Chapter 11: Language classes in Cusco
Monday, May 3
Clear skies had led to a cold night in my top floor room. I could have done with another blanket. I began my Spanish classes at the FairPlay School at 10am. Despite a little tiredness I was really looking forward to them. They began with a one-to-one with teacher Anatolia Latorre, concentrating on grammar for two hours. We covered basic vocabulary and I correctly translated 40% of the words. There were many others having lessons in either the indoor classrooms or the colourful courtyard gazebos with their scenic picture boards. Warm sunshine glowed into our outdoor classroom. I immediately warmed to Ana. Her friendly face, quite beautiful eyes and earnestness made it rather easy. She was a natural teacher. I felt relaxed in her company.
I would pay for the week’s classes on Friday but I needed to clarify what John had quoted. He soon cleared up my confusion. Ana and my practical teacher would each receive 120 soles a week. The school would receive nearly 600 soles for the five weeks of study I hoped to complete.
Ana and I embraced after a great first lesson and then I was transferred to Lourdes. We walked up Avenida El Sol going through definite, indefinite, and neutral articles and getting to grips with feminine and masculine nouns. The practical lessons with Lourdes were a daily recap of what Ana taught me. Lourdes was an interesting character with a hearty laugh. Unlike Ana, who’d learnt a lot of English in her 10 months of study to become a teacher, Lourdes either refused to speak English with me or she was unable to. I never could establish which, but I was told Lourdes had been the first teacher at the school when it started back in 2006.
We stopped in a Heladeros cafe for fruit juice, a shared ham and cheese sandwich and continued speaking Spanish. I named all the immediate objects in the vicinity whilst the cafe worker looked on in amusement. So, with a great sense of achievement, I completed a four-hour session of Spanish. With my thoughts on this, I headed along Heladeros to the main plaza. The usual street sellers and shoe cleaners hovered close by. A couple of lads with their box and polish were insistent and pointing at my rather drab looking shoes. I eventually relented, accepting that they needed a good clean. My shoes were transformed. After the laces were removed, they were dampened down, dried, and given a real wax polish. A leather shine was brought out to rival Paul Theroux’s waterproof footwear he proudly boasted of in The Old Patagonian Express. They would last a while longer despite their diminishing grips. However, they now stood out, with a shine leaving me feeling somewhere between self-confident and self-conscious on the streets of Cusco…
The morning may have begun dramatically with Catolica Day firecrackers and gun blasts but the late afternoon sun brought a contrasting calmness. I sat on a bench in the tranquil Plaza San Blas next to an old man. He was resting and ignoring the pleas and concerns of his young lady companion. It was time to wind down and relax for the remainder of the waking hours.
Tuesday, May 4
In Peru, a teacher earned about $500 a month while the equivalent of a general practitioner doctor might earn $1,000. Johan explained to me the economic realities of earning a living in Cusco. He had been on night duties at the hostel for one month and alternated his work in the other two Pirwa hostels in the town. Johan also lived out of town. Travelling to Cusco took him two hours so he stayed over with friends during the week. Like many local young people Johan wanted to get on but there was always that balance between compromising and being exploited. After completing a college course in tourism, he was keen to advance his studies. He stressed how he wanted to improve his English. It mirrored my wish to learn more Spanish so, we promised to help each other out.
I’d slept a lot better with the extra blanket kindly provided by Rosa. I was quickly building a good rapport with Rosa, a really pleasant young lady. My small room, about five metres long and three metres wide, would do me for the next few weeks. It seemed economical at 22 soles, about £5, a night including breakfast.
I enjoyed the half hour walk down to FairPlay. The sun rose over the hills which were marked with big lettering about Peru’s independence. Monday had been a full-on learning affair as expected. Over the years I came to view Tuesday as a directionless day. It seemed often the lull after the frantic first, and so it turned out on this day. I had another good grammar session with Ana. She seemed quite impressed with my efforts and attitude. Ana employed a structured approach with a colour coordinated translation method and her well used dictionary. I liked studying Ana’s ways. She really cared and wanted her students to listen intently. She opened occasionally and we digressed if it served the purpose of making something stick. We hit it off well and somehow got on to talking about The Beatles. Ana was well versed with the Fab Four phenomena and hilariously mimicked the screaming audiences she’d recently seen in a television documentary.
