Exit interview

Anyone whose read this travelogue over the years knows I like to sum up my trip with a number of observations that — alone — are too short or picayune to devote whole posts to, but taken together, help frame each trip for me and allow me to tell stories about it.

While ‘Exit Interview’ May strike some as too pretentious, it captures my intent in this post. Please don’t expect a lot of cohesion or deep thoughts here — the observations came at times I had no paper to write down more coherent thoughts; I was too wiped out after climbing Pisac and Ollantaytambo; or my phone battery had died and I had to hold onto the thoughts by a thread.

First and foremost is my reaction to the people I met in Peru. Individually and collectively, they proved far kinder and more welcoming than the Argentines I met in Buenos Aires six years ago (it helps that none of the Peruvians tried to rob me at gun point, but that’s not a high bar, is it).

The next thought I had was akin to how I felt in India: to wit, thank goodness my eight years as a bike courier eradicated any physical fear of fast cars and breakneck speed demons. Because both Lima and Cuzco featured a number of hellbent-for-leather tour bus and minivan drivers. The switchback road from Aguascalientes to the gate of macchu pichu is riddled with massive tour buses eking by each other at heart-stopping speeds and proximity. And yet, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I thought peril was even an iota of consideration for a whole week!

Speaking of macchu pichu, my third and final observation concerns the paradoxes of organization I witnessed everywhere — at museums, archaeological sites, and the airport. Where tourism is concerned, they are logistical geniuses that Rommel, Patton, or McArthur would have yearned to have on staff. Getting 5000 people a day up and down a massive mountain, safely in and out of a world heritage site without people falling off the edge, or vandalizing the “cultural patrimony, as they call Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and macchu pichu is no mean feat.

And they do it extraordinarily well: lines move quickly. Trains come in and out of the station, disgorging visitors from every country on earth. Buses careen up and down the switch-back roads without crashing or falling off. Guides move around each other in tight and uneven ground at high altitudes with a grace Balanchine or mark morris would envy.

However, a ceremony in the main square of Cuzco tied up traffic for miles. So crazy was the congestion that, though we left my hotel for the airport two hours before my flight, I got antsy that I might miss it! Inside the airports, nobody seems to know (or want to tell you) which line you should be in, where the united airlines personnel might be; or what is holding up the boarding process.

It was downright Kafka-esque, just trying to learn if I’d gotten the stand-by spot on an earlier plane I’d volunteered to take when told my flight was full. And there seemed nobody in charge, nobody accountable.

For the life of me, I can’t explain this vast discrepancy in organizational genius and breakdown between the two spheres of public life and service in Peru, but I got there and back safely. What’s more, I can’t wait to return, so I can hike the Inca trail and see the ruins I missed this time.

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Tres zapatos

When I was in my teens, twenties, even my early thirties, I failed to grasp the mindset of Imelda Marcos and her ilk: thousands of shoes? Spend money on shoes when there’s music, food, and books? Are you crazy?

I’ve got a good pair of sturdy sneakers, with which I can walk, bike, and exercise, as well as stand for long periods of time at rock and roll shows. What more do I need?

In my thirties and forties, I allowed as how one •might• need a nice pair of shoes for job interviews and taking dates to really nice restaurants. And, given a whole bunch of folks in the rock and courier worlds died in a short time, funerals, too. So I bought black loafers.

When I was nearly 45, I decided I wanted to take the motorcycle safety class which the Commonwealth of Virginia offers, so I bought a pair of doc martens riding boots. All three came with me to Peru, and all three got used.

The sneakers were perfect for tours of the city and light climbing or hiking. The loafers came with me to Chicha, along with trousers and a button-up shirt. And my Docs?

Well, those beasts carried me up one side of macchu picchu and down the other. Without blisters, without pain, and without twisted ankles. I still don’t have a motorcycle, but those boots did their job, and admirably.

Tale of two cities

To be honest, my title is misleading; I have to make references to a few more than two to make this post credible.

As I wait for a plane to spirit me away from Lima airport, the contrast between it and Cuzco couldn’t be clearer. The airport has more in common with Indira Gandhi airport in deli (right down to the person checking passports at the door) than any American airport I’ve seen. But that’s not my point.

Lima reminds me of Panama City — a tiny historical section, overwhelmed by miles of half-finished skyscrapers and bland or slummy tenements, while Cuzco reminds me of Granada — a small town with loads of charm, infringed upon by a tourism industry thirsty for historical sites on the edge of town.

Cuzco, in the old part, at least, is walkable and felt safe after dark. I could walk around miraflores in Lima, but multiple people advised me not to stray, and I didn’t feel tempted in the least. Even miraflores was marred by crass casinos and high rises.

I’m glad I got to see some of both towns. Better to have a frame of reference than to wonder what I might have missed. Especially the catacombs under the Franciscan monastery downtown. Photography inside the monastery was forbidden, but the tile work; the internal garden; the wrought iron work; and gloriously gothic labyrinthine catacombs were the highlight of my brief time there.

Precedents.

In the it world, new hires are often warned to hold their horses when offering effort to users. They hear that one should “set expectations too high” and they don’t want to “set precedents we have to live up to.”

Well, here’s a precedent I not only plan to live up to, but relish: last year in Mexico (as opposed to marienbad), I splashed out on my best meal the night before I left the country. I decided to repeat this last night, and I can tell you it was an unqualified success.

