Chapter 12: Cold Cusco Nights
Monday, May 10
A subdued sense overcame me during breakfast. Was this lethargy something more profound than feeling under the weather? My pale expression remained with me as I arrived for Spanish class. I soon perked up as Ana ran through irregular verbs. There were letter changes like Welsh language mutations.
With Lourdes I walked down to El Molino Market near the Terminal Terrestre. We finished early at 1.30pm as class time changes took effect. I would be starting at 8am for the rest of my studies and finishing at midday. This suited me as I would have more of the day to do things.
I opted for a 15 soles menu del dia in one of the many little restaurants on Arequipa. I had trucha (trout) again. The lightness of such lunches appeased my tender stomach. Apart from a group of young American women on a far table the place was empty. My ex-girlfriend Joanne replied to me via Facebook. She explained it was her friend Angela who was out in Lima and suggested I send a friend request.
I studied my class notes during the afternoon. The three pages of homework took longer than expected. I lifted myself out of language study to concentrate on some guitar work. However, I’d lost John Rogers’ interpretation and improvisations to Davy Graham’s classic tune Anji. They were good notes as well.
I had a quick shave before meeting Juan from Inca World Peru, a tour company connected to the Pirwa Hostel. He quoted me a five day/four-night Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu for $220. I emailed Cameron with the details. After all the jokes with Lourdes about eating guinea pig I opted for another interesting dinner at the Andimo Restaurant on the corner of Carmen Alto. I tried out alpaca steak. It was okay and certainly different, with a slightly rubber texture.
The Pirwa Hostel seemed a regular, consistent place. I was developing a fine rapport with Rosa. She would always ask how I was, what was happening and especially asking how the Spanish classes were progressing. Rosa had a wide, smiling expression with deep, dark intelligent eyes. The hostel laundry service was prompt and cheap, at three soles for one kilo of clothes. I started noticing how much thinner I’d become. My clothes, especially my jeans, were starting to hang off me. I needed to eat more. At least my hair was growing but I wanted it cut before any trekking.
Tuesday, May 11
On my hundredth day away from home, and 97th in South America, my travels had come to a positive halt. I was now experiencing a deeper journey of the mind. I’d knuckled down with Spanish lessons. They demanded concentration, time, and effort. The first fortnight covered the basics course which was considered sufficient for travellers to get by with. I wanted to continue. The lessons were like a natural continuation of my Welsh lessons over the past four years.
The first class began at 8am with Lourdes meeting me at San Blas Plaza. Lourdes liked to laugh a lot. She would collapse into a fit of giggles about the slightest thing. Even on cold mornings like this one she had a radiant smile. On our way back to the school we’d share observations and converse in Spanish. The focus was basic grammar structure. I continued the final two hours until midday with Ana. She reprimanded another teacher in the next gazebo for making too much noise with her American student.
The change in class time left me feeling tired but I was still using my brain. This dawned on me during the following free afternoons. I occupied my mind with language study and guitar playing then strolled around the town during the evenings. It was so easy to spend lots in Cusco. The place had become a temptation town for the tourist, with hundreds of tour package operators, restaurants and clothes shops. I was averaging about £12 a day. This was slightly too much on my traveller’s budget though.
Back in Britain, Conservative leader David Cameron became the new Prime Minister in a pact with the Liberal Democrats. I watched BBC World. The Lib Dems´ new position nagged me. How would they hold their new right wing partners to account, especially in an economic climate of bank bailouts and Tory determination to slash budgets? I still struggled to understand the nature of the supposed debt, given all the murkiness of tax avoidance and bank liabilities in Britain. Who owed what and to whom? In the words of Noddy Holder on BBC Radio 2 late in 2008, where did all the money go? This new governing pact seemed to tie in with our cynical age. It would involve lots more wheeling and dealing, uncomfortable compromises and possibly a breakdown in governance. How long would it be before public protests became full-scale riots?
Back in Cusco I enjoyed a pleasant walk around the town centre just before the sun went down. However, the altitude still caught me out. I became breathless when I reached the crowds huddled by the 12-sided stone but steadied myself as I continued up to San Blas. I had to remember to pace myself.
