I slept and slept and slept. The bed was reasonably comfortable. Rain tapped on the skylight above through the night. December 28th: the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I was exhausted. If there was another time in my life I was more tired, I couldn’t think of it.
I couldn’t speak. My voice had been taken from me by a slow, ruthless illness. It’s something I take for granted; I don’t often speak when I am not needed to, but there are fewer things more frustrating than not being able to at all.
The hotel room’s shower was broken. Water leaked down from the tub’s edge all across the floor. There was a drain in the center of the bathroom that did nothing. The clothes that I had spread out, some of my only remaining clean clothes, were drenched. Disappointed! I wrung them out and spread them out on a railing just outside the room. There was light through a translucent roof, but little heat. Further out in the courtyard, I decided to bake them on a stone wall. In their stead, I wore my other pair of disgusting, still-wet pants. This wasn’t my idea of relaxing.
In Cusco, there was little left that I’d wanted to do. Our romp around the city before the trek had more than satisfied my curiosity. Lounging in the hotel felt more necessary than desired, given my physical fatigue. Plus, it was beginning to turn into a lovely day and the hotel’s courtyard was peaceful. The sun had emerged in the morning, bathing the rain-weary city in a warm glowing aura. It felt like summer back home, with puffy clouds across the sky and flowers blooming there in the courtyard.
The summer sun did its job with my clothes quicker than I expected. Perhaps the thinner atmosphere encouraged rapid evaporation. I sat there and drank coca tea from the lobby to ease my throat. It almost felt like it was working. Almost. I’d slept through breakfast so I turned to my cache of remaining Clif bars for sustenance, hoping to decrease its supply before heading back to the United States. They gave me a boost, but left me unsatisfied.
Around noon the six of us decided to venture out into the city and explore our new neighborhood. Having arrived there in the dark and rain, our hotel was basically in unknown lands. Stepping out onto the stone sidewalk, along a cobbled road, facing the brown bricks of a church, it felt almost medieval, though the roar of combustion engines and blasting car horns broke that immersion pretty quickly. To the right, the narrow-walled lane continued into mysterious parts. To the left, the Arco Santa Clara was not too far down the road. Our landmark was within sight.
Between the arch and our hotel was a large market. It consisted of a maze of blue-tarped booths filled with vendors selling, and you’ll never believe this, vibrant, multi-colored sweaters, scarves, hats, trinkets, jewelry, foods, and other random things. From booth to booth there was a simultaneously staggering variety and similarity among them. Seriously, are these authentic Peruvian items not all just made in the same place? Or do all of these artisans take the same “Fundamentals of Alpaca Yarn Knitting” class?
We walked around that for a bit. I had no desire to buy anything offered, even though I knew I’d yet to buy my parents an authentic Peruvian Christmas gift. Nothing there spoke to me. I, myself, still could not speak. Behind this maze of a market was a large structure, a warehouse not unlike those along the Dogpatch coast of San Francisco. Inside was a mass of people, rows upon rows of artisans, food producers, vendors; there was such a variety of food I couldn’t absorb it all. Fresh fruits, cheeses, grains, and meats, all stacked feet high and on display on long tables. My intrusive mind was bothered by how much of that supply would likely spoil and go to waste. I wasn’t helping by not buying anything myself.
Despite this still being Peru, there was something very familiar about this place. It reminded me of many thing: kind of a hybrid of a handful of flea markets, supermarkets, farmer’s markets, and Costcos that I’d been to throughout my life. The place was abuzz with locals and tourists alike, the former of which far outnumbered the presumed latter. Our party stopped a few times, acquiring a few random items before we left.
Our next destination was lunch. But where? I was tired of the Plaza de Armas. We headed up that way, doing a loop between San Francisco and there and scouting a few potential locations, until we found a nice little cafe spot. It had a full bar spread across the back wall. The room had but five tables, arranged like dots on a die; we sat in the middle. It was cold there. There was even a staircase up to an even colder room, which we had looked into before we were seated.