A quite tough practical lesson was no reflection on Lourdes. It was just a challenge to keep up my concentration levels after the first two hours. Over juice, I kept switching off, but Lourdes had an astute manner and understood information overload. I needed to collect my practical exercise book the following morning and start firming up on my learning. After the lesson with Lourdes I carried out some homework tasks, working through the adjectives section marked out by Ana in my big red book.
I was falling in love with the crystal-clear sunshine days. They made Cusco sparkle. The school laid on cosina (cooking) classes on Wednesday. However, I’d promised to meet up with Johan to take up his offer of a guided tour of the town.
Despite Cusco’s warmth and attraction, I frequently felt some home jolts. I easily dealt with these by remembering there being only thousands, and not millions of miles or light years, between Cusco and North Wales. I remained in the same dimension and on the same spinning earth. I could count on matters not changing that much back home.
Tempting massage offers were aplenty from Calle Triunfo all the way up to the steep and exhausting Cuesta San Blas. Perhaps I would consider one on Friday to ease the learning strains and altitude-related stuff. There weren’t always many chances to chat with the hostel staff. Lots of the guests were also just passing through. Their fleeting stays were more often than not to accommodate their visits to Machu Picchu, 50 miles west of Cusco.
The staff had to stand their ground or at least be quite clear with some of the tourists, especially one young American on this particular night. He kicked up a proper fuss over an arranged taxi costing five soles, and not the four as he claimed was quoted by Johan. “5, not 4, for a taxi, you said!” the lad kept banging on, as his driver stood waiting by the glass door entrance.
Wednesday, May 5
Scenic springtime descriptions of the Vale of Clwyd were detailed in a lovely email from my Welsh teacher Kate Morrow. Kate was my Welsh teacher at night classes I’d attended back in Mold before I left for South America. She was an excellent teacher and helped me considerably. I was able to converse in Welsh and this connected me so much more deeply to my family and community. The language is so important to our identity.
I had a better day in class and received my practical exercise book from John. I also confirmed a week-long home stay from the 16th. I was about half an hour late in meeting up with Johan outside McDonald’s, a popular meeting point. I stayed there till 3pm but he didn’t show up or hadn’t waited around. So, I wandered up to Encuentros on Suecia. A charming young woman called Tanya, from the San Sebastian district of Cusco, served me dinner. Tanya spoke excellent English having studied the language for just two years. She wanted to travel. We made a deal to help each other on language issues as I showed her my FairPlay exercise books. She asked me about the differences between American and British English and I reeled off a few examples. Some lucky guy would soon whisk this bonny petite young lady off her feet. The local women have a cracking Cusco look, deep and dark, sensuous features, very Indian and extremely beautiful.
Rob the proprietor appeared and joined us for a long chat. I told him about Johan not turning up and he reminded me about what he’d encountered with staff not showing up for work. He had only good words to say about Tanya though, a clever young lady, so bright and enthusiastic. According to Rob it normally took three months to adjust to Cusco’s high altitude. He told me to pace myself as I acclimatised to the area. The hot sun and chilly shades in Cusco were reminiscent of an Indian summer back home. The city’s surrounding hills looked so parched due to a lack of rain.
The streets around San Blas retained a vibrant colour well into the night. There were lots of traditionally dressed women with their baby lambs and llamas on leads. Taxi cars bombed and barged their way down the cobbled streets to Plaza de Armas. Street dogs were never far away, strutting around and chasing any moving vehicle. The mechanically operated waterfalls at the back of the Plaza San Blas square splashed into life, reflecting the streetlights all around. Book exchange charges were quite steep in Cusco but a little bookstore beside the Iglesia de Jesus Maria offered a one for one at five soles and free exchange on a two for one.
