Observations, anecdotes, and other non-sequiturs

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Friday, June 1, 2007

I thought I'd add an entry that doesn't focus so much on a sequence of events, but more on various little things - observations, short anecdotes, random thoughts, and other unrelated things that I want to capture before I forget them all. I expect I'll have other such entries during this trip - stay tuned... No pictures as of yet with this entry - perhaps in coming days.

So here goes, in no particular order of either chronology or importance...
I had booked a "City Break" package with GAP, which involved a guided tour of Cusco, a transfer to the airport tomorrow, and a change of hotels. Great value - quite happy I did that.

The hotel I'm staying at for this City Break of 2 days/2 nights happens to be the "El Puma Hotel". "El Puma" - for those of you who know him - is my great friend Dan Fowler, who got me started with trekking in Nepal a few years ago, and who earned himself the nickname Puma in Chile last year, when he left the rest of us way behind while he basically ran the famous "W circuit" of Torres del Paine. I've been thinking of you, Puma! Here's to you! (And thank you for your emails and comments!)
My city tour of Cusco was this morning, and my guide showed up right on time at the hotel. Imagine my surprise when Humberto - of Inca Trail guiding fame (see previous entry) - walked in. Well - I have to give him credit. Since I was the only client, he gave me a very good private tour of the sites of Cusco, and we spent 4 hours going through Coricancha, the Cathedral, Saqsaywaman and other Cusco ruins. I think he fares better with a small audience. Plus I was quite genuinely interested in what he had to say. And some of the history around Cusco is somewhat better known than Machu Picchu's, therefore he was speculating far less... So all in all, it was a very good tour, and I was quite pleased to see him, instead of having to meet another guide and hear things I'd already heard.
Peruvian cars and other motor vehicles are almost all used and quite old. The fumes and pollution when walking around the main areas of Cusco are nearly overwhelming. Too bad - with the beautiful landscapes all around, one would expect clean, fresh air... Not the case!
Peruvian drivers aren't too concerned about their cars either. A dent here or there doesn't seem to phase them. Driving is a noisy affair -- 2, 3, 4 honks of the horn are common, and can mean anything from "go ahead", to "it's MY turn!", to "let's all make noise to make the traffic go faster". Pedestrians, beware...
The word "Chifa" refers to Chinese restaurants in Perú. They're very much like "Canadian Chinese" restaurants -- chicken, vegetables, fried rice... that kind of thing. With set-menus around $5, they're really pretty good value. That was my lunch today, and it was very nice.
Whenever and wherever I travel, I like to visit churches (or other religious buildings, depending on the country). Here in Perú, there is an abundance of Catholic churches, as one can imagine. While I haven't been inside a church in Canada in.... years..., recent travels to Spain, France, and now Perú have compelled me to enter literally dozens of different churches. Why, you ask? No, I'm not becoming "born again"...!

I find churches fascinating for a number of reasons:

1) Architecture: most Catholic churches, especially old ones, are built following strong precepts dictated by the Church itself. Most obvious is the naive and transept in the form of the cross. Beyond the obvious commonalities, however, the peculiarities of local architecture dictated by style, era, culture(s) and available resources always reveal the history of a people or country in ways that might otherwise be difficult for the common tourist to see or understand. As an example, the Cathedral of Cusco was built from approx. 1560 to 1655. The Spaniards, in an attempt to eradicate Inca power, convert locals to Catholicism, AND reduce the costs of building such a grand church so far away from "home office", pilfered the site of Saqsaywaman to re-use the massive and already-carved stones. So essentially, the biggest church in Cusco was built by recycling a temple that previously served different gods...

2) Art: at first glance, "Catholic art" looks very similar in any European country or former European colony, whether it be found in churches or museums. I mean no disrespect when I say that paintings of Christ on the cross, or the Virgin Mary, or any and all the saints, look fairly similar in France, Spain, Italy, England, Chile, Perú... Nonetheless, there are subtle (or not so subtle) differences, quite often for historical reasons as well as for pure artistic reasons. Case in point: the painting of "The Last Supper" -- all twelve apostles surrounding Jesus as he lifts and consecrates the bread and wine with them for the last time -- by Da Vinci, located in Milan (if I remember correctly...?), has received much publicity in the last couple of years because of the book "The Da Vinci Code", which attempted to explain various possible ways of interpreting the painting.

Well, the Cathedral of Cusco has a version of this painting, completed locally by painters of the "Cusqueña School" in the 16th and 17th centuries. The purpose of religious paintings, initially, wasn't just art. Since most people were illiterate, "pictures" were the best way to tell a story. And in Perú, what was then considered a sacred meal wasn't bread, but Cuy - otherwise known as guinea pig. So - the painting of The Last Supper found in the Cathedral in Cusco shows a little Cuy roasted to a crisp, lying in the middle of the table, with its little legs pointed to the ceiling... Did this convince locals to convert to Catholicism? Who knows...

3) Riches: a common observation that I've made in every church I've ever visited is that, boy, is the Catholic Church rich or what? OK, so it's not exactly a very novel thought, and it is fairly commonly acknowledged. Why do I bring this up? I saw 3 churches in Cusco today, the Cathedral, the Jesuit Church of San Ignatius, and the more popular church of La Merced. All three have main alters and side chapels that are covered in gold and silver leaf - beyond anything I can describe. I mean - try to imagine a multi-level alter with statues of saints and the holy family, with silver and gold columns, in all about 50 to 60 feet high! And most of it all is covered in 24kt gold! And where did all this gold and silver come from? Once again, the Spaniards turned to existing Inca temples and palaces, pilfered everything they could, melted all the gold and silver, and used what they didn't send back to Europe in the churches they built here. For local people, there are no thoughts of "we could feed the entire country for years if we melted and sold all this gold" -- long before the Catholics showed up, the Incas were killing themselves at work to mine gold and silver and cover their own temples in precious metals and stones.