I liked that place. The windows to the street were large and bright light floated in. They served us chica morada and water sin gas. Service was exceptionally slow — it took what felt like an hour just to make a few sandwiches. But it was good. I had the most delicious Caprese sandwich; it left me wanting another one. I even finished off the rest of our table’s garlic bread to fill my stomach. Who knew I was so ravenous?
While we were there we placed pseudo-bets on how long it would be before it started raining. It was early afternoon, after all, and Cusco weather, while erratic, had been almost something you could set a clock to. The sky opened up briefly, a good fifteen minutes after I’d predicted it to. The rain was light, lasting only a few minutes, all of which we spent still inside the cafe.
We stopped at the convenience store for a quick supply run then returned to the hotel. The fatigue hit me again hard. We had snagged some couches in the lobby to hang out at and I ended up basically taking a nap there as we sat around. I don’t remember how long it was that we were there, only that it felt like forever.
A TV on the wall across from me played videos of Peruvian landscapes with pan flute music accompanying them. I drifted in and out of consciousness enough to notice that some of them were repeating.
This exact video played more than the rest — probably a good ten or fifteen times over the two days we were at that hotel. Apparently it’s popular enough to find on YouTube with only a few keywords and clicks. To this day, the flute melodies and images of Quechua men in colorful hats are burned into my mind.
Lounging around, hanging out with some of my favorite people in the world was nice. There wasn’t much else to do, but soon we headed back across the street to the market. This time we perused the booths off to the side of the building, where the colorful hats and scarves and sweaters of the inside market were located. Again, I wasn’t going to buy anything so I just enjoyed the walk. It was early evening so many of the shopkeepers were closing up and the lights inside were dimmed. Aisles upon aisles of fresh foods were still sitting there unmanned and lonely.
Outside, ominous clouds rolled in. We putzed around in the blue-tarped booths some more, acquiring some interesting food and drink samples. With the sky ever darkening, I took it upon myself to nudge the group in the direction of dinner, somewhere near Plaza San Francisco or Plaza de Armas. Earlier in the day on our search for lunch, we happened upon a nice looking place — it was more fancy and suited for dinner so we went elsewhere. I thought it was the right time to revisit.
This place was a modern, clean, slightly fancy upstairs lounge restaurant. It had wood floors and ceilings. Just inside the door were couches and chairs around low tables and a fireplace. Through speakers played down-tempo electronic music. The bar area had eclectic wallpaper, nice mood lighting and just beyond, dinner tables each with a decent view of the plaza. We were seated at a long wooden table on the alley side in a room with odd wallpaper that didn’t quite match the style of the rest of the surroundings. It covered both the walls and the ceilings in that room, looking like someone built a house in The Sims and then got lazy with the painting.
Our server was a very nice young man who spoke flawless English. We got on very well with him. I drank a glass of chica morada while others had cocktails and wine. For my meal, I ordered a chicken and vegetable bowl, not unlike a Japanese dish I’d eaten in Washington, DC a few weeks before. It was good; something I didn’t know I wanted until I tried it.
Across the alleyway, another restaurant was having a dance party. There was a band just inside the window, facing away from us while people danced in front of them. Colored lights flashed on and off. I’m really glad we didn’t end up going to dinner there. Our final meal together in Peru was a low-key affair in a great place with good music. It was a lovely dinner — a perfect close to our adventure.
It wasn’t the end, quite yet, however. One more visit to the market annex of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús was on the itinerary. My lack of speaking ability had devolved into a frustrating persistent cough, which prompted a late-night run and chase to a nearby store to grab some water. It helped.
Back at the hotel, I took a long bath, one I’d been dreaming of since the trek. It went okay; the bathroom still flooded a little bit, but it did provide an immersing warmth and comfort that my muscles sorely craved. I tidied up a bit afterward, making the mess on the floor a little more organized before I headed off to sleep.
The next morning I did actually make it to breakfast. I coated my throat in coca tea and tried to eat a croissant, but my stomach didn’t respond well. Perhaps the previous night’s dinner wasn’t so good for me after all.
