• basakbalkan

A long letter from Cusco



Writing from the interior courtyard of a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, the village on the skirts of Machu Picchu.

Date: July 30th

Time: 3PM

I’ve been silent for too long but my fingers have been itching write here and I’ve constantly been writing in my head or taking notes. It’s terrible, I haven’t written since I arrived in Cusco! Not a single word about this wonderful town!

I have been running, running, running non-stop, so it seems to me. Being a tourist is hard work. Being a tourist taking intensive Spanish classes and trying to subtitle Turkish series on a PC program that mysteriously keeps crashing is even harder work. I am so tired that I keep thinking I just can’t take it anymore. Just as today, when I was going up the thousands of steps towards Machu Picchu, I felt I couldn’t take it anymore, but I did. And when I thought I couldn’t take another step once I arrived in the ancient city and yet went all the way up to the Sun Gate; yet another thousand steps uphill, and this time under the sun, well, I did. If you have a beautiful view, or if you have an interlude with a great dinner with a really cool person with delicious wine, well, you just can do more. Your batteries are recharged, until you feel you again can’t take another step. But I think it’s time to calm down for at least a day. Tomorrow (31 July) I will only translate, a bit in my room, a bit in a nice café, maybe visit a museum, but that’s it. The next day I may take the Sacred Valley tour, very easy, just sitting in a bus and getting off, walking, getting back on. Because after that, I want to go to Rainbow Mountain, which involves yet again getting up at 3AM, driving for hours, walking for hours at 5000 meters, aaarrrgghhh – do I really want to torture myself again? But it seems it’s worth it, and if I get really tired, I can rent a mule or a horse. I’m really going to need a vacation after Peru.

Traveling alone is a true delight. I keep meeting people and they’re mostly wonderful. I feel less lonely 10.000 km away from home than I ever did. Here I feel everyone cares about me, they see me, we exchange just a sentence sometimes and a connection is made. I actually feel I’m making a difference, which may or may not be true, but I have deep conversations with some of these people and I feel I leave an imprint. As do they. I feel I’ve caught a virus; the traveling virus, and the second I get back home I’m going to start to plan and save for my next trip... to Cuba? Cambodia? South Africa?

I eavesdrop on conversations, unwillingly or not, and they mostly go like this:

-For how long have you been traveling? Were where you before? Where will you after?

-Oh, this is my 5th month. Before this, I was in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia and from here I’m planning on going to Columbia and Ecuador...

-When we were in Vietnam last year...

-Oh, yes, I loved Vietnam, I spent 3 months volunteering there, then I went on to China...

-(on the phone) Dad? I’ve changed my plans, I’m going to Rio from here, then to Argentina, then I’ll come home...

It doesn’t stop! Some people are jealous of me because I’ve got two months, when they’ve only got 2 or more weeks, but still others look at me with pity, saying, “oh... only 2 months...?” I still have 16 days left till I go to New York, but is it going to be enough? I doubt it. It’s just too wonderful. And everyone who I meet who’s traveling alone says the same thing. We are all in rapture over how strong we feel, how happy, how great it is to decide everything on your own without making compromises, without feeling guilty about anything, doing everything at your own pace... This morning I ran into these 3 French girls I met last night and they kept saying how they wouldn’t like to walk all the way up on their own. I really didn’t see why not and soon abandoned them ( I can’t stand bland people, bland conversations. These 3 girls complained of what they were forced to eat every single night and I found out they only traveled with agencies and always ordered the same thing because they were afraid to taste anything else. Well, suffer then, you fools).

Then I met a Mexican guy who had just met a Lebanese guy and we had a great time walking up together until I was too breathless and asked them to go on without me. I went up slowly, stopping whenever I liked, not feeling guilty because I was keeping someone back, or in competition with anyone... I rested and talked with other people resting, we encouraged each other, or just sat panting in silence, smiled, and separated. I ran into the girl who shared my room the night before and ran into her again and again throughout the day! We ended up having a cozy conversation the ride back down (we couldn’t walk anymore, after ascending the mountain for 1,5 hours and walking around Machu Picchu for 6). I ran into the Mexican guy, the Lebanese, then the two Peruvians with whom I had had a fluid conversation in Spanish, during dinner the night before... You end up having a little universe of your own, and keep running into unlikely people in unlikely places. I just love being able to say anything to anyone anywhere and striking up a conversation. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but it mostly does. Is this true life, when people are open to each other, or is the other one true life, when we frown and refuse to look around and think any stranger speaking to us out of the blue is crazy? I am happier in this life, more real or not.

