I generally write about my life experiences AFTER they’ve taken place…but something seems different about my journey to Peru tomorrow night. There has been an uncommon unanimity of response from friends with whom I’ve shared my intentions. Evidently this trip resonates with many; it is an adventure, a faint hope that “some day….”
Well, tomorrow is my ‘some day’. And I am experiencing both anticipation and paranoia; they wax and wane, vying for pre-eminence. I’m now 60. I ain’t the man I usta be. And a man’s gotta know his limitations. (I resent the preceding ‘truths’…tho I may resemble those remarks.) Much of my adult life I’ve lived supremely confident of my ability to transcend any mortal limitations. ‘Rules do not apply to Tucker’. And that has been true long enough to be seductively persuasive. But with hubris lurks payback, for I can remember once having felt impervious to enemy fire…and I remember my chagrin when Charlie reminded me that I might bleed and die as quickly as any other man.
My solo journey to Romania in ’93 was challenging, but I survived its demands…(tho I noted that stress and deprivation was becoming more difficult to ignore). Australia in ’96 was tiring but I was still up to the task. My solo trip to India in ’00 was even more arduous, and this time I had to concede that dealing with multiple flights, transfers, and sleep deprivation really sucks when you’re sick and alone and fighting both nausea and diarrhea.
Tho I dearly wanted to check off yet another item on my travel wish list this spring hiatus, clearly the world was becoming an ever increasingly dangerous place for an American to venture forth. I lived in Europe and Asia for five years, I’ve traveled extensively in my life…but I accept that this brave new world ain’t your father’s Oldsmobile. So I weighed Shining Path activity, the potential for muggings, earthquakes, and altitude sickness against Al Qaida activity elsewhere…and chose Machu Picchu.
I’ve bought, borrowed and read several books about the Incas, Peruvian history, and geography. Tonight I began taking meds to counter altitude. We’ll see how I tolerate them. Half my friends are romantics, vicariously attuned to my mission; the other half, intel insiders forwarding to me CIA briefings on the perils of that vicinity…therefore I vacillate between the dread of all that might go wrong…and the exultation of all that might go right. Additionally, I’ve smoked Pall Malls for 43 years and have few illusions about my lungs and the diminished oxygen at 11,000 feet. This is going to be a serious gut check.
Inca Dinca Doo
It’s ShowTime! I’ve chosen a trip to the “Lost City of the Inca’s”, Machu Picchu for my adventure this year, a whirlwind 5 day 4 nite blitzkrieg…. typical Tuckertime. Planning is always tricky for me, I never know what my work schedule might be – in truth, I don’t HAVE a work routine. I work when I work, and I tend to work often. I’d just finished three days on General Hospital – hadn’t shot a soap opera in years, but it was offered and would pay for my journey below the equator. I’d never been to South America and below the equator only once before, on a shoot in Australia. Southern Cross! New constellations! Winter time…
Not an auspicious beginning. My astrologer had advised me I was starting during a ‘moon void of course’ phase, and things bought, begun and entered into during such phases tend to go south rather quickly. I arrived at Copa Air at 10PM for a 1AM flight to Lima…and was surprised to discover a rather long and testy line. Seems our plane never made it out of Seattle, our flight was cancelled and they were suggesting we try again, same time same place tomorrow night. That wasn’t gonna work for me; once my chain of events was broken, everything would fall apart…connecting flights, tours, hotel reservations…
Spent several hours discussing classic rock, sports and current events with an engaging couple going to Panama, and at about 1 AM, I made it to the counter. A VERY nice woman, once she understood my situation went to work on her keyboard…and 30 minutes later, she’d rescheduled me on a 9AM Continental flight thru Houston, arriving in Lima at 11:30PM (not my earlier expected arrival at 2PM)
And she bumped me up to First Class, always an appreciated kindness. Too late to call the travel agent, and I’d left my cell phone at home in any case, not planning any intercontinental chats. It’s now 2AM, gotta return at 4:45 to get a boarding pass, and there’s only one terminal open at this time of night with any chairs or services. I shlep my two carry-ons from terminal 6 to 4, find a chair and wonder, “Is this a sign? And if so, is it a good sign…or maybe the other kind?” I kill the intervening 7 hours and just before boarding, call a friend to relay my new itinerary, to insure that I can count on my pickup in Lima. I want no taxi drama at midnight in a city renowned for running transport games on tourists! Moments earlier, I’d looked up to a synchronistic moment. Late last night, while waiting to be handled by Copa Air, we’d discussed, (among so many other topics), The Bruce Springsteen Band, The Sopranos, and their curious casting choice of a rock sideman, Steve Van Zante as Tony Soprano’s consigliere, Silvio. And strolling by me just now in Terminal 6, wearing his trademark bandanna is Silvio, (aka Steve Van Zante.) Hmmmm…
I settle into my comfortable 1st Class chaise and order the first of several straight up rum shots. It’ll help me sleep, right? Breakfast of Champions! My stews eyebrows raise slightly but she keeps them coming till I nod off. In Houston, I confirm my new schedule with my travel agent, who assures me I’ll be met by someone holding a sign with my name. I also score a rather nice fifth of Guatemalan rum from the duty free shop, return to my seat and settle in for a loooong leg to Lima. No major dramas, the Lima airport is bustling, even at that late hour, but eventually I see a man holding a card that says, “Smallwood”…and I ignore the entreaties for hotels, transport, coca… Hmm…Well, I AM in Peru.
Ivoldo, my driver is great, gives me a travelogue as we fight our way thru traffic to the highway. Lima is foggy, moist and chilly. It’s winter and this city is known, even to its inhabitants as ‘Grey Lima’. As we approach my suburb, I notice a number of casinos, one catching my eye, the Mariott Hotel and Casino. Hmmm. I check into the Farahona Hotel at 12:30 AM and request a 3:30 wakeup, my flight to Cuzco leaves at 7AM. One thing I’m still good at (one of a diminishing number) is shutting down my brain, at will. The sheets are somehow moist. Lima has 100% humidity, (tho only 1 inch of rainfall annually.) I’m reminded of my bunk in Vietnam, same kind of ambient dampness…tho never this chilly! I dial down my consciousness …and my recently enriched dreams take over.
DIGRESSION – (the first of surely many to come) In preparation for this trip, I’d acquired several texts at Borders and my public library branch; in addition to accessing the infinite resources of the Internet. There was much to consider and I tend to worry. I accept it as my process, the way I feel best prepared for whatever may come. “You trust your mother…but you cut the cards.” Among my concerns – altitude sickness, pickpockets, my lack of facility with Spanish, etc. Days earlier, I’d requested a prescription for Diamox, which helps mitigate any adverse reactions to altitude. (When I picked it up, I told them I only needed 6 tablets at most. I was told 1 or 50 would cost me the same co-pay, $20. “HEALTH CARE COSTS SOARING!” Wonder why?)
I’d begun medication Wednesday night after I finished shooting General Hospital, preferring any reaction to happen here, rather than far from home. No worries. (Evidently, I go thru life rather lightheaded as a general rule) And whether because of them or not, I never had any physical issues with the 11,000 foot altitude of Cuzco and the 8000 of Machu Picchu. But like I said, my dreams, always interesting, started to get seriously colorful, (about which more later). Regarding the numerous reports of muggers, pickpockets and kidnappers, I knew I’d need to stay alert since I was traveling alone and had no genuine Peruvian street smarts. Friends scoffed when I mentioned this concern. “Tucker, come on, no one messes with you, you have that ‘look’ about you that discourages aggression”. And that’s probably true, I’ve been remarkably undisturbed and fortunate since returning home from Vietnam. I carry myself with a certain assurance and purpose…but I also know that I am no longer the fairly dangerous person I was 35 years ago. I am candy at this point in my life. And I knew, if confronted, I could neither fight NOR flee. I’d throw three punches or run ten steps and collapse, gasping for oxygen. “Coach, send in my replacement…or my stunt double!”