I packed up my things in the hotel room, almost an hour after our scheduled check-out. The front desk kept ringing our room phone to confirm, however there were two problems: they spoke Spanish, which I understand but cannot really converse in, and two, I still couldn’t speak at all.
December 29th was our last day in Cusco. By now we had absolutely nothing to do. I don’t remember much about this day for a number of reasons, chief among them being illness, mental fatigue, and general lack of notable events, however there were a few wonderful moments throughout the day.
At lunch time, I went on a date with my lovely girlfriend. She and I took a slow stroll around town to the Plaza San Francisco in search of food. On our way there, off to one side I spied a place called “Los Angeles.” In the Plaza San Francisco. Felt like home, sort of.
We ended up going all the way back to the Plaza de Armas, to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with wine bottles on the walls and in the ceiling. It looked really nice, had a nice soundtrack playing instrumental Latin-ized pop music covers, and the waitstaff were extremely friendly.
The menu was identical to the restaurant we had our second lunch at. Word for word match, both the Spanish and the English translation, among the same colorful pages and pictures. My theory about Peruvian tourist items all being sourced from the same place might have some legs, I thought.
Since the menu was exactly the same, I knew already where to go for my desired food: an over-sized glass of Fresa and a bowl of tasty dieta de pollo, my third in four days.
It was a fantastic time. I wish I could go on dates more often. After lunch we walked around the Plaza de Armas, stopping for a bit on the steps of the Cusco Cathedral to people watch. Naturally, several desperate salespeople attempted to acquire our patronage, but natürlich I replied to them in German. It has a 100% success rate in making them disappear.
It had started to rain a little. It wasn’t too much to drive us inside, so we kept walking. It was refreshing, especially as the less tolerant crowds somewhat dispersed for shelter. We made our way through the alleys and up the streets to the Plaza Regocijo, nestled between the Plaza de Armas and the Plaza San Francisco. There, along the far wall was the Choco Museo, a chocolate store, factory, and museum. Inside were a ton of varieties of chocolate and cacao, ranging from pure cacao to bars infused with flavors such as chili pepper, mint, coffee, and many many others. I thought a few of those would make a perfect Christmas gift for my parents, so I picked four kinds that stood out to me. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t get any for myself.
With another mission successful, we concluded our date by heading back to the hotel. We snagged a different set of couches and relaxed for the last few hours of our stay. The TV on the wall continued playing the same videos from the day before. I whistled along, the melodies still fresh.
We had been saying goodbye to our companions throughout the day, as we’d had to take different flights back to Lima. I don’t remember who left first or when, but when our time to leave came, we retrieved our luggage from the front desk, hopped a taxi and rode off.
Our taxi took us down the road a way we’d not yet gone. With veteran eyes, the differences between the tourist areas and the rest of Cusco stood out more starkly. The wide streets were full of cars; the sidewalks buzzing with locals. The storefronts were vibrant, but messy. Garbage and debris littered the walkways. Rubble from poorly maintained buildings was everywhere. The city-scape was so dense; there was so much going on. I tried to absorb it all in my mind before I gave up and pulled out my camera.
The last avenue to the airport was the one we’d taken into the city upon our arrival one long week before. It felt different. The other bookend to an experience of a lifetime. And then we came to the airport. The ticketing area, compared to the baggage claim, was more modern, though still boasting tall, plain white plastered walls and a dirty tiled floor. Having been unable to check in for my Virgin America flight from JFK to SFO online, I attempted to obtain a boarding pass at the ticket desk in Cusco. It didn’t work. I decided I would try again in Lima.
Security was extremely quick, as expected. The waiting area at the Cusco airport was nicer still than the ticketing area. It had modern shops, decent seats, and a relatively clean environment. It was a bit of a wait, especially the queue to board, though that ended soon enough.
