Chapter 13: Home Stay in Cusco
Monday, May 17 Over breakfast I further acquainted myself with two ladies from New York State, Liz and Sue. They were mature characters enjoying a bit of stimulating adventure in their retirement. Their view was to embrace the language and the home stay allowed them to keep grounded with the locality.
Lourdes lived nearby so John rang her to come and meet me at the house for lessons. Lourdes arrived and an impromptu breakfast lesson began. We then waited for a combi minibus to take us into Cusco. Many passengers, including Lourdes, made the sign of the cross. These journeys in the rush hour traffic were a bit frantic. It was a tight squeeze in the bus. To disembark, one had to shout parar (stop) very loudly above the blaring radio and lively chatter. Lourdes and I took a long walk. She seemed restless and I just wasn’t focused enough. I enjoyed a better lesson with Ana.
At the end of class I checked my Facebook. Angela left a message asking me to call her when I passed Chinchero on my way to Urubamba. I took a collectivo taxi from Pavitos. It became a hot day. After the crazy fast paced ride to Urubamba, I struggled to find an internet cafe. I had no mobile phone. Did Angela say to meet me back in Chinchero? It really mattered to meet her all this distance away from home. It felt important and a proper courtesy to make this contact with my past. I eventually found a cafe but there was no further message. Angela was possibly leaving for Lima later in the day, so I left another message.
I waited an hour in the bus terminal, walking inside and outside the building. I then remained at the entrance, closely scrutinising the passengers in the numerous moto taxis. I spotted a phone kiosk and eventually got through to Angela. She answered to say she was close by. Indeed, she was literally right there, towering above me, with a sparkling smile! She was how I remembered her 15 years ago, very tall, and very attractive as well.
We decided to take a combi bus to Ollantaytambo, an old Inca site 45 minutes west up the Sacred Valley. Angela knew the area well. She’d been in Peru for the past year working in various roles, after years of travelling alongside her accountancy work. She got the travelling bug after being married. She experienced lots and even lived for five years in Perth, Australia.
The busy bus journey to Ollantaytambo was memorable. All the native folk smiling away and speaking Quechua. We sat at the front, facing back towards these lovely, warm looking people. Angela was taking me to somewhere real, a backwater contrast to the mayhem of Cusco. We enjoyed a late lunch and continued a great conversation. Angela said how glad she was to speak to someone with a northern perspective, albeit northern Welsh! She hadn’t met anyone from the north of England during her whole time in Peru.
Angela insisted on checking out Ollantaytambo’s cobbled streets and architecture, plus the clever irrigation channels running through the Inca stone works. On the bus back to Urubamba I was dazed by the stunning scenery. I experienced a sensation like that of being on my first holiday abroad. Angela pointed out the white peaks up to the north and the salt mines to our right. She shared a lot of information about the region, about the effects of visiting a shaman and the positive experience of her second ayahuasca trip. We hung around together for a short while back in Urubamba’s station. I reassured Angela I’d be okay to find my own way back to Cusco. She needed to get back to where she was staying close by, and it was getting dark.
I got on a bus. Impatient passengers were shouting vamos (go), imploring the driver to depart and not wait for an age to fill the last few seats. High pitched folklorica music accompanied us on the two hour trip back through the winding pass up to Chinchero and then down to Cusco. A couple of stern looking nuns were sat on the seat opposite me. I arrived in Cusco to take a taxi down to San Sebastian. I made it just in time for dinner with the rest of the household at John’s. A hectic but absorbing and breathless day left me feeling quite positive. I later relaxed in my room and studied my Spanish notes before resting.
Tuesday, May 18
The old ladies of Cusco had such happy round faces, according to Liz. I couldn’t disagree, as she admired my egg muffin breakfast. Lourdes’ lesson introduced me to the town cemetery. I was first taken to an old tree outside the gates. It was said to soak in all the spirits of those who departed into the cemetery. We viewed the many loving little tombs of the mausoleum, with cherished artefacts and mementos of the deceased left by their families. Some had their favourite pastimes represented in their window displays. Some even had bottles of Cusquena beer! It was quite touching.