I considered adopting a more truculent posture…and was reduced to giggles. Think Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in STIR CRAZY. “Uh huh, that’s right! I’m BAD!” Bottom line, no hostile encounters.
I arose at 3:30, checked out and had a continental breakfast of rolls, fruit preserves; warily accepted the scrambled eggs my waiter brought and requested both coffee…and my first cup of Mate de Coca (tea from the coca plant). It was reportedly a palliative for altitude and a mild stimulant, aiding digestion. Wasn’t bad (no buzz, tho) and I continued to drink it during my travels. It’s commonplace there, as well as coca leaves, coca candy, and the ubiquitous Coca-Cola ( a much sweeter formula in Peru) But it’s illegal to bring any of that back into the US. I’d saved a tea wrapper as a souvenir, as well as three coca leaves, (which WAS dangerous – imagine being busted by customs for 3 coca leaves!) but as I unpacked last night back home, I was horrified to discover a TEA BAG of Mate, which tumbled out of my knapsack!!! All’s well that ends well (and it is occasionally useful to be recognized by airport officials); they tend to pass me along and chat about past film projects rather than toss my luggage. But that was a very silly and somewhat creepy surprise, I’d taken great care to insure I returned with nothing I needed to lie about or sweat.
Back to the Lima airport, where I boarded a smaller flight to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire. They served more Mate and offered me Inca Cola, the soft drink of choice in Peru. It has the yellowish color of Listerine and resembles it in taste – medicinal and rather off-putting, at least to me. Apparently it’s loaded with herbs and minerals, but it’s an acquired taste and I just wasn’t willing to work that hard. Halfway to Cuzco, I looked out my window and noticed we were flying by a craggy, snowcapped mountain. Not over it. Beside it! We weren’t descending, it just happened to share our altitude, and the view was stunning; I’ve never seen anything like that on a commercial flight. It belonged in some IMAX screening. We banked steeply to make the valley approach into Cuzco, now flying between mountain ranges to its Altoplano mesa of 11,000 feet. As we landed, I was attuned, poised to access that moment when the pressurized cabin doors opened. There was no ‘whoosh’, I approached the stairs and verrrry deliberately descended to the ground. Tho the sun was bright at 8AM, it was COLD! Very close to freezing. Boy, was I losing respect for my Internet weather reports, they’d promised a range of 60-36 degrees! So it goes. I was traveling completely carry-on, a knapsack and an Izod duffel bag, (courtesy of Alice Coopers golf tournament weeks before.)
Should have brought more sweaters and sweatshirts…layering is very important there, with broad shifts intraday of temperature and humidity. Lima’d had 100% humidity; Cuzco was close to 0 humidity. But I was breathing normally, everything quite bright and crystal clear in the crisp mountain air. I found my new handlers at the airport entrance, and again warded off the offers of hotels, tickets, taxi, (coca?) and we made our way to the town square and the nearby Emperador Hotel. Many towns in S. America are built around a main central square, each commemorating some past holocaust or uprising (of which Peru has many), much I guess like our own traditions of parks dedicated to Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW1, WW11, Korea, Vietnam. I checked in and decided to crash for a few hours before my scheduled 2PM tour of the city. A portable radiator provided heat, but I simply rolled under the numerous covers. I arose refreshed at 1, grabbed a cup of Mate and decided to check out some nearby sites on my own. One of the most enduring and remarkable qualities of the Inca’s was their facility with masonry. Their foundations of fitted stones, without any mortar endure to this day, despite time and almost continuous seismic activity. (Peru has earthquakes daily; they just don’t take note of tremors below 3…but I did. Just like old times in LA.) Many buildings still have the original Inca stones for their first floor, even the majestic Catholic cathedral in the square. The Spanish tore down many Inca structures and used their stones to construct new palaces and residents…but that trademark Inca stone work is unmistakable. Massive stones, fitted to a fair thee well, not even a knife can penetrate their seams. I there photographed the famous ‘twelve angled stone’, each perfectly aligned with its adjoining partner. Whether coursed (perfectly symmetrical stones) or polygonal (multiple angled stones), their walls are elegant and unforgettable. I’ve a photo of a very pretty little Peruvian girl and her puppy, colorfully costumed before this nearby wall. I returned to my hotel and was taken to the town square to begin my tour.
First we visited the cathedral, built on the site of the Inca palace. The Spaniards plundered the Inca gold and silver, melting it down and sending tons back to Spain, but much remains within the impressive halls. One vaulting altar is completely covered with silver, some 2 tons of it. There is an eclectic mixture of Catholicism and Inca paganism within, for the Spaniards employed the local artisans in construction, woodcarving, and painting. One elaborate altar has numerous and intricate repetitive wooden decorations. The Spanish expected the work to take 5 to 10 years…the Incas were finished in two. Men accustomed to working multi-ton stones made short work of carving cedar into delicate patterns of plants and trees and religious icons. There are numerous large oil paintings, inspired by the work of European artists, and many reflect the sensibilities of the Inca conscripts. One in particular, a rendition of The Last Supper is memorable. Judas resembles (quite slyly) the Spanish conqueror Pizarro, and the table centerpiece is a Peruvian delicacy, enjoyed to this day: roast guinea pig.
From there, we boarded a bus for Sacsayhuaman (sounds very close to ‘sexy woman’). A huge celebration is to be held there tomorrow, June 24th, commemorating their winter solstice, June 21st. I’d hoped to visit Machu Pucchu on that mystic morning, but missed by 24 hours. There are massive stones incorporated into this fortress, one of which weighs 125 tons. Yep, I said tons. Tens of thousands of men labored more than 70 years to erect its imposing zigzagged outer walls. While in the cathedral, I noticed a very tall and striking dark haired woman, who seemed alone and quite comfortably, so. We exchanged smiles several times, but a tall Belgian made his move on the bus and they proceeded together thru the afternoon, making a very attractive couple. While atop this hillside military complex, I took my time and tested the waters, lighting my first cigarette in the thin atmosphere. What can I say, I tend to push envelopes. All was well as we visited an outpost selling crafts. (I’d noticed a sign at the airport, “Peruvian Crafts”, and the thought occurred, it should read “Peruvian Crap”. Not that it’s all crap, mind you, some of the work is quite beautiful…but we all go on vacations and we all buy chatchkas for family and friends. Most of it is crap; we know it, they know it. The implied thought is, “I was away from home and bought this crap to let you know I was thinking of you.”) So I shopped. I’m not a real avid shopper…but I do enjoy the give and take of bargaining. I grew up in the bazaars of Istanbul and Damascus, and I may not speak much Spanish, but my gamblers mind can add quickly, baby! Pretty soon, I’d selected two colorful scarves of ‘baby llama’( or alpaca or vicuna…) not really sure about their relative merits or differences, (tho llama IS tasty!) and a native wool cap, all of which I negotiated the asking total of 29 Sol, down to 16. (A Sol is about 30 cents.) My salesperson was cute and tickled with my passion in bargaining, but she soon realized I was quite willing to walk away. I also asked our guide, Odelia about coca leaves. She told me to check at the counter and for 3 Sol, I soon had a cellophane sleeve filled with coca leaves. I immediately rolled three, placed a chaw between my cheek and gum and began experiencing the Inca secret to their high (no pun intended) altitude endurance. Runners along the Inca Trail (which began at Cuzco) would do as much as 150 miles a day, workers would toil with stone and crops from sunrise to sunset… it’s the Peruvian version of ‘mother’s little helper.’ I also dickered for a carved image of the Peruvian trinity. Atop is the condor, symbolizing the gods and heaven, next comes the puma, representing life on earth and below is the snake, representing death and the afterlife. As we drove down the mountain to return to the city square, Odelia asked who was visiting Machu Picchu on the morrow. I raised my hand (and noticed the tall brunette did, too. Hmmmm.) Odelia expressed her regrets, she’d be taking the day off (Father’s Day) and enjoying a family banquet, she hoped we’d enjoy our next adventure. I thanked her for her cultural expertise and hoped she enjoyed her family gathering… especially the roasted guinea pig! There was a general roar of appreciative laughter on the bus, from Odelia, as well as the mysterious brunette. I should mention that I was constantly in the company of many nationalities, but by traveling alone, I encountered many different people. I met and spoke with Brits, Aussies, Japanese, Americans, French, Germans, East Indians, among so many visitors from abroad. Minimal tho my Spanish was, I held several conversations in German and Vietnamese, if you can imagine. All delightful people, all ages, all sharing a regard for this special place.