Flying out of Cusco was interesting. The runway felt a bit short and the ascent was very steep. We hit a fair amount of turbulence on the quick ride, eliciting audible gasps from some passengers. Amateurs. Not relegating another sight to memory, I kept my camera out to shoot the landscape we were crossing. I found familiar sights like the road from Ollantaytambo up into the mountains, the stunning peak of Nevado Verónica and road to Santa Maria. Machu Picchu, presumably, was along our flight path, however it never did appear. Likewise, the massive peak of Salcantay had been too far below the plane to find.
When we were nearly halfway across the Andes, the sky turned bizarre. There were clouds above us, darkening the land; in front of our plane, the sun was setting, starting to come through an opening. This resulted in an extremely sharp contrast, dividing the light from the dark. I’d never seen anything like this before. No, that’s not Photoshopped. I thought my own eyes might have been lying to me.
Approaching Lima was interesting. Somehow, I’d not realized the Pacific coast of Peru was a desert. In retrospect, it makes total sense, what with the Eastern trade winds in the equatorial Southern Hemisphere and the rain shadow of the Andes preventing precipitation there. Once we’d cross the Andes, the terrain turned brown and rugged. A brown haze grew denser as we approached Lima. We flew over the city for what must have been half an hour — Lima is massively huge, sprawling from the foothills all the way to the desert coast. Buildings as far as the eye could see, through dust and smog. They were mostly short structures that formed a maze of angular, radial roads, ad infinitum.
Once we reached the Pacific, I saw a landscape I’ve only dreamed of and seen in photographs: a desert coastline. A long strand of brown up against a literal sea of blue. Ships, ports, refineries and other industrial sights were scattered across the sea and coast, marking the edge of the city. The plane rolled into its approach vector and I watched the sun set over the Pacific from my window. My last Peruvian sunset.
Lima was hot. The airport was muggy. It was already familiar given the hours I’d spent there. I hopped in an unexpectedly short line to the ticket counter, where the agent handed me a boarding pass for my flight to JFK. Well, that’s great, I’ve already got one. No dice with the Virgin flight, again. That would make my somewhat short two-hour layover a bit more stressful, since I’d have to clear customs, switch terminals, get a boarding pass, and get through security before my plane took off. I tried not to think about it.
We spent our final hours in Peru at the cafe we’d been at before. I got myself a fresa gelato and a bowl of dieta de pollo, my second of the day.
Through security a few hours later, my girlfriend and I found a seat at the gate by a charging station and cuddled up. After all, this was the last we’d see of each other for the indefinite future. I made sure to enjoy every single moment.
When the boarding call came for my flight, we both went over to say goodbye. It was one of the hardest of my life, but I wasn’t sad because I knew it wasn’t a goodbye forever — it was instead only the beginning of something wonderful. I passed the gate, walked around the glass wall, gave away one last smile, and disappeared down the jet-way.
The clock had turned to New Year’s Eve Eve sometimes around then. I was totally drained, physically of course, but now emotionally too. I was happy. Happier than I’d been in years. I fell asleep on the plane soundly.
I woke up when the flight was over the Caribbean, several hours before landing. In my delirious state, they went quickly. As part of my layover preparations, I filled out the requisite U.S. customs form before we landed, stressing over the fact that I needed to borrow a neighbor’s pen after mine exploded in the hotel the night before.
We landed at a cloudy and cold JFK airport. Welcome home. I hastened to flip on my phone’s data and find exactly where I was and where I needed to go. We’d arrived ahead of schedule, so my “short” layover was a bit longer; nevertheless, I was rushing.
I sped off the plane as soon as I could, speed-walking through the interminable maze of the arrivals terminal. When I reached customs, I was happy to see numerous unoccupied self-serve kiosks rather than slow lines and unhappy non-morning people in booths. I took a disheveled photo of myself and scanned my passport, proceeding onward in less than a minute. Hurdle one, cleared.
In the baggage claim, I said goodbye to the last remaining of my companions who happened to also be on my flight; a short and sweet respite before my rush continued. I found the AirTrain to the other terminals, boarded the front tram and waited for the rails to disappear beneath. It was a few stops to the Virgin America terminal, but only a ten minute ride. Hurdle number two, passed successfully.
