Carlos invited me to Cusco for Maca’s baby shower. She’s from there and had already been there a week. Carlos and I left at 8pm Friday night and arrived at 6am Saturday morning.
Carlos lit a joint before we got to the bus terminal. After loading our luggage on the bus, we raided the food stands in the terminal. We lost track of time and the bus was leaving when we got back. We barely stopped it in time at the gate. He’d have been in deep **** if we missed that bus. I was sick when we left so I wasn’t anticipating a wild weekend.
Cusco is a small city of 300,000 in the middle of the Andes Mountains. The elevation is 10,800 ft – 50% higher than Arequipa and twice as high as Denver. Because it’s the ancient capital of the Incan civilization, it’s a global tourist attraction. Cusco is also the starting point for tourists going to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu ranks with Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires for South America’s most popular tourist destinations.
Cusco boasts beautiful 16th-century Spanish architecture and spectacular views of the mountains. At the top of one of these mountains is Cristo Blanco overlooking the city. If you ascend further, you come upon Saksaywaman, an Incan site consisting of a bunch of stone walls on a hill enclosing a wide field. I like to think the site was used to play some primitive, violent blood-sport involving Incan Indians killing animals or even humans.
Cusco’s entire economy revolves around tourism. I’d heard that Cusco is quite the party town at night – bars and dance clubs packed with more gringos than Peruvians. It’s also supposed to be a brichera hotspot since there are more gringos in Cusco than anywhere else in Peru.
After a half-day of perusing tourist stuff, I met Carlos and Maca for the baby shower at her parents’ house. When we got there, they put me to work folding napkins, de-seeding limes, tasting sangria, and getting rid of their beer.
I was drunk by the time the party started, and we all ate and drank while Carlos and Maca opened presents. The house was nice and big. I remember looking around the crowd and thinking that this scene would be upper-middle class in any country in the world. After the party, all the young people went to a bar downtown. We didn’t last long.
All Carlos told me about Sunday was that we were going to “the valley” and that we were going to church. I stepped out of my hostel with my suitcase to get picked up and saw a pack of little cholo kids dressed up in their traditional cholo-wear. Indigenas, indios, and cholos all refer to the indigenous (descendants of Peruvian indigenous). There are a ton in Peru largely unaffected by advances of the world’s modernization. Every kind of Peruvian tourism propaganda features pictures of them.
I’d been trying to take a picture of real, live cholos all day Saturday. They’ll let you take their picture but they charge. I was willing to pay, but I wanted to find just the perfect cholo . I either wanted a young, beautiful one or a really old, wrinkled, haggard one. I couldn’t find one that was just right. So when I saw these kids I thought, “Perfect!” What could make a better picture than a gang of cute little cholo kids?
I spent thirty minutes with these kids while waiting for Carlos. I told them I’d like a picture of them when my friend arrives with the camera and some money. They swarmed on me with questions. Where am I from, what language do I speak, am I married, do I have kids, do I have a girlfriend, etc. They wore the bright, colorful ponchos and blankets typical of the Peruvian indigenous – but they wore more of it than you see on the street. Almost gaudy. One had a baby sheep wrapped in her poncho while the little boy had a puppy. They told me their parents dress them up like this every day and send them downtown to earn money from tourists taking pictures.
Each one had snot running out of their nose and sandals revealing hideously disgusting feet. I heard that, because they don’t wear socks, their feet get so cold at night that they swell up and the skin dries and the nails grow thick and crack. I wanted a picture of the most disgusting feet from the lot. That image would tell a story that I never could.
Carlos called my phone to tell me he was close and all the kids peppered me with questions about my phone. They told me their parents didn’t have phones and they had never touched one. I don’t have games on my phone, but I have demos. Demos let you play for 30 seconds or so before asking you to buy it. I let the kids take turns playing Tetris demos. They had absolutely no clue how to play but were fascinated. They clamored over each other to see the screen. Given my rule that the kid with the phone had to sit next to me, I was crammed in. They were generally a cheerful bunch close and made me smile. We made quite a scene while gringos, Asians, and Peruvians stared at me while walking past.
A cop came up and stood watch about ten yards behind us. Then two female security patrolmen saw us and posted up across the street. When she had my attention, one of them pointed to her eyes with two fingers – I guess to tell me to watch these kids.
GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK! They’re four kids between the ages 7 – 12, the only male being the seven year-old. If one of them ran off with my phone, I could carry my full suitcase in one hand and still catch the little bastard – even if they weren’t wearing sandals and didn’t have maltreated feet. Peruvians complain that cholos are the primary source of crime in Peru, but I think I can handle four pre-pubescent kids. And as for the cops’ concern: thanks, but no thanks.