I played some guitar before bedtime, pondering about Gordon Brown’s slide to defeat in Britain’s General Election. Being so far away from home I could still see how image and not substance shaped political coverage throughout the British media. Mr Brown should not have apologised to that woman who expressed bigoted views. I feel he was astonishingly shamed into doing so. What would be the political and societal consequences in years to come?
Thursday, May 6
I had a rather strange yet pleasant dream featuring an Euros Childs kind of tune and a happy vision of my cat Rory. I suddenly felt very Welsh again as I gently emerged out of my room! Another couple had moved into the double room next to mine. To my pleasant surprise, they turned out to be Maia and John, who I’d met and shared a dormitory with in Ushuaia. We had a pleasant chat over breakfast. They were wrapping up their travels with a final journey to Machu Picchu before heading north to Colombia and back to Europe. Maia looked as splendid as ever. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more attractive looking couple.
Ana looked resplendent during class. She wore a very colourful top, and we whizzed through the verb estar (to be). I paid my first visit to San Pedro Market during my practical session with Lourdes. San Pedro was a thronging, throbbing place with a wide array of fruit and vegetables, meat and juice stalls and loads of household goods and local crafts. On Avenida Nuevo there were many cheap clothes stores to check out. As I waved goodbye to Lourdes who was travelling back home in a combi minibus, the waiter who’d been amused by our language class on Monday suddenly appeared. I wasn’t sure who he was at first but suddenly remembered as he bizarrely expressed a lustful opinion of Lourdes.
After an early evening visit to San Francisco Church, I walked back up to Carmen Alto. For dinner I chose the movie and munch offer at Encuentros. It was also a chance to catch up with Tanya. From a vast array of films, I chose The Bucket List, featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Tanya served me a welcome cheeseburger and fries plus a bottle of Cusquena. “Enjoy your movie” she replied, as her eyes lit up with flickering friendliness.
Back in the Pirwa hostel, British election results started to filter through on the telly. The result was on a knife edge. It soon became apparent the Tories would have the highest number of seats but without an overall majority. I laughed in puzzlement as the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman discussed the morality issue of a potential hung parliament.
Friday, May 7
I struggled to sleep. There was a humming sound emanating from the shower rooms directly beneath my room. The general election also left me feeling quite tense. Could the Tories claim that majority? It looked unlikely. I didn’t trust the party. It was too divisive. I also suspected their anti-European Union/Little Englander faction would begin to create a lot of domestic problems in the next few years. There were unprecedented scenarios being discussed back at home. Who would form the coalition? As the uncertainty continued, the markets responded, and the sterling pound slid in value. I discussed some of the issues with Maia, who spoke of the economic gridlock affecting Spain. Harsh economics and state debts would increasingly affect us all. The likely bailout of Greece competed for the news headlines.
It was all taking me away from South America. So, I took myself away from all the politics and instead concentrated for a full-on four hours of Spanish. It worked and I felt back in the room again. I later continued writing a list of ideas for when Cameron arrived in Cusco at the end of May. I saw no point in buying a Boleto Turistico Del Cusco until Cameron arrived. The Boleto entitled you to visit the main Cusco and Sacred Valley sites of interest. The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was growing on me.
My appetite continued to whittle away in Cusco. My sense of taste wasn’t so sharp anymore. I’d reluctantly foregone another evening meal after my earlier lunch had filled me. My energy was very low, and I needed sleep. I wasn’t sure if the altitude was affecting me. I didn’t feel sick, but something wasn’t right.
Saturday, May 8
During breakfast, Lauren reappeared after a week’s yoga retreat near Pisac in the Sacred Valley. We sat together and decided to get out and about. The traditional Andean festival Qoyllur Rit’i was starting this very morning. We decided to return once the festivities got into full swing. So, we set off for a steep, exhausting walk up to the Cristo Blanco white Jesus statue. We were both out of breath after the climb, but the view of the town below was just tremendous. A local guy called Maximo Huaraka Cusiquispe attracted our attention with his charango instrument. We joined him to have our photos taken with the backdrop of an awesome panorama of Cusco. I bought Maximo’s CD, then we headed back down to Cusco.
