, I'd seen something strange. There was a man on the dance floor with that American girl, who my dad later described as "hot to trot," and the pair was drawing claps and cheers (and, luckily, attention away from me). I didn't recognize him at first, but it was Rubén. He was standing straight and proper, gracefully and forcefully leading his partner. It was not the man who'd been leading us all day, reserved, always 30 seconds further up the trail and speaking memorized, precise Castilian.
He sat down at the table when it was done and remarked that he really only like to dance to Andean Music. Perhaps he was trying to be humble. He laughed at me. I thought the laugh rather girly.
Dad complemented him and remarked that I, on the other hand, needed lessons. I need more than lessons.
For some reason, though, in the 15 minutes before we paid and left, Rubén kept raising his beer to toast me every time I was about to take a sip. At a certain point, it became irritating and strange to continuously toast him.
Everyone walked down to the plaza and looked at the dancers. The groups were arranged in separate corners of the plaza, and beer and chicha flowed freely. It was about 9 p.m. Dad said he was ready for bed. We were getting up early for our trip to Machu Pichu-the bus would leave at 5:30 the next morning.
As Rubén walked back to the hotel with us, he kept trying to convince me to return to the party for "una cerveza más." In truth, I was hoping to shake him and do just that, but his insistence that I do it with him became almost pathetic, and I said I would.
You see, I had impressed him earlier in the day with the two words of Quechua I had learned in Santiago earlier in the year. I couldn't say my name but I could perfectly state that "yes, I speak Quechua." He wanted to introduce me to some friends, and was acting strangely.
Halfway down the two blocks back to the square, Rubén said he had to go to the bathroom and turned to a wall. I walked 20 feet down, with my back to him, and he jokingly squeaked that I was "embarrassing him." I still haven't figured out how or why he was embarrassed, but the statement has stuck with me.
As naďve as it may sound, I was hoping that is would be just "one beer more." But he introduced me to his brother-already absolutely blasted-and four of his friends, all guys. They were friendly enough, but had formed their circle off in the corner of the plaza when I wanted to be in the center. I was handed a beer by a dashing man of about 30 in a brown leather jacket that Rubén called the "next mayor of Aguas Calientes."
One friend was a kid about my age named César who made several jokes about marijuana and offered to "show me the menu" of girls in town. One was guy whose appearance reminded me of a Peruvian kid at Georgetown named Marco. The last one I remember was a man who had to be a tour guide-he wore a matching baseball cap and windbreaker and proclaimed what a lovely town Aguas Calientes was ("no one here will rob you ... "). I talked with him most of the time, about the town, the festival and about the language of Quechua (but not in Quechua).
Halfway through the first beer, the "mayor" came back and gave me another. I tried to turn it down, but he was insistent. Rubén stared at me and implored me not to refuse the man's generosity. I was double fisting. Then Rubén appeared with a liter of beer, and a drinking ritual involving that bottle and a small plastic cup began. Apparently, one was supposed to down the contents of the cup, pass it to the right, and pour it for the next guy. When it reached me, somehow I was made to pour it for myself-a tough duty when I was already holding to open beer bottles.
I down the cup and, perhaps as intended, downed the contents of the partially finished bottle to free up a hand-that liter was coming back around the circle all too quickly. Rubén continued toasting me nonstop.
At one point, he disappeared for thirty minutes to apparently deal with some customers who'd arrived on the night train. He implored me to stay in that corner, with his friends, and to wander nowhere. Most everyone left, and I stood leaning against a wooden pillar talking to that tour-guide-type, staring at the girls dancing joyfully only 20 feet away. I probably drank a beer or two more.
I didn't go anywhere. I guess Rubén considered me his responsibility. I found him overbearing. When he returned, I asked him where the bathroom was. He felt like taking me to the wall I was supposed to pee on, though he could have just pointed, and then waited for me to finish. I said I wanted to see the dancing. He told me to wait, and pointed me back toward the circle.
When he showed up again, he was carrying another liter. I said I wanted to see the dancing and then to go home. I said I didn't want to go up to Machu Pichu with a hangover. He said it was better with a hangover and said he wouldn't show me the dancing in the plaza until we (he, his brother and I) finished the new liter. Irritated, I dutifully and quickly drank my small plastic cups to make the liter disappear quicker.
It felt like morning, and I knew I wasn't going to get much sleep before taking that bus up into the mists. I was uncomfortable with how Rubén was forcing me to drink more than I wanted to. His friends kept making jokes about Rubén's intentions with me, which I didn't understand. Rubén kept laughingly warning them, now uncomfortable, that I spoke Quechua. That was a good one.
When the liter was empty, I gave Rubén a look and he looked back, mildly disappointed in me. For five minutes, we wandered the plaza, cursorily touring the event. Rubén's brother told me five or six times, pointing to the dancers that, "this party is very typical of the region." Another time he explained that the dancers were dancing out of "devotion to the virgin."
A boy appeared with a pitcher of chicha. Rubén allowed me to take a sip and jerked the cup from my hands-probably correctly, seeing as my stomach wasn't used to the high-alcohol "corn beer"-and then he downed the rest. So much for "una cerveza más." It was frothy and red, bland but sweet.
One group was declared the winner of the festival. Their leading dancer was hoisted up onto the rest of the group's shoulders. Foreigners like myself wandered through the plaza, unsure what to make of it. Toddlers who'd stumbled across half-full beers and cups of chicha wobbled and tripped their way across the cobblestones. Everyone passed through in their own world, crammed together and strangely distant.
Rubén and his brother tried once more to get me to drink, trying to lure me into a bar on the way back to the hotel. I refused their generosity. Earlier in the night, he'd told me that the "real party" would begin after midnight, in the bars where they played "good electronic music."
As suspicious as he'd made me, though, Rubén led me right back to the hotel, told me goodnight, and made his brother do the same on the front stoop-imploring him to say, in broken and drunken English, "it was a pleasure to meet you."
I stumbled upstairs to the room, waking up dad. I sat down on the bed and asked him what time it was. "11 o'clock."

I hated and envied Rubén the next morning. We caught the 6 a.m. bus, not the 5:30 one. Mountaintop ruins mean lots of stairs, and he trotted up them with ease, while I trailed behind with a mild headache and a 2-liter bottle of water in my backpack. His guide persona was back, and in full form. After a couple of cups of chicha, six or seven beers and five hours of sleep, he hadn't missed a beat. He kept asking me, "Don Agustín," if I planned to climb "Wayna Pichu Mountain" that afternoon.
I was noncommittal, and thought back to the night before, when he'd told me the ruins were "more beautiful" with a hangover. I wasn't so sure.
But they were damned interesting.
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