I left the bus at the square and walked back to my hotel to plan my evening. It was now dusk (remember, it’s winter there) and I’d been warned not to burn out on that first day, take it easy, acclimate and rest up for the challenge of the steep elevations of Machu Picchu. Accordingly, I showered and considered the post card conundrum. To write or not to write, that is the question. My generation loved receiving foreign posts (remember stamp collections?), but my sense is kids today prefer contemporary crap, i.e., digital, Internet, CD, DVD, blah, blah. Besides, since I’d left my cell at home, I’d also left my phone and address book. Problem solved, I’m off the hook. I remembered my efforts to send home post cards from Romania, years before. I think about half of them were actually delivered… but the prevailing wisdom then had been, “postcards are a Romanian government scam.” They sold the cards, then sold the stamps…then took them from mailboxes and mulched them to create their remarkably fibrous brown toilet paper. I swear, there were times you actually felt you could …nahhh, you don’t really want to hear about that.
I opened my bottle of Guatemalan rum and turned on the tube. Foreign TV is always a trip, but CNN and ESPN are constants worldwide. I checked out world markets, world strife and baseball scores, then turned it off, happy to be somewhere else, at least for a few days. Dinner, what to do? I’d been told do serious carbs and eat several light meals; digestion and metabolism is slowed at altitude. I’d brought along several energy bars, but naturally each celebrated their ‘low-carbness.’ Stashing my passport and plane tickets in the room safe (I’d gotten mixed messages there) – some friends swore you should use the room safe, other experienced travelers felt you should ALWAYS have your passport on you. I compromised, took my photocopies (in case the local militia decided to do some LA-style profiling) and set out to wander the evening streets. Cuzco is a city of perhaps 400,000. Its primary industry is tourism, catering to those who’ve traveled from afar to walk in the footsteps of the Inca. On this Saturday evening, the streets were bustling with kids from everywhere. Exuberant, confident, with intrinsic trail swagger, they milled thru the narrow cobblestone streets, in couples and small groups. There would be fireworks later that evening in the square, (alas, I’ve seen too many, both manufactured and real, the thrill is gone) the perimeter of which was lined with cafes and balconies, offering cuisine from Asia, S. America and Europe. I enjoy people watching, I enjoy picking up on the ‘style’ of travelers, how they dress, how they move, how they interact. Additionally, there is the supporting cast of locals, hawking postcards, shoeshines, (coca?) shady ladies…and each eatery has it’s own sidewalk pitchman (or woman) replete with entreaties, menus, and recommendations. I’ve never been fond of eating alone, but it seemed silly to do there what I often do at home (order carry out) so I entered an attractive corner bistro, peopled with a basic mixture of couples, groups and families. Sat alone, ordered…a pizza. Hey, it was an impulse. I’ve been weaned from the pastas I dearly love, ‘bad carbs, bad carbs!’…and too late remembered, “Tucker, pasta is right on time for you, just now; pasta is carb city!”
My pizza was outstanding! Great crust, intriguing ingredients, wood fired. (God, I hope there was no guinea pig in there…oh, what the hell.) I inhaled it and ate every crumb. Tab was 12 Sol, about $3.50. (Eat your heart out, Pappa Johns!) It’s now about 8PM, gotta be up at 4:30 for the 6AM train ride to Machu Picchu…But it’s Saturday nite in Cuzco, Tucker! TIME TO ROCK AND ROLL!!! Nahhh, I don’t think so. I’m tired. A mans gotta know his limitations. Bedtime for Bonzo. Back to the Emperador, a little more rum (got the kid at the desk to show me how this effing electric radiator works…Damn, I TRIED that!…OK, thanks…) Took my evening altitude meds, but all things considered, life is good. I’m drinking rum, smoking Pall Malls, breathing in and out…who could ask for anything more? Here comes the night… and the latest installment of my very own Cannes Dream Festival. Evidently, the meds, coupled with altitude conspire to elevate the dramatic quotient of my altered conscious sleep state. Trust me, you’d buy a ticket to view these sequences. Recently featured players have included Christopher Walken and Denzel Washington. I’ve known both since the mid 70’s…but I don’t normally include them in my dreams. After all, they have enough starring roles of their own! Maybe this suggests some future work in real time. Hmmmmm.
Up at the crack of dawn, dress for the trek (long sleeves, insect repellant, hiking boots) and enter the small hotel dining nook. A Peruvian hottie (how did I miss her while checking in?) is presiding over the breakfast possibilities. OK, coffee, Mate and toast, please. My Mate is fine. (Did I mention, I’m becoming passing fond of this coca tea…I’ll miss this once I can’t have it)
My toast is so toasted, once lathered with marmalade, it literally SHATTERS into shards as I bite into it. My coffee is…wait a minute, you want me to add water? Ahhh, I see. In truth, it’s Nescafe.
What irony… I’m here high in the Andes, Juan Valdez country, home to wondrous coffee beans (a kilo of which I brought back with me.) Yet my morning coffee is something I wouldn’t drink in Burbank. INSTANT COFFEE?? The humanity! (Get over it, Tucker, today is Der Tag. We’re off to see the Wizard.)
I’m met in the lobby by Jacqueline (Jah-kleen)and we proceed by minibus to the train station. She mentions something about options regarding my return, (little of which I understand) but tell her, since I’ve no cell, no way or inclination to phone her, lets follow the principles of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I’ll meet her here upon my return at 7:30PM. On to the train and my reserved seat. It’s a modern train, with Plexiglas above, presumably to afford us a view of the surrounding terrain as we descend the 5000 feet from Cuzco onto the river gorge, then bus up 2000 feet to the saddle between mountain peaks where Machu Picchu lies. At 6:30 we pull out of the station…and then seem to pull back…and then progress…and then pull back. Turns out the train line, created in the ‘20’s is a narrow gauge, single tracked system of switch backs, which allows two way traffic along this 120 kilometer run…but it requires constant coordination by switchers. As the sun rises over the surrounding mountains, the views are compelling. Even today, Peruvians employ the system of terracing for their agriculture, as did the Incas. The slopes are so steep, it’s the only way to create surfaces broad enough to justify the effort each separate field demands. Apparently, Peruvians are world renowned for their variety of corn and potatoes, each crop designed for different soil and altitudes. I saw ears of corn with kernels the size of small grapes offered to passengers. As we passed thru valleys surrounded by ‘hills whose heads touched heaven’, I took in my companions. My train car was one of perhaps 7, it would seem Peru is inclined to control the number of visitors to Machu Picchu. One can also travel the Inca Trail, a journey of several days, passing numerous ruins and sites along the way, but that is for younger, hardier adventurers…and their numbers are also limited by the authorities, permits must be requested before travel with guide and provisions can commence.