Then Lourdes took me to the darker side of the site. Behind the cemetery at Campo Santo excavation work for an extension was unearthing many human bones and corpses. It seemed so inhumane and thoughtless. Lourdes assured me that the people had been consulted. “What? The dead people?” I asked, incredulously. “No, the relatives of the dead,” said Lourdes. But this was no time to make satirical light of a grim situation. It was a mass burial site for the town’s poor who had no income to pay for the annual mausoleum charge.
The scene became even more distressing and macabre. There were bones everywhere, loose clothing and whole skeletons. Lourdes gulped and pointed out a breastbone in one hole and a skeleton head. Nothing could have startled me more about the extremes of Peruvian culture and ways in which the people treated death so differently to where I came from. As Lourdes later said, the corpses were the ‘unknown people’, but they were known to their families. She hinted that some of her close relatives were buried there. Similar burials took place in the Peruvian deserts in the southwest where sandstorms reveal many bones of the deceased.
I later enjoyed a lighter conversation with Ana. Her stern but fair approach in grammar teaching was having a great effect on me. Manchi served up a hearty lunch and dinner again, potatoes and stew. Liz and Sue provided a fair balance to the young ones’ chatter around the dinner table. However, intense English conversation left me longing to get out of the house for a while.
I eventually found a laundry (lavenderia). My clothes needed a good wash. I was carrying lots in my 40 litre North Face bag. I also had my guitar. I later reflected on how the previous day’s journey to Ollantaytambo cleared my head, excited the senses, and resurrected my desire for road trips and freedom.
Wednesday, May 19
We had palta (avocado) instead of egg for breakfast, a refreshing and healthier choice. After a combi bus ride, Lourdes and I enjoyed a pleasant walk in a nicer and more prosperous part of San Sebastian. We were closer to Cusco town, a wealthy neighbourhood with property for professionals. At Wanchaq Market I drank banana and orange juice. Lourdes had everything in her mixture. There was a busy buzz to the day.
When my lessons finished at midday, I took a taxi back to John’s with Liz and Jeneen. We had lunch with Manchi’s very elderly father. Liz enquired “so, who’s this gentleman, then?” Liz Einstein and Sue, a Berkeley University graduate, were old school New Yorkers, with up state accents and a hunger for the world. Liz kindly gave me some altitude tablets for my forthcoming trek with Cameron.
I retired to my room to read verb lists but stomach trouble led to frequent toilet visits. I returned to the laundry with Jeneen. We then took a taxi back to FairPlay for the cooking class. Our conversation steered towards football. Jeneen was a big Spurs fan. Whilst sharing some beers with Tamara I found out FairPlay was starting up a salsa school. After a lovely chicken and fried vegetables dinner, Tamara introduced the idea to all assembled guests. The purpose was to invite volunteers. I thought my journalistic experience might come in handy. Guessing I’d be in Cusco for at least another month, I put my name down.
The FairPlay teachers were teasing me a lot, with plenty of flirtatious talk as I settled my dinner bill. They contributed a lively feel to the school. I took a taxi back to John’s with Liz and Sue. Lots of road works and upgrades were happening in Cusco. They almost doubled journey times. The infrastructure project coincided with upcoming local elections, with the incumbent mayor no doubt keen to leave a positive legacy. Lourdes’ vote lay with the Pan (Bread) Party, which had lots of visual and campaigning presence in Cusco.
Thursday, May 20
It was Manchi’s birthday. I joined the others for a celebratory hot chocolate and sweet milk cake breakfast. We all sang happy birthday but then I spent the rest of the morning grimacing. Stomach pains gripped my whole body. Lourdes and I visited San Sebastian’s plaza. A gentle breeze and spacious atmosphere soothed a little, but by the time we reached the escuela (school) in the taxi the pain was excruciating. Lourdes picked some fresh mint from the garden borders, and I allowed it to stew in a mug of hot water. Perhaps this would settle my stomach. It was difficult to concentrate, especially when we were trying to decipher food recipes. Ana provided an equally tough lesson.
I took the taxi back to the home stay with Jeneen. I managed to eat the meat, potato, and rice lunch, then relaxed in my room. It was a relief to be back. Were such tummy rumbles part of the experience for some visitors to Cusco? It was something I really needed to monitor.