I heard Carlos calling me from down the street. He was waving frantically, obviously in a hurry. I rounded all the kids up and we crossed the street to where he waited by Maca’s family van. I told him I wanted a picture of these kids and he snapped one off while we were walking. He told me I was late and we needed to get going. I insisted on a group shot and sat the kids down on some steps. He took one more picture of us and I asked him for some money. All he had was one sol. I gave it to them and pleaded with the other passengers in the van but nobody had any money.
We left. One sol ($0.36) for all four of them. I felt a little bad because I wanted to give them five soles to share. I wanted a picture of the baby sheep in the poncho, and the puppy, and the snot in their noses. And I definitely wanted a picture of the most disgusting pair of feet on a kid I have ever seen.
We drove for about an hour to Valle Sagrado, sacred valley of the Incas. The scenery was unlike anything that exists in the States. Northern Arizona between Flagstaff and Sedona is the most comparable, but the scale of the Andes Mountains makes the difference. The scenery switched from breathtaking views of mountains and valleys to the most dirt-poor houses and livelihoods I have ever seen. The indigenous peoples of the area don’t have cars, TVs, phones. They live off the land and not much else. There is some seriously decrepit housing in rural Peru. We arrived at a small pueblo of less than 1,000 lying on a narrow patch of flat land squeezed in between mountain ranges. Mountains blocked the sky in every direction. The pueblo had one long street on which the church was located.
My first church experience in Peru was during the week of Corpus Christi. On this day we honored Fiesta de la Cruz (Day of the Cross), a Cusco tradition celebrated by Maca’s family. I don’t really go to church and, when I do, I don’t really listen to the priest or whoever’s on stage. It’s easier to ignore that guy when he speaks in Spanish.
I studied the interior. Latin images of Jesus are more graphic. Their tradition remembers a violent death for Jesus. They don’t forget that Jesus got his ass whooped. The church had cement floor and cheap wooden pews. At one point, a dog came in through the open doors and started eating some bread on the ground near where I was sitting.
Maca’s family – about 30 strong – were the only people in the place. Towards the end, somebody at the door lit firecrackers that made me jump. They were those firecrackers that sound like automatic rifles engaged in a street war (M-80s?). Somebody had a bunch and kept lighting them to ensure that this racket was going off throughout the service and the following procession. It’s part of the tradition.
When the service ended, Maca’s grandfather picked up this big cross with a purple banner over it. He is a ninety-three year-old man who always wears suits – the godfather of the family. I actually envy this guy and hope my last days are something like his. I want to be really old and semi-oblivious to what people talk about and think. And I want a whole army of family around me. Kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. A small village of people who look like me to cook and invite me over for holidays.
Anyway, this old man started out of the church carrying this cross. Then three of the oldest ladies in the family picked up these giant torch-candles. They were made out of wax but too big to be considered candles. Yet they weren’t big enough to be called torches. Torch-candles. And everybody followed behind in a procession out to the street. As the tradition goes, everybody walks in a procession behind the old man with the cross and the old women with the torch-candles to a restaurant down the street. The holy feast.
This pueblo is far-removed but is absolutely majestic, so tour buses are constantly coming through with tourists. This one busload had the good luck to get dropped off right in front of our procession. All the gringos gawked and took pictures. I felt weird. I felt like I was on the wrong side of this spectacle. Shouldn’t I be over there – with all the white people from rich countries, wearing a backpack, a hat and sunglasses watching this puppet show? But no, I found myself on this day a part of the puppet show.
We had a table for almost thirty at this picturesque outdoor restaurant with white tablecloths. We had mote and cheese for an appetizer, a lamb soup, and roasted pork with tamale and potatoes for an entrée. We followed lunch with a shot of anisado and beer. People hung around the garden of this restaurant for hours after we finished eating. I started to feel like I was part of the family. I have a picture of us all together.
Before the trip started, Maca was worried that I wouldn’t see enough of Cusco, that I wouldn’t get a real Cusco experience. I didn’t see all the tourist sites. And I only saw one bar for about an hour. But I didn’t need a crazy weekend.
I told her at the end of the weekend that I had a great time and would rather have done it the same way again. I saw the real Cusco. I got a better idea of what Cusco is about than the gringos wearing backpacks, hats, and sunglasses.
What is Cusco? A bunch of poor cholos scraping by in a globally-renowned tourist city. Cusco is an amazing city with natural beauty and history that brings in money from all over the world. And that money trickles down slowly to majority, the descendants of the people who built Machu Picchu.
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