BTW, lets remember where we are (11,000 feet up in the Andes). There were no choppers in the Cuzco airport, mainly because choppers don’t function very well at such heights. You get in trouble out here, and your options for rescue are seriously limited. Don’t get hurt. There will be no Dust-Offs! Across the aisle from me is an American couple, 20-something. Both in trekker gear and native ponchos, he’s pretty worn out and crashed (she seems the likely cause of his fatigue, is chipper, fluent in Spanish and quite fetching.)
A young Japanese couple sits ahead of me, their ‘sherpa’ beside me, offering them guidance between his incessant coughing (which begins to freak me, I don’t NEED to catch your bug, dude!) I find a moment to slip up to the front of this lead car to an unoccupied seat and take in the scenery. I now understood why this 120 klick journey required 3 ½ hours. Combined with the multiple switchbacks (parallel tracks, allowing trains to clear for returning traffic, as well as to negotiate chasms too extreme to be attacked directly) these negotiations take time…and maybe that’s part of the charm. I’m not sure why they’ve chosen not to build an adjoining parallel track to alleviate this…reasons may be economic, they may be geological… but the system does work, however inefficient it may seem to me. Many on board sleep as we progress, but I’m unwilling to surrender any opportunity to appreciate the vistas. They may be mundane in their small farm, small field minimalism, but their context is to me quite visually compelling. What must life be like for a farmer and his family, two miles up in the Andes? What kind of dreams do his kids have, to what do they aspire? Do they have any inkling of the envy their proximity to this hallowed land of the legendary Inca people generates among people around the world?
I was struck by the unanimity of responses from friends, when I told them of my intentions to visit Machu Picchu. E-mails arrived, each containing hopes for a safe journey…and a singular, consistent expression, “I’m so envious that you’re making this trip, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of, something that’s been on my wish list for many years.” There were times (especially when schedules seemed to be in SNAFU-Land) that I felt that weight, my need to somehow vicariously complete the intention for so many in my life, as well as for myself. Envy is not an emotion readily shared. We all feel it at times…but we keep it close to our vests; it seems somehow less than proper. But so many baldly shared this unrequited quest. My life allows me such latitude; the upside, if you will of being without my own family. I hope many friends will someday make this journey, if not a similar quest… and I hope my journal will facilitate their adventure.
As we descend from the Altoplano, (the high Andean plateau,) and enter The Sacred Valley, the changes in vegetation are dramatic. Trees grow taller, are more evident. Our train route thru the gorge, surrounded by vaulting peaks, raises the question (at least to me) of what might happen should some boulder, safely ensconced and residing on the heights above (for centuries maybe) suddenly decide to come tumbling down? Could be a tremor…could be God’s will, shit happens. But regardless, if one starts rolling, it won’t stop until it smashes thru some random train car…Surely they’ve got this worked out right? (Hey, this ain’t Disneyland, this is effing Peru, Tucker. Welcome to the jungle)…which we are truly entering with our descent, serious trees, vines, vegetation….and the briskly developing rapids of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the base of Machu Picchu. It was somewhat of a disappointment to me, but then this is winter, their dry season. During the rainy season, it surges and can be heard from the summit, a roiling, dangerous cauldron of water and rocks. The train had several stops at ‘towns’, apart from needs to enter switchbacks, to navigate the occasional extreme terrain feature. When I say extreme, you kinda have to see it. The term Extreme has cachet in our contemporary sports world…EXTREME SPORTS. But I’d love to see those kids try to negotiate by bike or snowboard or whatever, some of Peru’s elevational transitions. You want to talk about ass over teakettle, buddy…
I continued snapping photos as the terrain transitioned and we pulled into a stop. Kids offered passengers corn and souvenirs, the girl across the aisle negotiated with fluency the purchase of several ears (her companion still deep in the arms of Morpheus) and I noticed several new passengers entering my car. She was very blonde and fit (a young Liv Ullman), her escort was leading man tall and also fair…and their Sancho Panza, (who most resembled a somewhat younger Robert Loggia.) I enjoyed watching them ‘exist in the space’, as we continued on to Machu Picchu. They were clearly ‘people of consequence.’ There was no outward show of any kind, but coffee and bread was immediately provided. Her beauty was a given, but more compelling was her physical assurance. She was regal, without evident investment in her presentation. He was less revealing, a quiet, underplayed male lead. ‘Sancho’ (or whatever his name,) was to me the most interesting of the three. As we continued our descent, standing in the aisle, he shed first one, then miles later, another layer of outerwear, continuing his interaction with his couple and with an onboard compatriot. His demeanor suggested both expertise and experience; this was someone to be trusted, and surely someone well paid to escort less knowledgeable adventurers along the Inca Trail. They left the train at Agua Caliente, a short distance from our final destination. Presumably they would climb the Inca trail to Machu Picchu…yet they were carrying no provisions or serious gear, not even evident water. My presumption: other bearers had preceded them, carrying whatever they might need along their way. It was a glimpse into the world of the wealthy who’d chosen spiritual and physical encounters, yet traveled ‘first class’, rather than ‘coach’.
Our train pulled into an area surrounded by colorful shops and stalls, offering all manner of artifacts, woven goods, t-shirts, hats, tapestries, your basic tourist shopping center…it hardly seemed to reflect the spiritual reputation of this mythic shrine, but this was only the train station. There was no sign of anything remarkable, simply because Machu Picchu is constructed on the very top of a mountain peak directly before us; (that’s why the Spanish never found it), we were at the bottom of Urubamba Canyon. There were imposing peaks all around us, but this next leg would require transferring to a bus to begin the 15 minute drive to the summit. I’ve seen pictures taken from the air of this road, named after the explorer Hiram Bingham, who brought Machu Picchu to the attention of the world in 1911. These peaks are quite steep, almost vertical and the road goes back and forth as it works its way up the mountain, perhaps as many as 15 separate switchbacks. It’s hardly a blacktop highway, barely two lanes wide and while there are barriers at each switchback, there is no shoulder to speak of…there is the road, and then there is just space…and a very long drop. We approached the summit and our excitement began to grow as the complex came into view. Most of us have seen pictures but they hardly prepare you for the majesty and setting. The morning was crisp and clear, it was now shortly after 10, the bleached rock constructions glowing in the bright sunlight, further contrasted and defined by the darkness of nearby peaks and valleys, ranges of mountains continuing on as far as the eye could see.
When I’d left the train, I discovered riding in the car behind me was the tall dark-haired woman I’d encountered yesterday. We greeted each other, compared names of guides and realized we’d be in different groups. Now atop the mountain, I was told my guide had called in sick; I’d be handled by another English-speaking guide named Betto. He bustled about, trying to assemble his charges, calling out names, and I approached him. My name was not printed on his lists and I wanted to be sure he knew I was part of his group. He assured me all was well…and indeed it was, for I was now sharing a tour with, you guessed it, Ms South American Thing. As we trailed along single-file to the first site, torn between taking photos, keeping up and trying not to look down (cause these slopes were extreme, ok? The bottom was more than 2000 feet away and would be reached very quickly.) We gathered to listen to Betto’s introductory remarks and she offered to take a picture of me with my camera, which I happily accepted. I then offered to return the favor with her camera and she very confidently struck a pose. Her name was Elizabeth, she was probably close to 6 ‘ barefoot and she was wearing two-inch heels. Dressed entirely in black, a form-fitting sleeveless top and tight jeans, she cut a rakish figure of contemporary stylishness in this centuries old Inca sanctuary. Elizabeth was a veterinarian from Brazil, a teaching professional in a university who’d been brought to Peru to consult on problems they were having with their poultry industry. Not avian flu, but that too was lurking in Chile, where she’d been asked next to go. She’d decided to make this final trek and then fly home. The time passed as we visited site after site, snapping shots, chatting, and I offered her my coca leaf stash, which she delightedly rolled up and began to chew. At some point, mid-way thru the tour, my camera refused to open, a message read, “Please change the battery.” I was stunned, this had never happened before. I had a 256meg card, sufficient memory for more than 1000 shots of my chosen resolution, I’d only been gone three days, but had no back up and no converter, in any case. (I now know what happened. My camera has the ability to take both stills and small films…and apparently, somehow on several occasions that morning, while taking a photo, I was inadvertently shooting in film mode.) Bummer. I dedicated myself to taking pictures with my heart; it was too singular a setting to dwell on so small a misfortune. I can talk about the views and sites but in truth, you gotta see it. I’ve got my pictures, but never expected them to compete with professional shots. To properly get all in perspective, you’d need to traverse to a lateral peak (perhaps Huaynu Picchu) and use a telephoto lens. (As I was leaving Cuzco to return to Lima, an airport kiosk offered an interactive DVD of Machu Picchu for $20. It looked really good but I was confident I’d be able to find it at Amazon. Just checked, no such luck. My bad.)