4) People: in every country, I've found it interesting to see who is at church whenever I walk in. Old people? Young people? Women? Men? Recently while in France, I certainly noticed that more people could be seen in churches than I would expect to see in Canada, but the average age of church attendees was fairly high - same as in North America. However here, in Perú, devotion and church attendance are very high in any age group. I saw young and old today in the various churches, praying, making the sign of the cross, and sitting in pews for long periods of time. What I've learned from Humberto and other guides is that most Peruvians, especially here in the Andes, aren't just devout Catholics. They also still believe strongly in the "Myth of Mother Earth" (a.k.a. "Pachamama"), and therefore Catholic beliefs and traditions are completely mixed with pre-existing traditions and myths, such as the festival of IntiRaymi, or celebration of the Sun God, on the summer solstice of June 21. This kind of "mixed belief" is obviously not unique to Perú - it is observable anywhere in the world where Catholic missionaries did everything possible to convert locals - the most effective way was to let them keep their own belief system, while promising them a whole new paradise at the same time...

OK - done with the religious theme here...
And on a whole different topic - I didn't talk much about the people I trekked with on the Inca Trail, other than to say that our original group was split up, and we had 6 new members join us. All in all, it was a pretty good group, though I found that trekking with 11 other people, including 6 I'd met that very day, was not as pleasant an experience as trekking with my four close traveling friends (Dan, Michael and Janel, and Maggie). I can't tell you how much I missed you all...

Two of the "new 6" who joined us on the trek were young girls (20) from Calgary. Let's call them A and B, just for reference's sake. They were both going into 4th year university in September, and were understandably traveling on a tight budget.

I must confess that from the start, I worked hard at avoiding them (they were much faster than me on the trail, so at first, it wasn't so hard). I had never before met two people who could go 24 hours - OK, 18 hours - without shutting up... Unbelievable... And what I found most disconcerting was their complete lack of maturity or ability to discuss anything of substance! I kept thinking, "THEY are going to be on the job market within a year?"

I agree that my judgment is harsh... I did spend some time chatting with - nay, listening to - "B", and found that she was a nice person, and someone who means well. I guess she just has a lot of growing up to do still.

And yes - I'm OLD! :-)
Wednesday night marked the last night together for our whole GAP group, here in Cusco. Thursday morning, some were going on to the jungle, and others, like me, were ending their GAP tour here in Cusco. So Wednesday night was party night! It was even more fun as we celebrated Mary's birthday.

We went to a special (re: tourist) restaurant with music and dancing, and then moved next door to the Cross Keys Pub. All of sudden, I found that I could conceivably be in ANY country -- the pub had loads of character and charm, and yet, I could have been in Toronto, or NYC, or London, or... Kathmandu!

We did what any 12 people from different countries do when in a pub together: taught each other all the drinking games we could think of! I'm bringing home a couple of good ones... (thanks Chris!)  Speaking of Chris, he wrapped up the evening with a stentorian rendition of an Irish (I think...) drinking song that I was able to capture on video. With his permission, it may end up here in a few days ;-)
On the walls of the Cross Keys, pictures, football/soccer shirts, and other signed artifacts from all over the world - very cool. One very notable picture was a beautiful poster of a snowy mountain cliff, with the title "Void". The picture was signed by Simon Yates!

Simon Yates is the "guy who cut the rope" in the true-story "Touching the Void", where Joe Simpson and Simon Yates survived a horrifying mountain climbing misadventure on Siula Grande, here in Perú, in 1985. Let's just say that Simon is rather (in)famous - unfairly so, in my opinion.
I have run into my first couple of beggars in the last two days. But still much fewer than in Toronto.
I phoned home for the first time yesterday, and was astounded to pay all of US$5 for a 40 minute call!

Perú is riddled with Internet cafés and call centers. Internet access is on average priced at US$0.30 / hour, and phone calls to Canada average about US$0.12 to 0.18 a minute.

Taxi rides, internet access and international calls: the three cheapest commodities I've found so far in Perú. Very sweet.
Last night, in my very nice 6th floor room-with-a-view at the El Puma, I watched recent episodes of ER and other shows I follow at home, on "the Warner Channel" - English with Spanish subtitles, which is doing wonders for my Spanish. At some point, around 11pm, I tried to turn off the lamp on the side table, and found that the switch didn't work very well. Indeed, even if the lamp went off, a minor "jiggle" turned it back on, and I suddenly became afraid that the lamp wasn't properly turned off. So I pulled the plug.

I heard a small "pop" and saw a spark. The TV went off - as did the lights in the hallway! Oops! Unplugging the defective lamp had caused a short-circuit that blew either a fuse or a breaker...! It was late and I didn't want to call down to the front desk, and try to explain the situation in Spanish, so I lay there, wondering if I'd inadvertently set the hotel on fire... Paranoid, I kept checking the temperature of the wall near the electrical outlet. After about 30 minutes, I concluded that I was being an idiot, and fell asleep, determined to deal with the power failure this morning.

When I woke up, the power was back on...
I leave for Arequipa tomorrow, for my one month of volunteering in underprivileged area schools. Excited and a bit nervous at the same time. Many new things to contend with: home-stay, speaking Spanish almost 100% of the time, and most importantly, working in very difficult circumstances. Looking forward to meeting my home-stay family and the other volunteers.

I'm told that I'll have unlimited free Internet access while I'm there, so I should be able to keep this blog alive and well.

I'm going to wrap this up for now, and head back to the hotel. It's been a full day already! A bit of cable TV and some reading, and I'll call it a night.

Thanks for reading!

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