I am dirty and I smell bad. Not always, but yesterday and today. I don’t care. I wear the same clothes every day. They don’t really suit me. My hair hasn’t been blown-dried in a month. I have no make-up (except when I’m in a city, just mascara). It’s so strange to see photos of people I meet in their “other” lives. They look nothing like what I know! And yet we all feel great about ourselves and we luxuriate in our dirtiness (everything is relative, of course – for us, being “dirty” means not showering or changing clothes for 3-4 days of trekking). It’s so enjoyable to forget about vanity! Right now, I’m sitting in a luxurious restaurant, dressed in dusty, dirty, smelly clothes with my greasy hair pulled back and yet everyone treats me great and I don’t at all feel self-conscious. Of course, I’m a European and they know I can afford it, and that I’ve just come down Machu Picchu.

Cusco/Cuzco/Q’usqo is very touristic. The first day I got there, I wondered how I would spend a whole week in such a tiny place, all streets teeming with tourists.

No, the first day I got there I was wrecked by the 8-hour bus ride from Puno. I was stressed out by having to drive through Peru with the curtains closed (the boy next to me couldn’t stand the sun) and watching Bruce Almighty and Hitch, imposed on us with an extremely high volume, giving me a migraine. I was packed off to my home stay, a Peruvian family the Spanish school had found for me. They lived way out of the city, even though the school director had assured me they didn’t. But he’d given me a wrong phone number, too, so I couldn’t call them so they would let me in the building. The concierge tried hard to help me and finally succeeded, but I was near tears, out of exhaustion. To cut a long story short, I had a very pleasant evening with my landlady and her niece and her niece’s husband, speaking my head off in Spanish. But when the niece also told me that I’d be better off in the city center, I confirmed that I’d leave the next day after breakfast. It was the best decision ever. Ben kim, aileyle kalmak kim? I like my freedom, coming and going as I please, and that would have been torture.

So the next morning I found a nice hotel two steps away from the Plaza Mayor, and started to discover other, less touristic streets, and there was suddenly so much to see, so much to do, that I lengthened my stay. Plus, I met Laura, an English medical student, who was also studying alone in my school. We’d both asked for group classes but, maybe because the school wanted to create employment for more teachers, we were both given one-on-one classes (at group price). To start with, we were both disappointed, because we were looking forward to meeting other students and both thrived on other students’ questions. For sure, being alone with a teacher for FOUR hours is exhausting, but we both made incredible progress, plus we had each other. She was staying in a noisy hostel and a 12-bed dorm, because she was afraid of feeling too lonely in a normal hotel, but despite that, I guess she didn’t meet anyone else who was worth her time, because we spent every evening together, telling each other of what we’d done after class. She loved eating just as much as me, so we discovered together the unbelievably gourmet restaurants of Cusco. We ate Peruvian fusion sushi, causas (mashed potatoes with different stuff on top, soooo good), other Peruvian tapas, ceviche, Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food is called Chifa), she had the first Pisco sour of her life, we had delicious Peruvian red and white wines. And deep, deep conversations and never realized how time went by, until we looked at the time and saw it was 11 and wayyy past our bedtime!! In Peru I always go to bed at 9 by the latest because the altitude is so tiring, and I do so much at these 4000 meters! I got up early every morning to do my homework. It’s just on Thursday, when I got to class, feeling like shit, saying, I can’t take it anymore, I’m so tired, and got impatient towards my teacher when she again wouldn’t let ne complete a sentence on my own. She took pity on me, just as did Laura’s teacher, it seems, and refused to give me homework. I felt ill with exhaustion and went to my hotel and worked and worked to resolve my computer issues then had that late-night dinner with Laura, with a whole bottle of wine, which of course woke me up at 4 and prevented me from sleeping again, but we had had such a great time that the next day I thrived on that adrenaline.