Inca Dinka Two
Elizabeth playfully suggested that we access the ambient energy surrounding this site and attempt to resurrect my battery. I was happy to comply; removed the battery, aligned my chakras and entered my favorite meditative altered state. After a few moments, I could feel a growing sense of tingling in my extremities, a not unpleasant sensation. As it began to ebb, I opened my eyes and my camera and reinstalled the battery. The camera’s response? “Please replace battery.” Oh well, magic works when it does. On the bus ride up to the summit, I’d lathered onto the few exposed areas of my neck, lower jaw and hands, 3Ms ‘ULTRATHON’, which I’d picked up at a camping goods store in LA. Machu Picchu is renowned for the rapaciousness of its mosquitoes and sand flies. I was bitten only once; I watched a mosquito take his bounty from my little finger (I image my blood now commingled with the Inca…)
That sucker is still swollen, five days later and burns! I’ll bet that place is a bitch in the summer. I didn’t apply sunscreen (and probably should have.)
Adequately describing the different building groups, using only words is probably beyond my abilities. The site is so relatively small and revered, there exists an abundance of images available to those interested, both in books and on-line. I can share my impressions as I went from sector to sector. The Inca are perhaps best known for their masonry and empire building, but they had astronomical chops, too. They had no compasses, so Machu Picchu is aligned to true north rather than magnetic north; they used the stars for guidance. There is a sacred rock within the Temple Of The Sun, (which is really a solar observatory). At sunrise on June 21st,(the winter solstice) the sunlight passing thru the eastern window bisects this stone. In the intersections of some walls in Cuzco, a single small stone had been inserted. Analysis determined these stones had not originated on earth. For whatever reason, the Inca sometimes chose to incorporate fragments of meteorites into their walls. How and why are questions we may never resolve, suffice it to say these people were deep. The Inca Trail is not some path traversing the peaks and valleys from Cuzco to Machu Picchu and beyond….it is PAVED with stone. As surreal as it is to imagine messengers running 150 miles a day at these heights, the sight of stone stairs winding their way up 1000’s of feet to a summit, and continuing down the far side seems a feat performed by someone other than man. Their will and sheer intention to complete such a task is reason enough to inspire so many to walk it’s length. Equally compelling are the graceful terraces, they are like necklaces of stone and grass, marking the descent from peak to valley. They are symmetrical, perhaps only 12 feet of level earth or less for planting is created by a 6 foot wall, and then by the next, and then by the next, and in this process, 6 X 12, a sheer thrust of granite becomes a garden. It’s almost like a vertical system of locks for a river channel. There are places here of ritual, grooved stones that channeled sacrificial blood for divination, but unlike the Mayans, the Inca seem not to have been as committed to human sacrifice. Though on occasions, someone disfavored or disgraced was said to wrap their cloak about their head and hurl themself from the precipice to the Urubamba below. In olden days, those entering Cuzco were greeted with this translated phrase, “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.” Laziness was in fact a capital offense, punishable by death. There was such a unified commitment to the appointed tasks that no one went hungry or begged, there was work and food for all. Their empire, vast as it was, existed less than 100 years. All these existing monuments and so much more that’s lost and yet to be discovered was created in about 70 years by vision, unity of purpose and tens of thousands of laboring Indians. To move about this singular city in the sky was to be reminded of the incredible will and intention of these people. Yet their empire fell to a significantly inferior (in numbers) group of Spanish explorers, led by Pizarro. I’m still struggling with that truth.
I’m not much on jewelry, particularly rings. My watch is silver (a valued Omega I considered leaving home, knowing I might hesitate if asked to give it up – and hesitation can cost you more than a watch.) But the night before, I’d stopped in a shop and chosen an engraved silver ring depicting the three sacred levels of the Inca; the condor, puma and snake…and immediately put it on. I turned to Betto during a quiet moment and asked, “The condor is a very specific bird, representing the gods and heaven. The puma is a very specific animal, representing life here on earth. Why is the third realm, that of death and afterlife represented so generically, by just a snake?” (It was exactly the kind of semi-smartass, springbutt question that had irritated more than a few over the years, the Walter Battles of my childhood informing me, “I’ll see you outside, after class…” And an asswhipping would generally ensue, generally mine…but I would always show up. Ah, for those halcyon pre-Columbine days when the worst that might happen was a black eye or a fat lip.) Betto laughed appreciatively and told me, ‘There is a name for this snake, a very poisonous viper. It’s called___” Ikuru is the name I seem to remember…but that’s too close to my favorite salmon roe sushi, Ikura, so I dunno. Gotta look that up. We were told to break for lunch and began to work our way up to the main trail; (the Inca people were the ultimate Stairmaster freaks.) My lungs were doing pretty good but my thighs were burning. As I followed Elizabeth up the steep stairs, both to catch her if she stumbled (good luck!) and to admire the view (sweet), I made some off-hand remark about her shoes, very nice black leather and as I’d said, thick two-inch heels. She turned back with affected indignation and said, “My shoes are just fine.” I agreed, “You look quite smashing in them; they’re very stylish but not particularly practical, you could easily turn an ankle, wouldn’t you agree?” She did agree and seemed to take pleasure in having a strong opinion offered…perhaps most men in her life chose to accommodate her.
There was an attractive modern restaurant at the park entrance, all glassed in to afford the most compelling views of the site and surrounding mountains and a truly lavish buffet was set out for us. I was starving and immediately loaded my plate with salad and beef and chicken and shrimp and pasta and roast pig and potatoes and rice and mushrooms and…and noticed that Elizabeth’s plate was piled even higher, if that was possible. I like a woman with an appetite! We chose a table close to the windows and as we ate, we chatted about our lives, our families, our aspirations. After seconds and desserts and coffee, I reflected upon the relative merits of pleasant company. Being single has its rewards, the latitude to go at will…or stay…But there’s something to be said for traveling with someone who has your back, a sense of humor, patience with changes…and can point out “You know, your ears are bleeding.” A four-man band suddenly appeared, set up shop right behind Elizabeth and began a spirited medley of Peruvian folk standards. The sound of those wooden panpipes is haunting and memorable but you know what? At some point it gets old…and once you reach that point, you really don’t want to HEAR that fucking flute any longer!
The train would leave promptly at 3:30, it was now 2 and I wanted some time to shop for crap to show family and friends I’d been thinking of them (and in truth, I wanted some of this crap for myself!) I boarded the bus… and entered into the Twilight Zone. Everyone knows climbing a height is difficult…but descending is far more dangerous. The bus pulled out and began this madcap odyssey. We’d only gone 100 yards to the first switchback when we braked, to allow an oncoming bus to back up, press closer to the outer shoulder and then pass. Hmmm. Do these guys have radios? Are there mirrors on these switchbacks? Nope and nope.