After some Spanish homework I walked the 45 minutes route to the school, past the university and along the hectic, traffic clogged Avenida de la Cultura. After a visit to the BCP bank I paid another unsuccessful visit to Serpost. I was becoming a familiar face to the postal staff. They expressed sympathy and lots of kind words after I again found no sign of my name in the received items book. The staff also checked around the office, but to no avail. Without the card I had no access to online banking.
As I checked my emails in the school office the women were busy planning a marketing strategy for the salsa school. The three soles taxi fare back to San Sebastian was good value. Most things were in Cusco if one spent time looking. Familiarity with a place also helped.
After some more homework, which Ana had set for me, I joined the rest of the house for dinner. We had two new guests. Young Oxford graduates Caroline and Louise from North London. Quite pleasant enough but the table chatter homed in on London, in particular, the City of London. They were gearing themselves up for careers in finance. Despite an ultra-cheap few months in Bolivia the both of them were down to their last few pounds. With student loans racked up to the £25,000 mark, they were already looking to the future beyond their obligatory trip to Machu Picchu. When the subject of conversation turned to politics it all became a bit too boring and, sadly, southern biased. Not that I was complaining. I found most of it fascinating but I lacked the desire to engage. The frenzied allure of London for our brightest, talented young folks is quite something. I chuckled when I saw Arne rolling his eyes and swatting some flies.
I retreated to my room to play some guitar when Arne knocked on the door. He sat at my desk doing some homework while listening to my playing, and he kindly said he liked the words I was singing for a song called Staring At The Stars. I felt the song still lacked a glancing angle. I liked Arne and wondered how homesick he truly was.
Friday, May 21 Lourdes and I joined Arne and his teacher Carmen for a bread and cream breakfast in San Pedro Market. We were in high Friday spirits and Lourdes led the laughter. My good mood seeped into my lesson with Ana. I think I was developing a slight crush on my gorgeous grammar teacher. She was a sweet, soulful human being. The lesson digressed to me showing lots of photos of Wales and my travelling snaps to Ana. She was particularly enamoured with my brother’s pet Cocker Spaniel Benny. We sailed through the conjugated verbs such as querer (like/want) and necesitar (need/necessitate).
Before heading for lunch, a group of us agreed on a night out. I’d finished my first two weeks and paid 392 soles to the school for three more weeks of study. A night out seemed ideal to mark a feeling of belonging for the first time on this journey.
The night out started well enough and continued so. We took two taxis from San Sebastian’s dusty and litter strewn streets up to 7 Angelitos for the live rock classics night. A couple of zoned out dudes were leading the devotional dancing to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb as we all merrily consumed our cocktails. Tamara teased me after one of the others relayed how Liz had stroked my chin in the taxi earlier in the day whilst enquiring whether ‘I was trying to grow a beard?’ and ‘how nice that was!’ We all agreed Ana was our favourite teacher. Perhaps I over enthusiastically concurred, as some of the girls laughingly noticed.
There was a big gang of us. A festive atmosphere ensued as we headed to a packed-out disco bar above the main plaza. I couldn’t hear myself think and the alcohol induced some fuzziness. The Marlboros were then kindly dished out by Arne. We were all stretching out and separating to different corners of the joint. A few were above the flashing lights in the relative calm of the balcony space. They were receiving lots of attention from some of the local lads.
Moments later a confused panic ensued. Kelly, the young Australian, had collapsed on the dance floor after smoking something she perhaps shouldn’t have. Arne had been dabbling and gladly received a rolled up joint which Kelly also smoked. She was reduced to a vomiting fit and kept slipping in and out of consciousness. We had to quickly weigh up a scenario of something more serious than a whitey. Perhaps she’d smoked a rich mix of something. Arne seemed okay, if a little out of it. Jeneen, I and a couple of others then carried Kelly out. A taxi driver came along, and he and another driver helped to place her in the back of a car.
We were rushed to the regional hospital to get Kelly some urgent medical treatment. She was in a lot of distress and kept insisting one of the men who helped us had touched her up. It was all getting into a tangled mess and Kelly slipped right out of it. A doctor rushed into the small room we’d been allocated and immediately made a list of the drugs required. Jeneen, who had the extra cash, rushed to a nearby pharmacy to purchase about a hundred dollars’ worth of medication.