I scoured lonely planet’s section in eating in Peru and decided Chicha looked good. I asked my hotel to phone in a reservation for me; I shaved and showered; and I dressed in my best duds for the occasion (qv “tres zapatos,” coming soon). Then I walked the ten minutes to the restaurant and wondered what my expectations should be.

That was pointless; I couldn’t have imagined.

I started out with a queso solterito (yeah, yeah, I had the same starter two days in a row, except…) This one was based around cubes of queso and thinly sliced red chilies. Really and truly hot chilies.

The dressing proved far less acidic and more silky, while the fava beans balanced the queso in density and texture. Baby purple potatoes anchored the salad, so it didn’t suffer from the appearance of lots of different little things, lost in dressing (one of my principal objections to salads everywhere).For an entree, I made an appalling choice, and I have no regrets: the grilled medallions of alpaca, serves with quinoa, puréed bell pepper, and one other thing I couldn’t identify. I have spoken here of involuntary butt wiggles, but this dish made me dizzy and — paradoxically — my mouth was watering for the next bite before I finished the last.

So thoroughly sublime was the grilled alpaca, I did something I almost never do — I elected to abandon dessert. While all the options for dessert looked utterly amazing, I wanted my lasting memory of the night to be the alpaca.

In case you’re wondering if I felt guilt or remorse when an alpaca kissed me on the face this morning, the answer is a resounding NO. Guess I’m not the ethical man of principle my dogmatic nine year old self wanted me to be.

Food. Of course.

If you’ve read these chronicles over the past decDe, you know I often choose locales according to their food possibility. One regret about not staying longer in Lima, however ugly it struck me, is that I didn’t get to sample the great cevicherias or the new restaurants which are popping up there. It’s not just me who seems this significant — I learned Peru has won pan-American and international awards for its food.

I got in too late the first night, but the second night, I went for a chicharron, or tender pork, on a soft bun. It was comfort food I found at the Larcomar assembly of food, shops, and entertainment facing the pacific. Tender and juicy, it hit the spot after wandering through the historic section and marveling at bones in a subterranean labyrinth.

In Cuzco, I found hit and miss options, but the pollo brasa was everything you’d hope for with that dish — crunchy, salty, juicy, spicy, and yet nuanced somehow. It was certainly better than the yucca rellenas I had the first night with a so-so ceviche Marisco.

The real magic happened after I left macchu picchu. Part of the arranged trip included a meal at inka terra in aguas calientes. I wasn’t expecting much, and I was bowled over.

Starting with a salad called ‘Solterito,’ I enjoyed its acidic dressing on Lima beans, olives, bell peppers, and white corn.

Trout, a local fish, was served with an amazing purée of sweet potatoes, quest, and red chilies

As for dessert, I opted for chocolate torte, and someone must have phoned ahead:

I’m saving my last meal for another post because it was that amazing and because it ties into a tradition I began last year in Mexico and want to continue in the future. For the sake of this entry, suffice to say, my food improved in quality everyday I was here.

Mirabile dictu

I travel for tons of reasons, but a couple of them deserve mention here, because they were brought into sharp focus by this trip.

For one thing, I feel it is my duty to challenge myself — physically and psychologically. Whether dealing with a new currency; navigating a language I don’t (but should) know; and climbing perilous heights at altitudes that defeated a couple people on my tour group. It’s not just satisfaction at success — it’s a rejoicing in the perspectives altered and muscles strained in the effort.

Let me assure you — clambering around Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Macchu Pichu will strain everything you bring, but that brings me to the second point: reigniting my sense of wonder, and those sites did THAT too.

I mentioned Granada in a prior post about Cuzco, the gateway to macchu pichu. Not only is it relevant in drawing likenesses between those two towns, but their Crown Jewels — the Alhambra in Granada’s case — share both antiquity and startling feats of engineering.

I may be oversimplifying things a bit, but when one considers ancient sites; ghost towns; and wonders of the world, one thing always factors in the motivations for the innovations which made them great: Water.

Both the alhambra and macchu pichu showed what great minds can do when water is a vital problem that •must• be solved. Fail, and you get Fatehpur Sikry, which akbar abandoned after ten years of trying to bring enough water for everyone. There were over sixteen water fountains in macchu picchu, bringing water from a spring high in the mountain for which the most city was named.

So, yeah, wonder. Reignited.

In through the out door

I’m not a big fan of that Led Zeppelin record, to tell the truth. But it does provide an ideal title for this post as I leave Mexico with so many good memories. You folks wouldn’t read this if you thought I had recorded my experiences less than honestly, and all roses have thorns, don’t they.

A good ninety-nine percent of my unpleasant or inconvenient moments in Mexico stemmed from poor preparation of one sort of another. I could have forestalled most of the awkward moments I encountered (like the futile taxi ride to buy camera film), had I banked up a number of useful and frequently used phrases in Spanish. I figured my Italian would help (it did in Spain back in 2005). Better yet, had I not forgotten the film I already own at home…

Another annoyance resulted from my choice to go with economy shipping for a lonely planet book. Had I sprung for expedited I’d have saved myself a lot of pain, aggravation. Not to mention, stupid questions.

Finally there was my phone. I had multiple opportunities to replace the battery at an Apple store over the last few months, but because I put it off, the damn thing would die while I was walking miles from my hotel and far from any subway stop. I carried two or three portable chargers at any time, but they were finite in efficacy because the electric leads on the bottom of the phone have worn down over two years. Another problem I could have solved at home.

Anyway, live and learn. I’ve sprinkled this post with amusing or appealing photos I took hither and yon, with the thought of leavening a somewhat negative tone in the text.