You know, you constantly read about accidents in China or India (or South America, come to think about it); busloads of people gone over the side of a gorge, dozens dead… But this is a dry, sunny day; they must know what they’re doing, right? Well, lets hope so. Because for the next 20 minutes, we encounter bus after bus after bus…and each time they seem to come out of nowhere. Sometimes we adjust, sometimes they do. Now, you need to understand that just outside my window is the road edge…and beyond that is a sheer drop. Not 90 degrees mind you…but probably close to 75 or 80! The point is, once you start over the side, you ain’t stopping til you get to the bottom of the gorge, which is about 2000 feet below. And since the road has no curb or barrier, it only takes one tire to slip a little as we back up, or come around the bend…and I’m thinking, “Yo, dude! I got all the time in the world! Slow the fuck down!” Hate to look like a pussy, but there it is. This driver’s after the Indoor Guinness Descent Record and is hauling ass down the switchbacks. Bastard probably gets his jollies from scaring the living shit out of these gringo turistas…and it’s working. The end is near (in more ways than one.) With each succeeding switchback, I’d make an assessment. “If we go off now, is it survivable? No way.” “Nope”…”Nope”….A few turns from the bottom I asked myself once more. “Survivable? Nope…but if we fell from here they’d probably be able to identify our bodies.” (At LAX, while waiting in line for new reservations, we’d joked about Medellin, Colombia and the film Romancing The Stone. We all loved the Latino actor (Alfonso Arou) who played Juan, the bandido in love with the works of Joan Wilder.) Dunno why but I suddenly started chanting an incantation, a mantra to get me thru this travail….El Guapo….El Guapo…El Guapo…(Actually that’s his character name in The 3 Amigos) BTW, it worked. We pulled into the bus/train complex, I exchanged silent wide-eyed reactions with the Brit couple across the aisle, both our expressions seeming to suggest, “The fuck was THAT about?” And de-bussed, grateful to be alive.
There seemed no pecking order, the stalls (and there were dozens) ran cheek by jowl, their eclectic choices displayed on hangers, counters, walls. I strolled and was taken by a T-shirt, depicting a coca leaf and this inscription, “La Hoja De Coca No Es Droga” which I believe means, “The leaf of the coca is not a drug.” True enough, somewhat provocative (and it also said, Cusco-Peru-Machu Picchu) This is me! Found a pretty pink Machu Picchu T-shirt for my niece, Jos….and then I saw the woven cap. It’s a traditional Peruvian cap, wool with a top tassel and side ties. If you ski, you’ve probably seen sporty athletes in Aspen or Stowe or Gstaad wearing them. Question was, “Can I pull this off?” Probably not, probably look like a silly old fart…hey, dance like no one’s watching. I priced each as I shopped. She wanted 18 Sol for Jos T-shirt, 15 Sol for mine and 12 Sol for the cap, 45 Sol total (or about $14.) I offered $10 US. She said yes, I was happy, she wrapped my purchases and I moved on to my next negotiation. Bargaining makes using US currency possible, bypassing the moneychangers and exchange rates…but oddly, they won’t accept bills that have a slight tear. Come on, I can’t tell half the time if OUR money is bogus or authentic, but a tear? “OK, how about THIS $20 bill?” (There were T-shirts which said, “I survived Machu Picchu.” What they needed was a T-shirt that said, “I survived the bus ride DOWN from Machu Picchu!” That, I’d buy!) In quick succession, I bought a carved elephant for my cousin, a set of post cards (6 for 5 Sol!), a tapestry (I dunno, shoulda bought two for place mats maybe) a bush hat for my nephew Nate…and as she began to wrap it, I pointed out that it’s maker had embroidered “Machu Pcchu”. She happily exchanged it for another with the missing ‘I’. As I looked about, fast approaching my own shopping wall, here comes the sweet little thing from my first kiosk…and she’s distressed. “What’s wrong?” I ask. She points out that she’d wanted 45 Sol total for the goods. “Yes, and I offered $10, which you accepted. What’s the problem?” “But my goods cost 45 SOL” she continued to plead. “But we’re bargaining, right? Isn’t that what we were doing?” She’s so sweet. But you know what, I’m getting bummed, feeling like a bully and a prick and all my good shopping satisfaction glow is quickly fading. Bottom line, if she’d opened her shop today, if this were her very first time around the block, I’d have either offered her more money or her goods back, but I knew she was an experienced vendor. She’d just seen in me what any canny observer will notice, what street kids around the world have sussed instantly: Tucker has a soft heart. And it’s true. I have to steel myself around street kids, my impulse to buy their crap or let them shine my Nikes (“Senior, I do a good job. Remember me, my name is Carlos…”) I remembered that train ride aboard the Orient Express, between Budapest and Brasov, back in ’93. I’d been up for 44 hours and was approaching an hallucinatory state, fending off this gypsy I called (because he resembled him) Paul Reiser. Paul was determined to steal my passport. He’d suddenly appear in my car, (evidently knew how to bypass its locks) sit next to me, smile wolfishly and suggest, “You look tired…you should sleep.” By now I was equally determined to cut his fucking throat the next time he entered my car …and sat there, in the dark as we passed thru loooong tunnels, Swiss Army knife open, waiting for the sound of that door…Like I said, by now I was wound a little tight. As we approached the tunnels end and light began to reenter the train, I noticed a small figure outside my compartment, his head barely visible above the windowsill. He adroitly manipulated the latches and strolled confidently into my compartment. He was perhaps 10, about 4’ 10” and rather dirty. I called him then and still think of him as ‘The Kid’. I’d surreptitiously closed my knife, and stood as he began to speak in bursts of multiple languages – English, Spanish, French, German, God knows what else and accompanied his pitch with mime and hand gestures. I clearly got (couldn’t tell you just how) that “his father had died, his mother was sick, he hadn’t eaten in days, he didn’t know how he would survive (by now, tears rolled down his cheeks) and if I could find it in the goodness of my heart to…” And I was stunned to find myself welling up, choked with emotion that this child should know such misfortune. I reached in my pocket to find a quarter and offered it. He immediately scoffed and told me he would only accept German marks or Swiss francs…then emptied his pockets to display an assortment of British, French, Swiss and American coins, probably $10 or more. I realized that I’d been had, that The Kid was as good at what he did as I am at what I do. Now tickled and intrigued, I found a more acceptable German mark, offered it and he accepted it as his due. This was not begging, this was performance theater. He settled onto the adjoining couch, reached into a pocket and removed a drumstick sized chunk of what appeared to be (and turned out to be) fat. After brushing off the larger pieces of lint and dirt, he happily began to bite into it and we chatted for several minutes about life in general. I never knew if he and Paul Reiser were in cahoots or simply independent contractors, but I’ll never forget how easily he turned my suspicion and resolve into abject surrender.
So, I turned to the young vendor and firmly told her, “We made a deal. I made an offer and you accepted it. I’m sorry you’re unhappy.” Sussing I wasn’t gonna fold like a cheap suit, she sadly walked away…and I was left with such a hollow victory. My shopping joy was now ashes; I trudged towards the train platform, trying to figure out where all went south. To every thing there is a season. We’ve all experienced that transition of our own energy, from positive and all things possible to negative and zero possibility. The mojo has come and gone. It’s rarely immediately self-evident, (we’re still basking in the glow of our own perfection) but in retrospect we can often look back to a pivot point; the moment when the pendulum crossed over, and this phase of your life has jumped the shark. Elizabeth and I had exchanged e-mail addys over lunch, but I never asked her to have dinner with me…and later realized how much I would have enjoyed her company. I never saw her again. So it goes.