Wednesday, May 12
I was in a “don’t want to be bothered mood” today. Interrupted sleep the night before didn’t help. A noisy couple arrived in the next room at 2am. They then messed up the toilet which had serious plumbing issues, but they weren’t to know that. Was I taking my Spanish study too seriously? It required muchos (much) focus to learn which meant isolation in my case. I was too easily distracted, but surely the whole point of language was to communicate. I needed to get over myself!
Classes were taken up with adverbs. I actually enjoyed the lesson despite my tiredness. The interaction with staff and students always lifted my spirits and Ana led the way with soothing words of encouragement. I visited the Serpost to check the Special Deliveries list. My sentry card still hadn’t arrived. The afternoon lightened my mood as I scoured through a book exchange store in Heladeros. I then continued with my Machu Picchu tour enquiries.
As darkness fell, I made my way back down through the early evening pedestrian pandemonium to enjoy a tasty time at the Clase Cocina de FairPlay (FairPlay Cooking Class). It seemed as if the whole school had turned up. There was difficulty finding a seat and making myself useful. I eventually found space to peel some onions and carrots while introducing myself to some new faces. The teachers took care of most of the cooking. I had a good chat with possibly the youngest student there, an interesting character called Arne from Belgium. The ancient mind-bending and cleansing ritual of Ayahuasca had grabbed his attention. He was about to take a weekend out in the Sacred Valley to meet a shaman and indulge in a hallucinogenic treat. An article in a local English newspaper, called Ayahuasca-Cosmic Serpent, only served to heighten his excitement. We continued our chat in the dining area.
The lively atmosphere was matched by a fantastically tasty spaghetti pasta, with basil, herbs, potatoes, cream and queso (cheese). In fact, as I remarked to FairPlay’s John, it was my best meal in weeks. The day ended on another positive note. Angela replied to my Facebook friend request. She was already planning a visit to the Cusco region and asked if I’d like to meet up over the weekend.
Thursday, May 13
On my hundredth day in South America, a crystal-clear sunlit sky sparkled over cold Cusco. Continuous gun blasts since 6.30am had jolted me out of deep sleep. Festivities and services for Fatima and the Immaculate Concepcion were happening throughout the town.
There was still a heavy morning dew on the grasses and cars when I met Lourdes again on San Blas. She took me on a visit to the cathedral. Its amazing, darkened interior left me speechless. Lourdes asked why I’d suddenly become silent and implored me to speak. Sometimes words, especially my limited Spanish, could not describe such startling scenes. Marcos Zapata’s The Last Supper painting occupies the corner wall beyond the right-hand side of the altar. It’s a remarkable South American representation, with a roast guinea pig, supposedly, gracing the table.
Digesting new grammar was difficult. Ana understood and we moved to a quieter room. We continued with reflexive verbs, and I remembered all the changes. After class I found a barbershop close to Avenida El Sol. Carlos, a very attentive gentleman, gave me a cracking grade two haircut. I had a cropped hair reassurance and later rested in the sunlit San Blas. There I found a great vantage point on Tandapata terrace to take photographs of the plaza and Cusco.
There was possibly an examination the following day according to Ana. I needed an early night and good rest. Before going to my room, Melanie Canfield and her boyfriend Derek, from Calgary, were back from their Machu Picchu trek. Melanie had fallen on some steps to the Lost City which left unsightly cuts to her face. Thankfully, she hadn’t broken anything but had suffered mild shock. I promised to catch up with her over the following few days. It was a very cold night. Despite having four blankets, I wore my bobble hat and woollen socks to try and keep warm!
Friday, May 14
I met Lourdes at San Blas. We headed for San Pedro Market where I enjoyed my first ever pan y crème (bread and cream). The market was ideal for a practical language skills workout. We sat by a breakfast counter and surveyed and soaked in the lively atmosphere whirling through the market. There were different smells, animated sellers, and lively discourse between people. The meat counters left me feeling a bit squeamish with their cow and pig’s heads, tongues, entrails, and other bits. We later visited some cheap clothes shops on Calle Nueva. With a forthcoming Machu Picchu trek in mind, I bought a hat and some gloves. Lourdes checked out the sports gear for an upcoming volleyball competition.
