“Haven’t you come to the right person, my friend!” A___ said excitedly when I told him I plan to go to Peru. We were both attending a mutual friend’s birthday party in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. “We are going there next week and I have the perfect itinerary,” A___ continued excitedly, “We will take LanAir, land in Lima at 12:35 pm, reach our hotel by 2pm, and by 4 pm we will be having coffee at the Puku Puku café, the best coffee place in town rated 4.5 stars on Trip-advisor by 121 reviewers. The café au lait out there is to die for they say.” His wife, M___ left the room at this stage. “The same evening we will visit the Gran Teatro Nacional to see the folk dances; a truly unique opportunity to see the performances of a life time. This got 4.9 stars on Google reviews thanks to each ethnic group performing their respective folk dance”. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by these details. I noted that half the party crowd had dispersed and I was left to listen to his plans for a 12 day tour; and we were still on Day 1. “How does one get to Machu Picchu?” I blurted out the only name of a place in Peru that I knew. “Well, there are three different ways of going about it. One would be able to take a bus from Cusco. However, we are renting a private taxi so that we can visit these other Inca sites rated more than 4 stars. One of the other ways of going about it would be ……………” Zzzz I zoned out. I felt like I was being explained the technical details of a colonoscopy.
Listening half-attentively to A___ at the party and then conducting a quick check of the general geography of the country was the sum total of my research preparation before I traveled to Peru.
I landed in Cusco and took a cab to the city plaza. As is the case with most South American cities, the Plaza de Armas was buzzing with activity. I sat on a bench and watched the city pass me by: office workers headed who knows where, college students’ make fumbling attempts to demonstrate affection, a busy mother shopping for food on her way home. What is this mother thinking? I thought. Is she aware of the beautiful architecture around her? Is she observing herself going about her daily life amidst the Colonial arcades of beautiful churches and magnificent governmental buildings on the Plaza? Well, that’s the luxury of being a tourist in another’s land? We get to frame the locals in photographs and also in their context. As for the locals; they don’t care, they go about their daily life with or without the tourist. Hey, I am not a tourist. I am a traveler. But, did the mother really care if I was a tourist or a traveler? What bothered her more was the rise in the price of food and everyday living in general. And the office-goers, like other workers around the world, were probably preoccupied by the nastiness of their boss’ behavior. And the young couples in love; well let’s just leave them alone because that is what they want. They will learn their lessons once they get married.
I continued with my travel-tourism. I went for a gentle stroll to explore the old town and came across a café. I did not bother to check the name; but it served me one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had. I wondered what Tripadvisor would call it, but since the caffeine in the cup hit me in the right spot at the right moment it got five stars in my assessment sheet.
“Are you from Kentucky?” I looked up. A tall, white man was pointing at the T-shirt I was wearing. “Kind of” I responded, “and you?” “Well, I have been living here for the past 8 years since I moved from Kentucky.” He was clearly yearning to talk to someone from the homeland and even an obvious immigrant living in Kentucky was fine by him. We chatted for a while and he told me about the city and why he likes it. I was curious to know if the immigrants to this country feel the same as immigrants felt in America. “I can’t compare since this is the only foreign place I have been to. But if you wish, come along with me to this potluck at my bingo club this evening. You will meet the natives and the expats who come there, see for yourself”. He offered.
I hesitated: “Well, I don’t know anyone and I don’t have anything to bring to the potluck.” Although I had crossed my fingers below the table, hoping to be able to be a spectator to some activity that was part of the day to day life of people in this city. “Just pick up some Cusquena beer and you will be welcome anywhere in Peru. I will probably know only half the crowd out there myself,” the tall American replied. I did not need further convincing. I showed up at the bingo club with a 12 pack of Cusquena. I mingled with the crowd and enjoyed the home- made Peruvian food that people had brought to the party. I heard them quibble over how someone they knew makes Potato Salad more salty since they are from Callao region but in Arequipa they would make it with egg yolk. People opened up as the party went on and then started the music. I saw no folk dance but only average folks dancing to modern Peruvian music and experienced firsthand the South American fascination with “Culo”. After the dance, a few of us were chatting and they were fascinated that they had a tourist among them. I asked them about Machu Picchu, and not unexpectedly half the Peruvians had never been there. However, one of them said, “my cousin takes his fruit truck to Ollantaytambo every morning, why don’t you go with him and then you can take a bus from there to Aguas Calientes and you should spent some time in Ollantaytambo”.