The trip home was relatively uneventful, somewhat anticlimactic, after so long and resonant a day. My mind swirled with impressions and images, but I tried to meditate and quiet down the mainframe. Tho the main purpose of this trip was now done, I still had two more days, but sadly no camera. There are times when a laptop is so damn handy, (I’d have loved to have been able to pass time composing this on the fly,) but the aggravation of transport and trauma and power mitigate that convenience. So I’d pull out my little notepad every so often as a thought or conversation flitted thru my consciousness. The return would take a bit more time, for we were now ascending the 5000 or so feet from gorge to Altoplano. About an hour out of Cuzco, we made a stop and they announced that for the willing, busses would take passengers on, saving them about 45 minutes. Since I’d already promised to return to the station, I passed, but asked what the fee was for this option. I was told it was 5 Sol ($1.70) and the bus went to the mail plaza…about a block away from my effing hotel!! Why hadn’t I been offered this option by my handlers? I asked that very question when they met me, and was told they’d have to charge me $10 for somehow “breaking our contract.” Sorry, I just don’t get this. I can spend 5 Sol, get driven a block from my hotel and they can stay at home and watch Oprah. How does this hurt anyone??? Gotta pose this question to my travel agent.
It was now about 8PM. I went up and showered (noticing as I opened my bath mat, the rather large spider that tumbled out.) After dispatching him, I shuddered at the thought of having to survive a spider bite way out and up here, particularly if I hadn’t specifically noticed the cause of my infection. After strolling the plaza, I settled on a pub right across from my hotel. Rosie O Grady’s was offering Happy Hour 2 for 1 drinks from 8:30 to 9:30. Hey, now! I entered a cozy room with crackling fireplace, a long curved wooden bar and several groups of tables, both fore and aft. I settled into one in front and checked out the menu. My waiter pointed out the local beer of Cuzco was Cusqeuna. They had a ‘malta’, which I ordered, along with a burger and fries. I was brought a tall glass and two bottles of an outstanding dark beer! Somewhat reminiscent of Mackeys Stout, it was rich, malty and damned flavorful. This makes up for that wretched Inca Cola!
I‘d been hoping to try chicha, the Inca intoxicant brewed from corn, but I’d yet to find a place that served it. In olden times, the women of the village would chew the corn kernels, then spit them into a gourd, their saliva causing fermentation over time. I’m not sure how the modern version is made. Hmmmm.
Its funny, sometimes we enjoy the cultural differences of being away from home, trying new things. Yet much as I’ve traveled in my life, as I sat there in this half filled pub, enjoying my beer and burger, Sting on the sound system, fireplace ablaze, I was remarkably content with very familiar surroundings. It seemed a perfect end to a rather perfect day.
I arose early on Monday. I’d be taken to the airport at 9 and I wanted to take a final pass around this little town I’d come to appreciate. After a quick breakfast, I went out into the crisp morning air and walked the cobblestone streets, looking into hostels and trek schedulers and schoolyards. I passed many of the townspeople, some walking their children to school, some off to work. The Plaza was active even so early; there was a group of high school girls practicing their dances for the festivities (held tonight, as a matter of fact.) The Winter Solstice, June 21st is called Inti Raymi and celebrated on June 24th. . I watched them for a bit then passed the fountain, pausing, thinking I should toss in a coin, perhaps that might some day bring me back. But I could see no coins anywhere within and I had only a dime and several Sol coins in my pockets so I walked away, to sit on a bench near a corner and watch the morning street life of Cuzco. Young couples full of flirtatiousness and energy passed by, pairs of kids in skirts and knee socks and school jackets walking hand in hand, mothers with daughters in strollers or in back carriers, the occasional ‘hippy’ couple – long haired, wearing sandals and beads and jeans. I looked back to the fountain, noticing a trio of workmen wading over to the monuments, polishing and picking up debris. Guess that explained the absence of coins.
Carlos was back. Again I refused his entreaties to polish my worn Nikes. Really should have given him a shot, he had white polish and everything. I’d by now learned that the street inquiry, “Where are you from?” was not literal, it was simply a verbal foot in the door. From those that made their living in the streets, the idea was to engage you and keep you engaged; ABC, Always Be Closing. I’ve never liked being rude to people, (even when some deserve it,) but one needs to be specific, direct and willing to be brusque if you want to go about your life without continuous distractions. A heartbreaker-in-waiting, perhaps 14, wearing faded tight hip-hugging bellbottom jeans, a long sleeved top fitted snugly over the swell of her emerging breasts passed by and she walked with purposeful insouciance, already aware of her power and enjoying it. She would have been equally at home walking thru the 3rd street mall in Santa Monica or along Bleeker Street. I returned my notebook to my knapsack…and felt an odd shape. It was my camera battery! That was weird! It’s not easily removed, it takes several deliberate steps to release it from my Canon…and I was feeling that intriguing tingling in my fingers once again, I felt compelled to grasp it and will this energy transfer (“Boy, what a story this will be!”, I thought). I sat for several minutes until the sensation subsided, a little excited, simultaneously hopeful and skeptical as I reinstalled it into the camera body. I turned it on and…”Please replace battery.” So it goes. And it was, sadly time to go. Cuzco has a charm, a quiet sense of itself without pretension, yet its historical importance and proximity to Machu Picchu is incontestable. I thought of the duality of two Romanian towns, Brazov and Bucharest. Brazov is a medieval town in the Carpathians, narrow cobblestone streets, plazas and gardens, home to the castle of Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for the Dracula legend). It is warm, unpretentious and very comfortable. Bucharest is ‘the big city’; it’s the capital and its people seem burdened with a need for importance. While the amenities of Bucharest are far superior, it lacks the warmth of Brazov; just as Lima lacks the warmth of Cuzco.
On the way to the airport, I happily filled out the questionnaire offered me, rating the services of my local guides and handlers. I gave them all high marks, missteps notwithstanding. I will remember the past 48 hours with great fondness.
Inca Coming Home
I was a little flat at the Cuzco airport, sad to be leaving and yet knowing I’d not be home for another 48 hours. I occupied myself with currency exchange, airport taxes (boy, is that a boondoggle!), a little fruitless shopping, and admiring a large billboard ad for Samsung I’d not seen in America. (BTW, I had to continually remind myself when asked, that my nationality is U.S. – not American. That seems to be a low-level insult to the rest of the Americas, both Central and South.) This ad was a riff on the Kubrick film 2001, depicting early man, clad in loin cloth in a series of poses. First stooped, trying to lift a color TV, then a bit more erect as the TV sets got lighter, then almost standing with an LCD screen and finally, fully erect (hmmm) proudly holding his new thin plasma screen. I could almost hear the theme…dohhhh….dahhhh….dahhhhhh…
I reached the departure lounge and settled in with my notebook, noticing two women sitting together, one deeply engrossed in some sort of handheld game. Turns out the game was solitaire; turns out she’d been pretty much sequestered for her entire stay in Cuzco. She took the same afternoon tour to Sacsayhuaman as I and had there been stricken with altitude sickness – nausea, passing out. She was given oxygen and spent that night in bed. Her trip to Machu Picchu was successful but upon returning to the Cuzco elevations, the vomiting and dizzy spells returned. She told me all this without any ‘poor me’ self-pity; just a calm and attractive acceptance of life’s ironies. I’ll bet she’s a pisser at sea level. I saw so many travelers enjoying the sights and tours, it never occurred to me that those who weren’t so comfortable would not be evident. They would be in their rooms hugging the throne and sucking on that mask for just a little more oxygen, please! And I counted my blessings.
