Notes from Afar 7: Lima and Cusco

So yeah, farewelled London via an excellent wee burner party Thameside, last tube to Heathrow, waiting around, then 15 hours or so later I landed in Peru. Still haven’t figured out sleeping on planes.

Lima is easily my least favourite place I have traveled to so far. Possibly compounded by my first real bout of jet lag, a sort of brain dead tiredness for a couple of days, and my lamentable lack of Spanish, but still. Lima is different. I was staying with a cool person via CS in Callao, which may not be one of the best neighbourhoods. At least, I hope not, since it was characterised by giant iron gates capable of locking off entire streets, and armed, flak-jacketed security guards in front of lots of stores, and just a general sense of 10 million people being ground down into a feral paranoid mess in a big dirty city, and that maybe being out after dark wasn´t such a smart thing. The place felt besieged. Just not the way you want your city to go. Apparently most of it is a hangover from the Shining Path terrorism a couple of decades ago, but obviously all is not well in an ongoing capacity.

A couple of days of that was more than enough. Future recommendation: get an onward flight out as soon as you land. Be jetlagged somewhere else. Got a 21 hour bus to Cusco. Peru does nature big. The Andes are pretty choice, and driving through them kinda makes the bus worth it, rather than flying. Plus the random glimpses of life in the middle of nowhere. So many unknown stories.

Cusco is way nicer than Lima. A cute little mountain city. They aren´t kidding about the altitude. Wheezed my way to a hostel with someone I met on the bus, an Austrian-Iraqi who thankfully spoke Spanish fluently. (Couldn´t find a local host in Cusco, which rendered me inescapably a tourist for the first time, and I stayed in my first hostel of the trip, which is a totally different sort of vibe and experience from going solo or couchsurfing.) Next day, went for a hike in the local mountains, which was a bit brutal on the way up, unacclimated heart at a sprint. Inca ruins abound, the ones we saw were only discovered a couple of years ago. And it was great to get the hell out of cities and into nature. Had been far too long. (Europe does not have nature – some nice parks, yeah, but not nature – and that absence has had a definite and subtle warping effect on Europeans.)

You know that almost cliched idea of South America, where there is a festival every day, with everyone dressed up in bright colours, parading about, dancing and brass and flute bands playing? It is actually like that here. We arrived during the Nativity Festival of the Virgin, or something, which seems to mean days of that sort of thing. After dinner last night, I just followed the ruckus and found another small night procession for Santa Teresa. The community thing underlying this place must be huge and awesome. It would be great to get inside the culture more, but with the language gap it is much harder. So here I am tourist guy.

Went to Machu Picchu via the cheapest route, which turns out to be driving in a van to the end of the road, walking the last 9 kilometres, sleeping in Aguas Caliente, getting up at 4am and walking up to Machu Picchu. Being the start of rainy season, it was wet and misty in the morning, and burned off to be blistering by 10. I stayed an extra night in Aguas Caliente, which meant I got to spend all day at Machu Picchu, rather than having to leave at midday to get the van back. The downside was that the next day when I walked back, there was no van waiting for me, since clusterfuck is their middle name. Luckily some other random minibus took me. I don´t actually recommend this method of getting to MP; at least, the organisers are disorganised bastards, everything included is the lowest quality they can get away with, and if they didn´t write it on your receipt, you don´t get it, no matter what they said when you signed up. So beware any Machu Picchu by car 2D/1N deals, since they all fold into each other. The one good thing was the guide at MP, who knew his shit. But if you do do it, definitely stay the extra night, as the ruins are big. I also climbed mountain Machu Picchu, the big ass mountain the city is nestled in the slope of, which was epic but hard going. My legs felt it for days.

Machu Picchu itself is pretty choice, bigger than I expected, and worth getting to. Particularly the mountains surrounding, which the Inca regarded as having spirits/being gods, and I could feel why. And the big stone altar on the highest temple. Lay your hands on that sucker. Yup. (Also, weird numbers of people took photos of me at Machu Picchu. Clearly, hair is more interesting than ancient rocks?)

Other than that, random hanging out with randoms, wandering Cusco. Spent a couple of days in the Sacred Valley, stayed in Urubamba with a CSer there, explored the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Pisac is also pretty huge, spread out over a couple of mountain sides. But I have definitely had enough walking up giant stone staircases in the mountains and looking at ruins for a while.

The crafts are amazing, and for the first time I have succumbed to buying cool stuff, because it is too cheap and cool not to. The Peruvians are way nicer and more chilled out salespeople than the Moroccans. Peru in general is far less foreign than Morocco. Cusco is cool. I would definitely like to explore further in South America, but won´t have the time on this venture. Bolivia and Columbia are getting the good rap from fellow travelers.