At 6 am the next morning I was exchanging another 12 Cusquenas (seemed like the currency out here) for a ride on the fruit truck and an interesting conversation about the work and life of a middle aged Peruvian. He told me about his life, aspirations, Peruvian politics in exchange for hearing about my life in the US, which he insisted on calling the dream life. Of course, the language was a barrier, but between my broken Spanish, his flailing attempts at English, some hand gestures and a basic understanding of common human goals, desires and fascinations, and most importantly some Cusquena beers, we managed to get the point across.
Ollantaytambo was an ancient capital located on the Pachakancha river and was the ceremonial center during the Inca rule; hence, the numerous Inca ruins located in this area. The temple hill, terraces, store houses, the quarries of the Inca time seemed like a great prelude to Machu Picchu. I was not surprised to discover that this was the starting point of the Inca trail, which takes one hiking to Machu Picchu. After spending a couple of days out there, I took a local bus to Aguas Calientes.
I roamed this small town in the evening, practicing my Spanish, offending some, amusing others while immersing myself in this experience. As advised by several, I took an early morning bus that dropped me at the trailhead to Huayna Picchu, a small peak overlooking the Machu Picchu from a thousand feet above. It was a foggy morning and I could not see much of Machu Picchu from there. The view around was pretty. I could see why the Incas wanted to hike up this peak while living in Machu Picchu.
Next, I went down to Machu Picchu and spent the whole day amidst the fog, exploring the ruins. I explored the structures and what they meant to the natives, how they wanted to sacrifice their life rather than let this sacred place be discovered and plundered by the Spaniards. The placement of the houses as per the social order, the segregation of the sacred and the mundane, the creation of art (as if Machu Picchu itself was not enough), the robustness of the structures…
My mind wandered to the first people who discovered it in recent times and what must have gone through their minds, which were till then unpolluted by any image of it in their memory. What an awe-inspiring site it must have been. I dwelled upon the inner working of this society and the day to day life of the Incas in this era with the help of audio guides. Oh what a delight this was! Definitely lived up to the hype! At the end of the day, I was tired but excited, worn out but exhilarated by the experience. While having dinner, I heard some of the tourists complain about the day. They were bothered by the fact that it was so foggy and they could not get views of the surrounding mountains. “Stay one more day, may be tomorrow will be better” I blurted out. “Of course, tomorrow is better, just our luck” one of them exasperated. He continued, “85% clear day the forecast says and here we are unlucky to reach here on the 15% foggy day! But, we can’t stay to enjoy the predicted clear day tomorrow. We have tickets to go to Huacachina to enjoy some sandboarding. We wish we had planned it out well like you and stayed the extra day”. I did not want to burst their worldview so I kept quiet. I had made no plans. I had just decided to stay another day, right there when I heard them complaining.
I was back on Huayna Picchu in the morning; the fog was still present when I reached there but with the sunrise, the fog lifted unveiling the breathtaking Machu Picchu all in one view from 1000 feet above. “Oh, what a beauty! The parts that I saw yesterday became whole. I was able to put it into perspective with all the surrounding peaks. Together these peaks made for a spiritual experience like never before!
“They say this is the best view in the Western Hemisphere” I overheard a scratching sound. I looked around to find a tourist with a pencil eagerly crossing out this destination from his bucket list. Does it matter if this is the best? We were enjoying this view to the best of our brain’s endorphin receptors ability; that’s it. Isn’t the relative ranking of this view vis-a-vis other views in western Hemisphere irrelevant to our pleasure at that current moment? What pleasure does ranking Nature’s vistas give us humans? How can one natural formation be better than another?
I wanted to walk around Machu Picchu like an Inca would have done a thousand years back. I spent time meditating on the life and world of the Incas who lived there. To imagine the Inca priest conducting a sacred ceremony in the presence of nature, one realizes that God is what you make of Him. On second thought, does one really need a notion of unseen but omnipresent God when this is the view in front of them? I was grateful for the opportunity to see this in a new light! I realized that the day prior was pleasant for me and had I not seen Machu Picchu today, I would have continued to have pleasant memories of yesterday. Since I had not checked the Tripadvisor reports or Flickr pictures, I had no idea what to expect. I did not realize what the best views were supposed to be like and was happy to enjoy what I saw in front of me rather than compare what I saw to the pictures online. I started wondering about the disappointment of the fellow travelers the night prior. Maybe researching the details of views one should see in this location had somehow diminished the actual experience of what the Tripadvisees saw.
