Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mad River

I don’t always do or feel the things I’m supposed to do and feel: I rarely get eight hours of sleep. I was not dizzy with excitement during the 2008 presidential election. I opted not to take an SAT prep course. I have yet to fully appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude. I never saw “Titanic.” Some people might call it defiance or peculiarity; I just don’t like feeling obligated or confined by other people’s rules. Anyone who knows me probably already knows this. Blame it on genes, astrology, familial conditioning, or maybe a minor personality disorder. In any case, I have never been one of those people whose dream it is to visit Macchu Picchu; I always thought it would be interesting and would surpass its revelation through a glossy coffee table book. Nonetheless, I felt myself resisting every time someone insisted that if I was going to be in Peru, I was obliged to brave the crowds and inflated prices to wind my way up to its hallowed site in the clouds.

Of course when push came to shove, I ended up going, but not before first resting in the arms of the verdant mountains of the Sacred Valley. I spent a day and a night in Ollantaytambo, a beautiful little village that boasts some impressive Incan ruins, an other-worldly blind musician and a rushing river. It took me as long as I was there to learn to pronounce it, and I never learned to pronounce the name of the hotel – a hotel owned by one of Erika’s cousins, the Hotel Pakaritampu. The pace of Ollantaytambo was as gentle as a passing shadow. I bought a bottle of water there from an old man who ran a little store on the main plaza, a transaction that was drawn out over the space of about ten minutes while he smiled at me as if I was the first person to ever make a purchase in his store, asked if I was traveling by myself, opened his money drawer and fumbled around as if he’d forgotten why he was there, closed it again, looked at me and remembered how much change I needed, and finally sent me on my way with my water and my eight soles 50 centavos.

You may be aware that there were some serious floods in the Cusco and the Sacred Valley in January. Several people died, others were injured, thousands lost their homes, and even more lost revenue as Macchu Picchu was closed until April 1st while repairs were made to the train tracks that carry thousands of passengers daily to and from the pueblo that lies below the lost city in the sky. It reminded me a little of the swine flu of 2009, except that this was a bona fide natural disaster rather than a conspiracy perhaps dreamt up by some pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. Mexico is, by the way, still struggling to recover from the destruction the big ‘epidemic’ caused their businesses.

The train wound alongside the River Urubamba, taking its sweet time (about an hour and twenty minutes) to travel just 17 miles from Piscacucho to Aguas Calientes (also known as Macchu Picchu Pueblo). . . not that I was in any hurry. The descriptions I’d read and my own distaste for heavily-touristed places had left me with very low expectations of Aguas Calientes, but I was greeted at the station by a lovely young guy who walked me to the hotel his family owned where I’d made a reservation. He encouraged me to check out the hot springs up the street, which were open until 8:30pm, but upon seeing the line up at the gate, I sort of lost my motivation and decided instead to get some dinner and go to bed early so I could wake up before dawn. The whole point of spending a night in Incan Disneyland is in order to be one of the first to enter the ruins, which sit about 25 minutes and several thousand feet above the town. Thousands of others making this pilgrimage arrive later in the morning from Cusco or from other towns in the Sacred Valley.

While I won’t attempt to do the work of Lonely Planet or Wikipedia in my fact reporting, I will say it is one of the more striking natural settings I have had the fortune of visiting – and I’ve been to a few natural places. The ruins are, of course, very impressive – especially when you consider the technical skill and physical labor required to construct such sophisticated edifices in such an extreme location. . . and all without the aid of any machinery. More than the ruins, though, the majesty of the natural environment transported me – even beyond the shrill cries of a pack of Israeli teenagers being led around by their flag-wielding guide, Humberto. After spotting what I could not believe could possibly be people on the side of Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”), I signed in the guest register and made my way up the thousands of stairs to its summit at 8900 feet. I heard at least seven or eight languages along the way, ran into a few New Yorkers, got a helping hand from a Frenchman, a word of sympathy from a Japanese guy who witnessed a minor fall, and reassured some Bolivians that they were close to the top.

Back in town later that afternoon, I was mildly alarmed to discover that the one functioning atm in town would not accept my debit card and my soles were few. I was sure there had to be some kind of solution in a town that received so many tourists. I had enough cash to get myself back to Ollantaytambo but not enough to pay for my stay in the hotel. Few but the most luxurious businesses in Peru accept credit cards, so that was out of the question. Unaccustomed to such inconveniences (although those who live outside New York City might disagree), I found myself quietly railing against the senselessness and injustice of having money but not being able to access it.