Since leaving the plane, it had been twenty minutes. I had assumed a half-hour for each of these roadblocks, so I was making good time. At the terminal, I hustled to the Virgin ticket counter to obtain my boarding pass. The people there were curt, but I attributed that to a mixture of it being New York City and also 6am. The boarding pass I received had had no seat assignment. Fun. Hurdle three, crossed?
I got in line at security. The sign read “less than 15 minute wait.” It took thirty. When I finally made my entry to the scanning area, I took off my shoes and put them in a bin, as required. What wafted up from the ground was one of the most foul odors I’d ever smelled. Ten days of waterproof hiking shoes and only a few pairs of socks had combined to concoct a noxious plume around my feet. I was too tired to care if others noticed. I bet they did. It was bad. I put my shoes back on as soon as I could, anxiously awaiting the minute I’d throw my socks (and all of my nuclear clothing) into the washing machine to purify. I’m surprised there weren’t any chemical weapon alert flags raised, to be honest.
As soon as I made it through security, I had cleared the fourth hurdle, with the third still in limbo. Before boarding time, I had enough time to grab breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, use the restroom, and secure my seat assignment at the gate counter with nearly an hour to spare. Thank goodness for efficiency and pre-planning. The Virgin employees at the gate were quite helpful, as I had been expecting. I’d heard very good things about the airline so I was excited to fly with them.
Concerning the plane, I was taken by the dim purple overhead lights and club-like ambiance. It was unlike any airline I’d seen before. The direct flight from New York to San Francisco was full of people who looked like techies and hipsters, business people and adventurers. I guess I fit into all of those categories at least a little. I sat down in my seat. It felt the same as any other flight. There was no adjustable headrest on the seat. That was disappointing. I expected more. My flight was not really all that comfortable. Virgin’s strengths must lie in their customer service, I reasoned, because the airplane was nothing special.
The flight to San Francisco was far longer than I wanted it to be. When it finally landed, I skittered outside into the moist December air, hopped the shuttle bus back to my car in long-term parking, and drove home, almost forgetting how to drive. My patience was running out. At about 3pm I stumbled into my door. Home, finally.
It was just how I left it. Cozy and clean. I spent the afternoon unpacking, showering, and doing laundry. Finally, finally.
The adventure was already becoming a foggy memory. Those last moments at the gate in Lima were turning into a dream, a wonderful dream. It marked the end of my Peruvian experience, but the start of my next great challenge. I hope to be able to write about it someday.
To conclude this seemingly endless series, which has been both a delight and chore to write, I leave you with my final scattered thoughts:
- The trek was incredible. It was beautiful, exciting, amazing, rewarding, and exhausting. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.
- The people of Peru are both lovely and frustrating. Many of them are just trying to make their way in the world that was given them; some employing more aggressive ways of succeeding. For every obnoxious peddler or terrible driver, there was a sweet seamstress or outgoing host to outweigh the bad with so much more good.
- Despite Peru’s developing-nation status, our trip was largely insulated in nice hotels with every necessary amenity. I’m not saying we didn’t get an authentic experience — the days of the trek were certainly one — but I know I’d have been a lot less comfortable without such amenities. I know I could never live like the average Peruvian lives.
- The air around the streets in Cusco is disgusting. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if the rain didn’t clean it everyday. There are a lot of things wrong with the United States, but we definitely take pretty good care of our environment compared to other nations.
- Peruvian food is fantastic. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, especially the trek meals.
- Peruvian attempts at American food are mediocre. If you’re in Peru, go for the local food. Trust me.
- All of the Spanish I picked up is gone. If I were to travel to another Spanish-speaking country, I would hope that it returns just as quickly as it went.
- Despite all of the worries, the inclement weather, the illness, and the fatigue, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our Peruvian experience. There are obviously a lot of things I didn’t care for: a lot of unexpected challenges, headaches, inclement weather, illnesses and exhaustion, but it was more than counterbalanced by the exceptional adventure, lovely people, and the best company in the world. I’ll treasure these moments forever.