Hopefully will be heading into the jungle for a week in the next couple of days…

 

notes from afar 6: Amsterdam and Paris

 

Ended up hanging around Amsterdam for a couple of weeks, long enough that the raw data of experience began shaping itself into patterns of meaning; began to understand the place better. The last week and a half I was staying well out of the centre, in a neighbourhood with a very different demographic and feel, away from the tourists and embedded in everyday life. Over time, the race thing became weirder, and, harsh as it sounds, I can see how the Dutch gave rise to South Africa. There is nothing overt or hostile, just a sort of standard that is kept to – Dutch culture is very rules and order based – and it is implicit that the blacks don’t often meet that standard. And if you can’t keep up, you fall off, and no one will stop to pick you up. I think perhaps once I saw an inter-racial grouping hanging out on the street.

But anyway. It is a beautiful city, and an easy place to be. Riding around is great fun, and time passes pleasantly.

Amsterdam is very expensive, so I didn’t do much other than wander around lots. The budget I am on means my experience is quite particular. It is like going from borderline poverty in New Zealand, to borderline poverty in Europe. This makes it much the same; however, this gliding along the surface is what I am used to, my mode of analysis into society.I also realized how much of my experience of cities is of the night-time-city, a different world from the day time, and it was fun to explore Amsterdam by night. Different currents, a little darker, still safe and easy. Amsterdam has the biggest nightlife I have ever seen. The whole centre city is full of bars, pockets distributed over a vast area, all busy.

 

Paris. After a week and a half here, the French make a lot more sense. A couple of hundred years ago, this must have been the most amazing place on Earth. Grand beautiful buildings, parks and boulevards are implanted in the fabric of the city. The culture has found a sweet spot – all of the basic things are easy, and good – good food, good wine, a pleasant lifestyle in a city that has been lived in long enough that the patterns are established (Amsterdam had this too – double edged, in that while the prevailing pattern is pretty sweet, it would implicitly be much harder to change things – coasting on the patterns created centuries ago when extreme wealth descended for a brief golden age and all the amazing buildings were built. in an important sense we are our patterns of interaction with our environments, and these patterns were laid down long ago… well, long ago in the New Zealand mentality…).

The French thing in general, the reputation and attitude they are famed for, seems just to be this: that they have a culture, they have a way of doing things, it is actually pretty sweet, and if you aren’t participating in it they aren’ t really interested in you; and if you turn up and aren’t participating, you are somewhat annoying. Even within that, the culture is somewhat cliquey, compared to the pub culture of the UK. But ultimately it just seemed to be that sense of “we have a good thing going here, leave us to it”. The downside is a kind of backward looking insularity in fast-changing times, and a problem integrating those with different cultures, who may not be at all interested in “becoming French”.

Which leads to: the race thing in Paris was pretty insane. Like, it felt openly tense and hostile at times. Have never encountered that before. These people just need to learn to talk to each other. Not that NZ is any kind of enlightened paradise, but at least we can talk to each other, you know? And the stories from my host – a charming little vegan rock DJ – of the number of fights he had gotten in, and how and why, all involving really fucked up and unwarranted behaviour with a racial angle, was startling.

Anyway. In brief: the Louvre is incredible. Putting all this historic art in a palace itself opulently decorated in a style which reflects that history of art is a stroke of brilliance. The Venus de Milo is genuinely amazing – living flesh captured in marble. The Mona Lisa, who knows, you view it from a quarter of a mile away amid a throng of people taking photos. You could look up a photo of it on the internet and have a better experience of it. I dug the Akkadian/Mesopotamian stuff in particular, it just has this totally otherwordly feel. But in general the Louvre is way too vast to get around even half of in a day. Notre Dame is cool. Hanging out by the Seine or a canal and getting happily boozed is nice. The underground music scene feels about a similar size to Wellington’s, but a bit more active. And in general, while big, Paris is surprisingly small. Though somehow very disorienting, on the street.

Booze is cheaper than food here. The drinking culture in Europe really puts Kiwi drinking culture to shame. Courtenay Place is actually an international disgrace, not just a local one.

Stayed with burners at Monkeytown, really excellent and interesting people, with more passing through. Interesting how much of our obscure cultural taste was shared. Went to a really excellent party at the Time Machine, a ridiculously epic apartment (4 bedrooms, library, 2 bathrooms, huge living areas, hallways, etc, with art and statues all over the place) – apparently the end of an era, the last party there. Great conversations, booze and dancing.

Being from the Hutt, I do find it surreal that I am somehow in with this amazing network of cool people; the jetset side of things adds to it. Tonight I will go to a party on the sand of the Thames, I hope to get to Italian Burning Weekend, and Smoking Craic in Ireland (a party in a freaking castle!), three parties in three countries in three months, all just part of this network. Whose life is this?

Back in London briefly – the Chunnel was a bit of a let down, the bus packed into a weird iron train carriage – again lots of fun to catch up with people. Went to Tuttle, a random discussion group, and ended up staying most of the day having amazing and unexpected conversations. The C4CC is an amazing space, would love to see something like that in Wellington. Then ended up out in Camden, having a blast.

Off to Peru for a month tomorrow morning. Feel shockingly unprepared, no plan, almost no language ability. I don’ t actually feel particularly adventurous or intrepid as a traveller, so it will be interesting. Wish me luck!