I began to descend into several circles of useless machinations – I didn’t have and could not get access to the pin for my credit card to get a cash advance from the atm, I couldn’t use a public phone to call the toll-free number on the back of my credit card, the phone card I purchased to make the call from my cell phone ran out after three minutes of security questions, the woman at the bank told me that – as a national bank – she couldn’t give me a cash advance from my credit card. . . blah blah blah. The girl at the internet café reminded me to be patient, and I returned to my hotel to tell the nice old lady behind the desk that I had no way of paying her for the night I had already spent there. She smiled sympathetically, ‘Ahhh. . . siii. . . .’ and rubbed her hands together while she considered this news. I humbly offered my apologies and explanations, albeit with some defensiveness, ‘I have the money – I swear.’ She replied that times had been very difficult since the floods, that they had had these problems with the banks and the trains and with getting supplies into the town. . . this woman was no stranger to the frustration of not being able to make things happen.

Where was I going next, she asked. The woman’s daughter had gone out for supplies and would be passing through Cusco the next day, where I could give her the money for the room. I assured her I was good for it; she told me not to worry and I was on my way.

Back at hotel in Ollantaytambo that night, I sat down in the restaurant filled with small groups of older married couples and a book of Latin American short stories, prepared for a quiet evening. A wild-haired woman sitting at a table behind me asked if I wanted to have dinner together; I got over my Lucy Honeychurch reservation and said yes. She proceeded to order an awesome bottle of wine (not Peruvian) and to entertain me with stories about her unusual and peripatetic life as a Norwegian ex-patriot living on an island in Panama – her exile in Greece, her paranoid cocaine addict ex-husband, her years working as a caterer in the film industry in Northern California. We became fast friends and planned to meet up again the following night in Cusco.

After a day and night in Cusco, I returned to my family in Lima long enough to shop for and deliver gifts and to graciously be fed and have my laundry done. Karla -- sister of Erika and the director of the daycare center I visited in Ica -- invited me to meet up at her natural food store, which is part of the ‘Club Regatta,’ where Karla is famous not only for being the unofficial curandera of the oceanside community but also because she is a champion of a Peruvian racquet sport called Paleta Fronton. We were serenaded by a neighboring table of viejitos (old dudes) when we sat down for lunch; I smelled like cologne for the rest of the day. After some incredible ceviche, we stopped by the club’s best coffee vending machine (even the coffee from a vending machine in Peru is pretty dope quality) and enjoyed a perfect sunny afternoon walking along the beach promenade. We stopped by Karla’s husband Juan’s incredible new television/photo studio (talk to me about production services in Lima), and headed home to take a pre-flight run. Lucho, my favorite Liberace fan and Lima taxista extrodinaire, chatted me up as we traversed the insane Friday night traffic in Lima to carry me to the airport. To my chagrin, a stopover in the US was unavoidable enroute to Mexico, and this of course included an extensive process with immigration and customs officials who looked at me askance as soon as they saw the countries I’d been visiting. Good thing they didn’t know I’d been hanging out with Pablo Escobar.

Now I am in Guanajuato, enjoying the beauty and familiarity of this city where I’ve become a regular visitor – and most of all, enjoying the company, creativity and unique brilliance of my friend Hugo, as well as his family and other friends here.

Wherever it may carry me next, I ride the mad river that floods my heart.


  1. Amazing! What a great journey. Stay safe and see you soon. Oh can you bring me back a llama?



  2. I come home late and feel like I went somewhere

  3. Hi Hilary, It's Campbell. I know we avoid the e-talk normally, but I can't find your email address and a friend I work with is heading to the states and hopfully New York for a couple of days. If you are in NY in about two weeks would you be interested in Josh contacting you as a friendly face in the big apple. He is a nice young (24) dietitian who works in community health in a project called community kitchens. I am off from work next week, and I think he leaves on Monday anyway. If you think it is possible his email is joshqpereira@hotmail.com . If you aren't that interested that is totally ok. I need to set pen to paper as well. Things are settled here pretty much, thanks very much for your last letter, it was timely. I am hoping this comment will prompt some sort of email alert to your proper email address. love Cam