There was no grammar examination. Ana had been teasing me. I’d fallen for it, and she laughed a lot and remained quite jovial throughout the class. She was a smart woman. Ana was a rock for her family and a wonderful mother, no doubt. We whizzed through the past tense.
After class I visited the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. There was a considerable choice. I chose a blue alpaca hat and t-shirt from a lady called Hilda. One only had to glance at a stall and the proprietor would pounce on you. I thought about how nice it would be to buy hats and gloves for my nieces and nephews. I promised to return.
Back at the hostel, Melanie and Derek were in the sunny courtyard enjoying spaghetti bolognese. They kindly shared some with me and we chatted for a while. Melanie was feeling a lot better. She reckoned the altitude changes and a moment’s lapse of concentration contributed to her fall. I emailed Cameron to update him that I’d made an advance payment with Inca World Peru for the Salkantay trek. Chatting in Spanish and laughing a lot with Rosa occupied the rest of my afternoon. She kept on slipping in a Quechua word here and there which completely fooled me.
In the evening I returned to Encuentros and watched a film. The upstairs venue had a projector directed onto a large white wall. It created quite a cool cinematic effect. I enjoyed some popcorn and beer then stopped off in 7 Angelitos on my way back to the hostel. It joyously coincided with happy hour and two mojitos for the price of one! I knocked back four large ones in two hours. A live Latin American rock band entertained and matched the lively Friday night mood. I practised my barroom Spanish chatter with a builder from Northern Peru before staggering back to the hostel and crashing out.
Saturday, May 15
I felt groggy and well out of it when I woke up at 10am. I’d arranged to meet Angela in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley on Sunday if all went to plan. A hot shower brought me closer to alertness.
FairPlay was taking part in a community fun day, the Aldea Yanapay Festival de Paz y Alegria. I strolled up past San Pedro to the festival site. Hundreds of families were there. It was a happy, colourful scene. There were lots of art workshops, stalls, and sports activities. I hoped to see some familiar faces and soon came across Ana, with her 16-year-old son Ruben. A live band set the little stage alight, especially the saxophonist, as dozens of spectators merrily danced around.
On the huge courtyard, a serious game of six-a-side football absorbed the crowd. I’d brought my guitar along and ventured to the lower court of the school grounds where a volleyball competition was taking place. Volleyball enjoys huge popularity in Peru. FairPlay had its own Saturday morning team. Others from the school were there including John and Lourdes. The FairPlay team was winning. On the courtside steps I played a tune to celebrate.
Tamara, a traveller from Southern England, was also there with Jefta from Israel. We enjoyed the happy gathering but the temperature suddenly plummeted. The blue sky and sparkling sunshine were dramatically replaced by big, dark clouds. Large raindrops and hailstones scattered the crowds, and we dashed off.
Tamara was a talkative sort. Her public relations background oozed out of her. We stopped in San Pedro Market to try out the fruit juices. Along the stalls the elevated ladies were shouting out for our custom. I chose an orange and mango mix to make up for any lack of vitamin C. A light-hearted commotion unfolded nearby. Some Americans were joking about buying a little baby lamb being held by a colourful, shawl wearing Cusco woman. It soon became a bit tedious, and the joke wore thin. The lads seemed to be egging each other on and making fun of the lady. Tamara reminded them they were considering buying a live animal and asked how and where they would look after it.
We walked past a billboard on the corner of Avenida El Sol advertising the musical nights of Rebellious Ray. It got me thinking up a wacky name for a pop group… perhaps Rebellious Ray and The Birds of Prey. Perhaps not! The three of us moved on to Paddy’s Bar to enjoy a Guinness. A subdued-looking English woman engaged in light conversation with Tamara. We quickly learned the woman had suffered a health relapse of breathless proportions. It prevented her from joining up with friends for a trek to Machu Picchu. Her fortnight’s holiday was sadly scuppered. Her strong philosophical response was admirable though.