An intravenous drip feed tube and heart monitoring set were attached to Kelly. Arne was outside in the corridor. He was in tears by now, as Jeneen gave him a piece of her mind. We were all upset and still rather drunk. The hospital left a lot to be desired. There wasn’t even any drinking water available. I felt the hospital staff had seen all of this before though.
By about 4am Kelly was stable. Jeneen took the middle bed, and I dozed on the far bed. By the morning Kelly was up but still aching and vomiting. Jeneen went back to relay the news to John. I stayed with Kelly. She was still feeling quite weak but assured me she was more with it and slowly feeling better. Kelly had just arrived in South America and, apart from Arne, was the youngest and perhaps most impressionable of the group.
Caroline and Louise later returned with Jeneen and I was free to go. It was all cool again and the danger had passed. However, this episode served as a warning that all travellers were vulnerable. We certainly needed to watch out for each other, but the young ones especially needed to stick together. There were potential perils on nights out, spiked drinks, dodgy drugs, and local gangs.
There also weren’t the same safety nets as back home. There was plenty of wealth on display in Peru. On the surface one saw the big military parades and the grand churches but the health care system in Peru was extremely poor.
Saturday, May 22
I was a mess and vomiting in the outside loo before retreating to bed. The room curtains blocked out the daylight and I went into a deep sleep. I woke in the late afternoon. The house and courtyard were deserted. Everyone was out, out of it or even out of town. I felt out of it but needed to get into town to withdraw 200 soles and settle with Manchi for my week’s stay.
I continued feeling queasy as I walked to the BCP on Avenida de la Cultura. Darkness quickly descended on the busy streets. I felt the jitters. I bought a bottle of Coke but struggled to drink it. This was a strange, perhaps altitude-affected hangover. The only light which refreshed my senses seemed to be the sunset glow on the far eastern snow peaked Ausangate, the highest Andean Mountain in the region. It somehow reminded me of home, if only for its northeastern direction, which pointed all the way back to Ruthin, North Wales!
The house was still eerily silent when I returned by 6pm. There was no sign of life. Where was everyone? And, without knowing the latest about Kelly, I felt an increasing concern. An hour later though and people were slowly surfacing. We quietly converged on the kitchen and the conversation tip-toed gently to other matters. Kelly was okay though. John smiled a little and admitted he’d seen it all before. I struggled to finish my food and later, back in my lime green walled room, contemplated the week ahead. Cameron was flying out this very day.
Sunday, May 23 A massive uplift on the sunniest of sweet Sundays in Cusco. Manchi tried out her Quechua words like alianchu, emansutiki and bachacana on me. She had a kind, warm heart and remained the honest, grounded presence of the house. With an old school consistency and a caring smile to lighten up the darkest days, Manchi relished her senior role in the kitchen, watched on dutifully by her younger assistant. Meals were prompt and, if a little similar, certainly packed with the right stuff. I would miss the egg muffin breakfast and the Spanish practice with Manchi and John’s wife Fanny. I was sorry to leave the home, but I was glad to be returning to Carmen Alto. I really liked San Blas and its central location on the south facing hillside.
Cameron had arrived in Lima. I sorted out my whites, trousers, and shorts for the laundry, in readiness for the trek to Machu Picchu. The in-house Inca World Peru-Salkantay route package won me and Cameron over. I lunched at one of Cusco’s long established tourist hangouts, the Chez Maggie, on Procuradores. The wood-fired mozzarella pizza was so tasty, but my stomach started playing up again.
I quickly made my way back to the hostel. After a long afternoon rest, I was feeling hungry again. I wandered up a cobbled street beside San Blas Plaza for a steak sandwich at another popular place, The Muse Coffee Shop. I felt in a generous mood after a peaceful interlude there. Remembering the Cuesta San Blas hat shop from a fortnight ago, I returned there. I spent a good half an hour haggling for hats to post on to my two nieces Abbie and Hannah, nephews Jac and Tomos and my Mam and dear uncle Graham.