Cusco is a town built on hills. You ascend and descend every narrow, cobblestoned street. You get amazing viewpoints from everywhere. You are constantly panting. My hotel is at the top of a flight of stairs which has been elected by the scum of the earth as their dormitory. It’s terribly sad to see their inhuman faces and hear their grunts. Truly there is no other expression but “the scum of the earth” to describe these putrefying beings who no longer seem human. How do they dare sleep on the top of those stairs? They could tumble down any moment and it’s a long way down, believe you my panting self. It’s forbidden to drink in public in Peru, but that doesn’t seem to hold here. The two streets perpendicular to the flight of stairs are full of bars and discos and when I go back home, or when I left home to go to Machu Picchu at 6AM, it was full of drunk girls and boys, Peruvians and tourists, and pulsating techno music. It smells of cat piss, alcohol and trash all the time. I kept raving about how clean Lima and Arequipa were, but that is far from being the case in Cusco, except on the glorious Plaza de Armas. But let me just add that I never feel unsafe. I kept writing “home”, I realize. Well, I’ve been in that hotel for a week now. My room isn’t the nicest one (I keep ogling the one across from mine, with windows and a view), but it has luxuries such as hot water running 24/24 and even from the sink, pretty parquet floors, water running straight and from all the holes of the shower head (!), a towel to put on the pretty tiles of the bathroom floor, sufficient toilet paper, soap and extremely clean-smelling towels. The girls working there are terribly efficient and sweet, except when they have to get up to open the door to guests after 10 o’clock. One night, the doorbell rang and rang, and I was warm and tired (duh) in bed, ready to sleep. It rang again and again, and I told myself the girl on call would hear and open the door, but the poor guest had to ring and ring, standing out there in the freezing cold. So I put on my coat and shoes and went down, down, down, crossed the courtyard and tried to open the first door, but couldn’t (great to think what would happen in case of a fire, allah korusun). So I went to reception and saw the two poor, cold, tired girls sleeping a tiny bed on the floor hugging each other. I pulled on a toe and said “The door! The door!” They finally woke up, got up, and let in the freezing guest. The same thing happened again a few nights after and AGAIN I, the self-appointed gatekeeper, went down and opened the door (I’d learned how to open the door to the 2nd courtyard by now). I use the kitchen as I like, any time I like. I speak in Spanish with the girls. I’m going to say there till August 4th. So you see, I am truly at home. I just wish they’d give us, the guests, a key to the door so we wouldn’t be at the mercy of the deeply-sleeping girls. I was so glad to be able to change my train ticket today because I was going to arrive very, very late and I kept imagining myself waiting outside the hotel door, without a kind-hearted person like myself to open me the door in her nightgown and slippers! And the view is going to be majestic.

Writing on the train.

Date: Still July 30th

Time: 5PM

This train is the most luxurious I’ve ever been in. There exists an even more luxurious one, called the Hiram Bingham (the guy who re-discovered Machu Picchu), for more than a 1000$!!!! Oh my, we just got served a soft beverage of our choice (I took maté de coca) and a slice of quinoa pizza! With the river flowing by me and the sun setting over the divine mountains! What more can one ask for...?

I came to Aguas Calientes by minibus and I’m leaving by train, thank god (thank me and the train and my clients). The ride here was one of the worst of my life. First of all, my “friend” Martino, from the travel agency, had transferred his agency’s orders for me to be ready at 6AM and not at 7 as had been previously ordered. He repeated this to me like 10 times. So there I was at 6, in front of the travel agency, and the bus surprisingly arrived just on time. I was the first passenger. And then, as ever, we went aaaall around the city, picking people up. I really don’t understand this stupid system. Why don’t we all gather at a central place and then the bus would leave on time? As it is, people arrive late and then everybody else on the list waits and gets angry. And how angry do you suppose I got when, after exactly and hour of driving around the suburbs and then back in the city center, we ended up right in front of the travel agency yet again??? I had been deprived of an hour of precious sleep. You just don’t do that.

As soon as we were finally on the road, the driver put on some music and it was Bob Marley. Sweet! But after 2 hours of a playlist made up of Bob Marley and UB40 songs, I was really fed up. I put on my ear plugs. Right then, the big man next to me fell asleep and kept falling on top of me. I was tolerant to start with, but then I felt as if I were getting bruises all along my arm so I ended up pushing him away and he did all he could to not crush me but of course it was hard. I was sleepy, too, but the view was just so gorgeous and changing that I couldn’t bear to miss a second of it. (I was actually a bit happy to have the 21.50 train back tonight, thinking that at least I couldn’t admire the view and I could sleep! But here I am again, barely allowing myself to write from admiring the mountains and the river. This country is just so tiring ;)). Then the road changed. Until then it had been a curiously great asphalt road but now it turned into a dusty, gravelly, narrow and extremely dangerous road. We had to close the windows against the dust, the trees turned a nasty shade of dust, it was hot, my T-shirt was wet, the guy next to me continued to sleep, Bob Marley gave way to more reggae, the minibus seemed to be in danger of splitting apart at the seams, or simply falling off the mountain. I thought, oh well, I’ve had a rich life, everyday I’ve lived ever since a certain time has been a bonus; I just hope I’ll die and not lie down in the ravine, wounded and in pain. But we truly had the best driver ever and when I congratulated him later on about how careful he was, he beamed with pleasure.