I politely declined hooking up for a night out with the FairPlay crowd. I’d promised to go with Melanie to an early morning Mass in Cusco’s cathedral on Sunday. I also had the move to a home stay, a meeting with Angela and phone calls home including to wish my brother Arfon a happy birthday.
Sunday, May 16
The day started brightly enough as Melanie and I made our promised visit to experience a 7am Mass in Cusco Cathedral. Early morning sunlight shone its rays through the east facing stained glass window high up behind the altar. The Bishop of Cusco, focussing his gaze from left to right, implored the huge congregation to value earth’s gifts in a pact with God, to follow the path of Christ, to offer love and cherish the simple things in life.
Melanie and I stood a little way back near a large pillar amongst the many standing worshippers. The incense and intense feelings for redemption overpowered in the heady atmosphere. Prayers were read out, hymns sung, and moments of peace strictly observed. It felt very much a cleansing experience and a deeply spiritual moment in my life. Both Melanie and I were a bit overawed by the whole occasion but certainly glad to have experienced it.
No wonder the local ladies have such slim bodies and strong bums, ventured Melanie, as we struggled on the steep walk back up Carmen Alto. After breakfast I headed back out to make a few phone calls to home. I chatted with Arfon and wished him a happy birthday. It was the first time we’d spoken in a while. We must have talked for ten minutes. Family life and work were keeping him busy. I relayed the adventures thus far and spoke about the forthcoming trek. It was great to hear his voice. I then rang Mam. My sister Joanna and my niece and God-daughter Hannah were with her. What a joy! A spiritual one as well following the early morning Mass.
With the richness of family chatter to fill my mood I took a different route back up to Carmen Alto via the Plazoleta de Las Nazarenas. I’d recently found out that the late radio broadcasting legend John Peel had been in Cusco during his visit to Peru in October, 2004. John tragically died on that journey. His radio shows, music discoveries and presentation were inspirational. I vividly remember the first news of his death filtering through back home. I was on my first day of work experience at BBC Radio Wales in Llandaff, Cardiff, as a runner and tea boy for presenter Owen Money. It ended up as a sprint to the record library just as the 2pm news was being read. Welsh language broadcaster Hywel Gwynfryn looked bemusedly at me as I breathlessly asked an assistant for a copy of Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, John Peel’s favourite song. I got back to the studio just in time for Owen Money to immediately begin the show with that track.
It was in the Hotel Monasterio, on the edge of Plazoleta de Las Nazarenas, where the tragedy occurred. Four concierges kindly allowed me to enter the five-star establishment’s interior courtyard. I spent a few minutes of quiet reflection in the tranquil surroundings. I still miss those radio shows, as I’m sure many others do. Only music can guide me for the rest of my days.
It remained cool throughout the morning. I waited for John from FairPlay to come and collect me for my week-long home stay. I felt indifferent and rather sad to be leaving the hostel though. John was late so I emailed Angela to postpone our meet up. I then rang John, who immediately owned up to forgetting about collecting me. It wasn’t a problem and he arrived at 2.30pm. He took me to Jack’s Cafe and treated me to a cappuccino. He seemed a bit flustered. There was another home stay guest to collect from the station, a young Dutch woman called Lisa.
We briefly visited the FairPlay School before taking another taxi to San Sebastian where we eventually reached John’s home. So, it wasn’t a case of staying with a family vetted by FairPlay, but with the main organiser’s family instead. This was fine with me. I was introduced to John’s mother-in-law, Manchi, a matriarchal character and certainly the boss of the house. John showed me my room, at the top of the spiral stairway across the courtyard.
I wanted my own room for privacy. It had a window overlooking the courtyard and one looking out to the eastern hills. The scenery was terrific. In the foreground there were fields with isolated grazing cattle, crops, and a trickling brook directly below.
Right on 7pm, a loud call came from Manchi. Dinner was ready in the kitchen. I was introduced to the other students staying there, Arne, Jeneen and Terry. Arne’s return from an ayahuasca weekend explained his silence. For a home stay, a lot of English was being spoken, but the mood was light-hearted.