Trying to learn Spanish (again)

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Peru  ,
Friday, January 7, 2011

"Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time."
Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil

As at the start of our trip back last August we started the 2nd half softly by flying from Auckland to Santiago in Chile where we stayed one night in the airport's grand Holiday Inn; about as uniform and western as you can get. Having flown backwards thru 16 time zones we were a little lagged when we boarded the flight to Lima to catch our connecting flight to Cusco.

First impressions of Cusco weren’t brilliant.  It’s a sprawling city that’s spread in an ungainly fashion up the hills.  The centre of Cusco is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets opening onto Plazas centred usually around a church.  Much of Cusco, outside of the touristy centre, appears to be a dirty and dusty building site. Many of the sites are half finished, with the second floors upwards left open in the hope that one day the builders will return and put some walls up. Every morning you see shopkeepers and households brushing or washing away the dust that’s accumulated on their doorsteps. Possibly the futile task I’ve seen on this trip to date.

For the duration of the language course we’re staying with a Cusqueño family. They’re an elderly couple, the wife speaks no English but the husband does altho’ most of the time he speaks in Spanish so the pressure to learn the language has been on.  Claire has been a star and keeps the conversation going. The apartment is about a 30min walk from the colegio (school) along a very dusty, polluted and noisy highway.

The cabs here, mostly Daewood Ticos, make the battered old Protons from Malaysia seem almost luxurious. Tico’s are tiny little pieces of junk that just about hold 3 passengers without baggage and belch out filthy, thick, black exhaust fumes.  Traffic rules seem to follow those from Laos or Cambodia where might is right and the blaring horn forms part of the constant background of noise.

In terms of weather this is the rainy season which means it’ll rain every day until about April. What we’ve found so far is that the days can be blisteringly hot (Cusco is at 3,400m above sea-level so getting sun-burnt at this altitude is easy) with occasional showers. At night it’s cold. Peruvians don’t have heating in their homes; they just put more clothes on. The rain at least keeps the dust down.

The other thing you begin to notice after a couple of days is the religious iconography that is everywhere; in las casas (the houses), colegio (school), las tiendas (the shops), restaurantes, it’s everywhere. Cusco Catedral is in on the main plaza. On the adjacent side is the Church of Jesus’ Companions (La Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús), which anywhere else would also be a cathedral given its size and prominence. Cusco, even tho’ it’s quite sprawling, is quite small but it still has over 500 churches.

As for the Language School, well, the first morning was spent doing an assessment exam (to confirm just how bad my Spanish is and how much I’ve forgotten in the 5 months we’ve been away) and then an orientation tour of the city. Prior to the tour was the 'security’ talk which went along the lines of "don’t walk around after dark", “don’t go to these areas”, “don’t carry your passport around”, “don’t carry lots of money around”, “don’t walk around with your camera out”, “don’t accept drinks from a stranger”, “don’t let your bags out of your sight”, “only use these banks’ ATM machines” and so on. All common sense but necessary as this doesn’t sound like the safest city in the world.

With what I thought was a combination of jet-lag and a bit of altitude sickness paying attention to the orientation tour was hard work, especially as the tour was conducted entirely in Spanish. I probably understood about 20% of what was said. Claire, being an A* student and having learned the language translated most of the main points.

By the end of the first week I was, to put it bluntly, f**ked. I wasn’t getting any better. So off to the Doctor’s I went. The host-family husband was very kind in getting me a taxi to the Doctor’s who thankfully spoke a little more English than I speak Spanish. A slightly surreal mixed English/Spanish consultation, £75 and a few tests later and with a bunch of pills I’d discovered that I wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness or flu. I’d developed an intestinal infection (infección de intestinal) and that was causing the dizziness, the exhaustion and the inability to concentrate for more than 10 mins at a time.  

The first week of lessons hadn’t been a roaring success. There were 3 of us in the class; a Danish girl, a German girl, Sandra (who’s also sharing our home-stay) and myself. Not being well hadn’t helped but our tutor, despite the assessment exam, seemed to struggle on how to pitch the lessons. Some were above our level of competency, others below. In both cases he’d stare silently at us all whilst trying to figure out his next step.

On the Saturday with no lessons to attend we tried to sleep in until we realised that the family had put breakfast out and we were expected up at the usual time. After that we sat around doing some Spanish homework. In the afternoon we took a tram-trip (I say ‘tram’ but it was really just a truck made to look like a tram) around Cusco and up to Christo Blanco, the white statute of Christ that overlooks Cusco and around the Inca site of Saqsaywaman. When we arrived back in town we walked around a bit, this time visiting a couple of markets which didn’t really seem that different from any of the  other markets we’d visited on this trip other than in Peru it’s wools, or alpaca, that’s the fabric of choice rather than silks in S.E. Asia.

That evening before heading back to the home-stay we stopped off at a bar so Claire and Sandra could sample another Pisco Sour, the local alcoholic specialty which they’ve taken a liking to. Over drinks they told me about their visit to the Catedral the day before and the vast gold altar and golden organ housed inside the Catedral.

As we left the bar we noticed a tall, bearded man handing down some breads and bananas to a woman squatting with her 2 children in a doorway. To ward off the cold of a Cusco night they were wrapped up in dirty shawls and woolens but they looked poor and grubby. The Catedral, with all its vast wealth, was not 200m down the cobbled street. I know we have the same situation in London but at least there are hostels and kitchens open for the truly disadvantaged in the UK. Nonetheless it’ll probably be the image of Cusco that sticks.
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