We finally arrived at our destination and it was an incredible pleasure to walk 8 km along the river, underneath the trees, surrounded by mind-bogglingly high mountains. The weather was simply perfect. I had met two American girls on my minibus and they told me about their 2-year fascinating Peace Corps experience in, of all places, British Guyane, which has the highest suicide rate on earth. They were trying to get over their very serious Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (oh my god, a person just appeared in a traditional costume and mask and performed a hilarious dance in our wagon – you really get your money’s worth on this train! Oh! And now they started a fashion show of Peruvian clothes! Je veux! Ayons! Alalım!). Their stories were so terribly interesting; the 8km went by extremely pleasantly. Unfortunately, once we arrived in town, our ways split and I never saw them again. They went to their hostel and I went to the main square where there was an unbelievable spectacle of tens of travel agents yelling out their tourists’ names and maybe 60 tourists sitting around waiting to hear their badly-pronounced names being yelled out! I was happy to hear “Basak Balkan!” just when I was losing hope. My agent took me to my hostel (where I was handed, as always, a roll of toilet paper and a towel), then we met up again for a very mediocre dinner (but I can have a less than divine dinner from time to time ;)) and to receive our orders for the next day.

Oops, I’ve come full circle. I don’t seem to be able to write chronologically, and when I do, it seems boring. But when I write like this, jumping from subject to subject, I forget to write so many things. But then, you don’t have to know everything, either.

Writing in a café in Cosco

Date: July 31st

Time: 7PM

I’m a bit tired of all the street sellers who want to clean my shoes (I made the mistake of wearing my leather boots today. I needed a change) or sell me trinkets or sweaters or shawls. I was resting in the sun, on the cathedral steps when a trinket-seller sat down next to me and I said “no gracias”, but she continued to sit and we started to have a pleasant conversation in Spanish. It then turned to the fact that she was from Northern Peru and her whole family, all 22 members, had been killed by terrorists when she was 14, in the 70s. She moved to Cusco and lived a nightmare for several years, then her husband left her alone with 3 children. She started to cry. I didn’t know what to do, then she said, wouldn’t I like to buy a necklace? I said, sorry, I know your life is much more difficult than mine, but I really don’t want to pay 30 soles for a necklace I don’t want. I got up and left, feeling horrible. I think I’ll just accept I’m a horrible person. It will make life much easier.

I visited one museum on pre-Inca civilizations and a really good one about Machu Picchu. Our guide there was so uninformative. I learned nothing new from him. I read a really good book when I arrived in Peru, which taught me a LOT. But I can’t feel as close to the Incas as I do to the ancient Greeks. Which is normal; I was obsessed with Greek mythology from age 8 onwards, and I read Homer at age 11. The ancient Greeks left so much more of the humanity behind, it seems to me. All I hear about the Incas is their interest in astronomy, agriculture, religion, sacrifices, architecture... A bit abstract. Actually, Inca is the name you give the royal family, like the Ottomans. The people are NOT Incas; they are Quechuas, Aramayas, hundreds of different people, just like the Ottomans ruled Turks, Kurds, Armenians, etc.

I don’t know what to do the coming days. I was going to go to Rainbow Mountain, a hard climb up to 5000 meters and a bus tour of the sacred valley. But I am just SO TIRED. I’m too late to reserve any tours for tomorrow. I’ll just walk up to an old Inca ruin 30 minutes away from here and work.

OK, now I’ll tag the zillions of photos I put in the galleries. I hope you enjoyed this letter! Un peu décousue...

IMPRESSIONS

Peru has an endless number of rivers, streams, brooks, but they are nearly all polluted. It kills some of the pleasure of walking or sitting by a river or riding a boat on a lake. A young Peruvian guy I met, who’s studying to become a mining engineer, said he wanted to change the situation. Let’s hope he gets there. But I fear it’s much too late. So many communities have had to change their way of life because they can no longer live off the rivers or lakes.

Peruvians are small people. I wonder if it’s because they have an inferiority complex that their tables in all restaurants and houses are so high that I have a hard time eating, let alone writing at my computer? And their steps are so high too, as if they were made for giants. Aarrrrgh...

The Spanish introduced eucalyptus trees in Peru in the 16th century and now they’re everywhere.


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