Sitting in Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, I pondered if happiness is reality minus expectation. If that is the case then these modern-day travelers can never be made happy by all their journeys. Their expectations are raised high by all the research they do on various online sites and when the reality of the destination they visit does not match up, they are completely dejected. Though the reality of a place has value just in itself, it could never stand up to the expectations set by an online crowd. Without sounding like a Luddite, I wonder if our over dependence on technology to see what I am going to see beforehand actually decreases the ability of travelers to be present in the moment and enjoy what is in front of them. While they are watching the present unfold in front of them, they are comparing their present to someone else’s wonderful past experience of their present. This sets off their high expectations and a constant need to match reality to expectations – the end of happiness. I wonder if I will do the tech-savvy travelers a favor by loading the pictures of the foggy day. I will change their happiness level just by lowering the expectation and let the reality beat it, reality minus expectation will be huge! Happiness on tap!!!
Having thoroughly enjoyed both the days of my unplanned stay at Machu Picchu, I headed towards Puno, a town located on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, shared by two countries, Peru and Bolivia. In the small town of Puno tourists merged with locals, and were not pestered by tour operators. The University students accounted for majority of the crowd rather than the tourists. There were flyers of book readings and philosophy lectures; once again, I wished I was fluent enough in Spanish to join the locals for these lectures. I resolve to learn it before my next trip to a Spanish speaking country. Next day, I joined a group of 15 people on a tour of Lake Titicaca. We visited various islands, but most exhilarating was the Uros; a group of islands made by floating reeds. The island, the houses, schools, stores, warehouses, watchtowers all made out of reeds. Standing up on the island, one felt not as stable as being on land but not as unstable as being on a small kayak. Recognizing that the people of Uros have lived here for generations was astounding.Spending your whole life in this semi-stable state must be something. But I guess one can get used to it, especially in the absence of a viable alternative.
The leap frogging of technology was demonstrated by the use of cell phones on these islands. They never had a “land” line but jumped to cell phone via the cell towers in the town of Puno. I guess modern world had made its way to the floating islands! We visited other islands and the guide gave us an understanding of interactions between these various populations and later people from the islands performed an elaborate dance for us. It was a well-practiced, structured, manicured performance for the tourists, unfortunately, bereft of any cultural nuances, heart- warming interactions or sense of togetherness that cultural gatherings and activities are supposed to infuse. I fondly looked back to the music and the dance at the bingo club potluck. However, it was a good introduction to the history and kinship among these tribes that have chosen to live here for the past few centuries. We saw several species of animals and birds surviving in and around the lake. The elevation of the lake (over 12000 feet from sea level) gave it a distinct blue color due to the vicinity to the sky, this became apparent when we climbed up a small hill on Taquile island.
After this touristy visit, I rushed back to Lima to catch the flight for home and back again to my regular, routine life. A few weeks later, I ran into A____ and his wife at a party. “So, how was it? Did you enjoy Macchi Picchu? How about the Condors?” I admitted sheepishly that I had not seen the Condors since I did not know about them. A___, excited as usual, continued: “Well, I had researched it thoroughly and we were able to see those in Colca Canyon. They are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere. I wish you had done the research before you went there”. I responded, “I guess! Oh well, maybe next time. M_, what is your biggest memory from the trip?” I asked his wife, trying to include her in the conversation. “The schedule! We looked at it five times a day and tried to stick to it, no matter what! Same as our trip to Ecuador, always the schedule!”
Well, as for me, maybe next time. Some things should be left unexplored so that there is a reason to go back. I have no bucket-lists and have made peace with not being able to see everything in this world in my lifetime. I will continue to use the locals and moderate amounts of Cusquena as my trip advisor. By eliminating comparisons and superlatives and not creating any touristy expectations, I will continue to enjoy every moment of my travels.
© Jignesh Shah, 2015
Images Courtesy: Lynne McAtee