Christmas 2006

Happy Holidays, Everyone!!                            —–December 2006—-

I decided to start a new tradition by sending a holiday letter telling about my travels during the year. Most of you probably know I took a trip to Peru this year. I went on a tour with a Canadian company, Gap Adventures, whose tour style is more “interactive” and “breaks down the barriers between the natives and the tourists.” This is basically marketing-speak for “you’re not paying enough for your own air-conditioned bus so you’ll ride public transportation with the locals and their chickens.”

The trips are also small groups, no larger than 15 people. That sounds good, but for the first half of the trip, it was just me and an 80 year old man named Patrick, whom everyone assumed was my husband. I had to keep telling them we needed TWO hotel rooms. Patrick’s originally from Ireland but has lived in the states for 30 years. In Cuzco he came close to being arrested for passing counterfeit money since when he changed dollars for soles at the Atlanta airport, he was given a fake 100 sol note. At a Cuzco bank, he went to break it into smaller bills and they took it and wouldn’t give it back to him.

Anyway, Cuzco is an ancient Incan city which now houses a couple hundred thousand people, at a ridiculously high altitude of about 11,000 feet. Altitude sickness is common so they recommend you drink coca tea several times a day to help with that, but not too much or you’ll be wired and unable to sleep. I never noticed any effect from the tea but drank it anyway as I had headaches and got completely winded walking up 4 flights of stairs. It’s also legal to chew coca leaves, but not to make cocaine with them.

You know how people in Latin America are mostly mixed blood, part indigenous and part Spanish or European? In Cuzco there was slim evidence of the Spanish blood. Everybody looked very Incan, and nobody was taller than 5’6”. There was no point in trying to “blend in” and look less like a tourist by tucking the camera discreetly in a pocket. So, we wandered around with our pale skin and gooberish hemp hats, and were a target for every huckster on the make. Other than that pestering, the people were really nice.

From Cuzco we took a train (3 hours) to Aguas Calientes, a city at the base of Machu Picchu. You can only get there by train (or hiking the Inca Trail for several days, which I wisely declined) and the city has no cars. About 2000 people live there and it exists solely to support the tourism of Machu Picchu. We settled in and sampled Peruvian cuisine although I confess I never tried the guinea pig. Yes, they eat guinea pig (know as cuy), and I initially was going to have some. When in Rome, and all that. Then I found out that it isn’t served like chicken in Chinese food, little bits of meat you can barely identify. No, it’s served whole, with the head on. And the feet are still there. And, bargain – it’s big enough for two people!  I did ask more adventurous travelers who tried it what it tasted like. (Chicken?) They said it was good, but so stuffed full of herbs that the taste of the meat was kind of lost anyway. FYI.

The next morning we caught a 6 a.m. bus up to Machu Picchu; it went up a switchback trail on the side of a mountain, without enough room for two buses at once. When that happened, one had to back up to a wider spot in the road. Patrick helpfully speculated on how often they had the brakes checked J It was all worth it to be at Machu Picchu in the early morning before it became really crowded. Machu Picchu is a now-abandoned Inca city deep in the Andes mountains; it housed several hundred people, probably royalty and others of importance. It was once though to be a city of mostly women, but more recent advances in DNA showed that was wrong. It was beautiful and amazing, as you can see by the photos on my card. A handful of llamas were grazing on the grass, but that’s not how the place is maintained. For the sake of my dad and Michigan uncles who would ask, I was told that they mow the grass there, probably about once a month. Also according to our guide, the Incas did not sacrifice humans, but he tended to spin everything in their favor, so who knows.

After Machu Picchu, the rest of the tour group joined us for the final leg into the Amazon Jungle. In preparation for this part, we were supposed to have various shots (including yellow fever vaccine) and bring anti-malaria pills. My so-called husband had done none of this, reasoning that since he was vaccinated in the service (the Royal Air Force), that should suffice. I’m guessing that was what, 50 years ago? (If he had been my husband, rest assured he would have gotten his shots ahead of time.) We flew to the edge of Peru near the Bolivian border, then took a catamaran (I think) a couple of hours up the river to the Imotawa Lodge in the jungle. This place had no electricity, hot water, or windows; just open sides to the building. It did have flush toilets, hammocks aplenty, and a pet howler monkey named Pepe. He was cute and liked to curl up on people’s laps. Then you realized he was stinky and he bit you when you tried to dislodge him and move.

The lodge was very relaxing, the staff cooked great meals which included fried plantains (very good and not mushy like I would imagine) and wedge French fries made from some local sweet potato. The beds had mosquito nets surrounding them, but they weren’t like some Princess bed canopy. They were thin sheets hanging from the top of the frame, and you tucked them under your mattress on all sides. It was kind of like being in a gauzy white coffin. I felt like I had just gulped the kool-aid and was waiting to leave my earthly body behind and ascend to the planet Xenon. (Apologies to Tom Cruise.)

Overall, the jungle wasn’t as “jungly” as you would imagine; not as hot, or humid, or mosquito-filled as we had pictured. We went on both day and night nature walks, but saw no panthers and discovered no new species. Our final night there we went out on the boat after dark to look for caimans (in the alligator family). We saw a capybara (world’s largest rodent, about the size of a medium dog) swimming and then posing on the banks for us. We then spotted some eyes that could be a caiman, so we motored like mad straight for it. The guide leaned over the side, half his body in the water, and pulled out a female caiman about 16” long. It was like a small dragon and most of the group (not me) posed with it as if they had caught it. The Australians especially were vying to replace Steve Irwin who had just died earlier that week. (After the pictures, we put the caiman back in the water and she swam away.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

Elaine

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