The mingling of two traditions, sun, and Christian worship, was typically displayed by the colourful dance and song of the Qoyllur Rit’i Festival. Every year, a large parade fills the square prior to the annual custom for thousands of locals to hike up to the Andean snow peaks to honour the legend of Senor de Qoyllur Rit’i (the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i).
Crowds of locals and foreigners surveyed a marvellous spectacle of people in strange masks and incredible costumes dancing to the surreal sounds of high pitched flutes and conch-shells. The pagan-like custom also had the blessing of the church and masses of people then packed into the cathedral. It was my first look inside and reminded me of Paul Theroux’s thoughts on the first Mass of the day when he visited the town back in the late 1970s. Lauren had also read his book. She agreed it was a fantastic read and an inspirational travel story.
The hot sun later started burning my neck so we took lunch. We joined up again in the evening for a nice dinner in a small Indian restaurant in San Blas. A group of loud Americans took the table behind us and destroyed the tranquil atmosphere. Lauren’s rolling eyes and impatience with her compatriots prompted a quick departure rather than taking a dessert. We had experienced an enjoyable day though. Lauren was good company. She was intending to experience another week in a yoga retreat near the Sacred Valley. She was also hoping for a more reassuring time there after a scary first week of solitude. Late into the evening my stomach began gnawing away. I was in considerable discomfort. Was this the reason for me not feeling quite right over the last few days?
Sunday, May 9
I met up with Lauren for breakfast. We later walked down to the Plaza de Armas where a military parade was happening. At the San Pedro market Lauren stocked up for another week in Pisac. I bought some mandarinas, manzanas and uvas (mandarins, apples and grapes). We stopped to admire the ‘Donkey with the Football’ statue outside the non-catholic college near to the Plaza San Francisco. It supposedly symbolises that everybody and beast has a purpose and potential.
The bibliotecha (library) on Santa Catalina was closed so we headed for an early lunch at Paddy’s. This popular meeting place for travellers portrayed lots of character and the atmosphere of an Irish pub. Lauren soon took to the place and its surreal setting. Classic tracks and videos from the 1960s were screened on the television. We were treated to Jimi Hendrix, Donovan and lots more, as a model train sped around the curtain and picture rails. We both sampled draught Guinness from a can. Lauren enjoyed the chicken dish that I’d sampled on my first visit, and I tucked into shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, Chelsea were winning 8-0 on the other television screen as another traveller sat in the opposite corner with his copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
After Paddy’s, we popped into an internet cafe. Lots of nice surprises were revealed in emails from back home. Joanna emailed me to say her former university friend, and my first proper love, Joanne from Wigan, had a friend out in Peru. Stephen from Liverpool sent me some pictures of his new house. Negotiations to form a new government were continuing back in Britain. It seemed like the election fall-out had people social networking on a grand scale.
Lauren wanted to return to the yoga retreat before dark, so I walked with her to the Pisac and Urubamba bus station about two miles down Avenida Tullumayo. We struggled to find the exact location but asked a couple of policemen. They directed us to a backyard where a Pisac-bound bus was just about to leave. Finding the bus was a good start. Lauren had experienced a bad first week in the San Salvador retreat. Its owners suddenly vanished for three days. Apart from a creepy neighbour who called in late at night and made her feel uneasy, she’d been alone in a dark and isolated place. She now also had a laptop with her, the Pirwa hostel contact details and my email address. I convinced her the second week would turn out far better.
In the evening I phoned Mam. We chatted for a good 10 minutes. She was feeling lots better, which was so good to hear. My brother Arfon and his boys, Tomos and Jac, had been to visit her. They were planting potatoes and other vegetable seeds in a garden patch I’d started up two years ago. Mam said the cats were fine. It sounded like the election had created a big stir back at home. For a couple of hours before bedtime I recapped on my Spanish grammar. I felt more focussed on my surroundings with the discipline of language study. It felt right to make that connection to where I was staying, and I was growing as a person, despite my roots being elsewhere.