The flight back held no surprises. Our return route (or altitude) didn’t pass that mountain peak I’d seen on the way in. As we mounted the bus taking us from plane to terminal, I caught that woman’s eye. Her smile said, “All was AOK, she was grateful to breathe normally once again.” Ivoldo was waiting for me outside and I let him know how much I’d enjoyed my adventure in Cuzco and beyond. We took a different route back to the hotel. I’d actually noticed my shadow as I exited the terminal, there was faint sunlight fighting its way thru their own “June gloom” and Ivoldo commented how unusual that was. Our new route took us past the Pacific, with impressive swells and rough seas. I saw a young man retrieving what seemed to be surfboards from the luggage conveyer; Ivoldo told me the beaches are rather unattractive but their surf attracts many visitors from abroad. Lima seems to be trying to create sand beaches but those steep hillsides leading down to the ocean require the kind of skills the Incas used to terrace their cultivation areas…and the continual seismic activity makes that a daunting task. Looks a little like PCH, but twice as steep.
It was now 12:30, the Lima tour scheduled to begin at 2PM…and I told Ivoldo I would pass, that I was ‘toured out’. Everything seemed anticlimactic to me, the thought of more cathedrals, museums, galleries did not compel me. I wanted a shower, meditation, lunch and a walk thru the Lima streets, to get a sense of the people and life here in their big city. I spent the next several hours in this suburb ‘downtown’, walking, looking into shops and restaurants, sitting in parks. The energy was definitely different, both men and women self absorbed, preoccupied, much like you’d see in any Western city. I saw no one like myself, just observing; all seemed bent upon their tasks. I stopped into a coffee bar/cyber café and learned an hour online would cost me 2 Sol. (I spend 2-3 hours a day on average and often longer online, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been away for 5 days….and in truth, hadn’t really missed it.) I was dismayed to discover the websites were all in Spanish, further dismayed to discover the keyboards are subtly different from ours. After signing on to AOL, the man beside me (who ran the café) helped me translate various choices…(their keyboard has no @…he created it using several different keys). Each task seemed unacceptably complicated. Faced with hundreds of e-mails, (many of which I cared not about), I decided to quit while I was behind, thanked him, paid him1 Sol and walked out. My return route took me past a large souvenir bazaar I’d seen days before and I stopped in. To discover Lima was not Cuzco! There would be no bargaining here! They had lots of interesting stuff but I wanted no more rings. I felt disappointment I’d not bought more (for much better prices!) in Cuzco and after selecting a shot glass, returned to my hotel.
It was about 6 PM, tomorrow morning I’d begin my long trek home (12 hour flight) and I was trying to motivate myself to DO something this last night on the road, have an adventure! Like what, Tucker? Clubbing? Nahhh, I’m tired. Hey, how about that casino we noticed earlier? OK! A little south of the border gaming, yeah, I can get behind that! Removed an emergency C-note stashed in my passport case, grabbed a quick dinner and had the concierge call me a cab. (In Peru, cabs have no meters; you negotiate the fare before you enter!) 5 Sol seemed a fair fare, and I was off to the Marriott. I’d called ahead, concerned about dress codes. I’d traveled light to Peru -, jeans, tennis shoes, black tees. Great for trekking, not so great for James Bond time. No worries they said… just bring your money. I stroll into the casino and am immediately asked to check my knapsack. OK, that makes sense. I light up a Pall Mall and case the joint. Multiple slots of various denominations, 4 Black Jack tables, 2 Caribbean Poker tables, 4 roulette tables and a single underattended crap table with more croupiers than players. Up above, Baccarat tables and higher stakes Black Jack but there is no real crowd here, it seems kinda…quiet, the only sounds the ambient presence of slot payoffs and digital effects. Craps is my game; I sidle over, drop my hundred on the table and accept my chips. I’m offered the dice. Wait a minute. Who else is playing? No one. The solitary gambler has decided to ‘observe’. Fuck it, I came to play. I select two dice, put down $5 and roll a 7. I proceed to make seven straight passes! I’ve never before done that, never pressed my bet, I am now $35 ahead and remarkably underwhelmed. It’s like playing in a vacuum, there’s no energy, I might as well be at home on a computer site. I ask, “When do people usually come out to play here? He responds, “Oh, about 8:30 or 9.” When I point out it’s 9:20, he shrugs fatalistically as if to say, “Whaddya gonna do?”
What I’m gonna do is pick up my chips and go find something more interesting to do. Over the next several hours, I play nickel slots (guaranteed 98% payoff!), manage to walk away with 60% of my massive $10 investment, then try my hand at Black Jack.
I usually don’t play this at casinos; I’m still smarting from an encounter with this harpy in Vancouver years ago that berated my decisions. Hey, I’m no expert, I play to have fun…but it pissed me off to be publicly read for having drawn to 14. (Yeah I busted out, but the dealer was sitting on 19 anyway, bitch!) I hung in there for a while, up maybe $40 and eventually got cold (actually, I didn’t so much get cold as this slick little Asian dealer got hot, she started hitting absurd combinations of 21 and breaking everyone’s balls for the next 15 minutes.) Properly chastened, I returned to the craps tables, where I proceeded to frustrate both the table and myself. There were now TWO players…and we took turns showing promise, establishing multiple positions…and then crapping out. Twice, I got on a run, had an 8 point, and then offered two dollars (one for the dealer, one for me) on hard eight. (An homage to my artistic godfathers, Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. Hard Eight is the name of their production company – and they are GOOD at craps!) I’m not, and both times immediately crapped out. Well, it’s getting on towards midnight, how do we close out the evening? Lets piss away $25 dollars on roulette.
This is to me the most social of games, the best chance to observe people and behavior. Since I don’t know squat about systems, I’m free to follow hunches without self-recrimination. I settle in with 50-cent chips in combinations around my favorite two numbers, 22 and 14. I’m hangin’ in there, and watching this guy who resembles a Chicago commodities trader. He’s beefy and he’s betting maybe $300 a turn on heavy combinations of certain numbers. I have NO idea why he’s choosing these numbers. And he’s losing pretty consistently. When he does win, he immediately puts all his chips back to work on the next spin. When he loses, he pulls out a rather thick wallet and buys $300 worth of chips, which he immediately starts stacking up on certain combinations. About 15 minutes goes by, I’m around even, getting to know some of the other players, by now the cocktail waitresses all understand that Tucker wishes his Bacardi straight up, no coke, no ice, no soda. Thank goodness we finally got THAT straightened out! I’m guessing my big player is down maybe $3000 since I sat down. Win or lose, he’d shown no outward sign of dismay or pleasure. I suddenly heard this “Uhhh” from him…I thought perhaps he’d had a bad beat (a close call).
Nope. The number is 7…and he’s got maybe $250 on it and in multiple combinations around it. Seriously large stacks of chips are passed his way, (I’m noticing those ‘bumblebee’s in denominations of $100), and lots more. And suddenly this guy gets very hot. For the next 15 minutes, he’s playing large combinations and winning, time and time again, BIG TIME! Every so often he disappears. (I discover later, during his walkabouts he takes chip stacks to the window to exchange for $100 bills and also wanders over to the 3 adjacent tables to play there, too.) I’ve no idea how he came out overall, but he was clearly a serious gambler and whatever his system, when it worked, he killed! I’d guess I watched him win about $30,000 while I sat there. Must be nice.
Ok, it’s late, time to make our way home. Cashed in (Lima got about $80 of my money. Next time…)
Picked up my knapsack and asked the concierge to arrange for a cab back to my hotel. He told me it’d be about $3 or $4. Whaaaaat? There were several very nice late model cars (cabs) in the circular hotel entrance, waiting for fares. And across the street, (the beach beyond), LOTS of cabs lined up and waving for attention. I asked the concierge, “Well, what about THOSE cabs, how much do THEY charge?” He sniffed, “Well, you could take one of them but….” And his obvious implication, “yeah, you might save a little money…and you might end up beaten, robbed, molested and found washed up on the beach several weeks later.” But I was pissed; I resent being taken advantage of. It cost me $1.70 to get here, why would it cost $3 or $4 to get home? It’s the principle, damn it! Then the ensuing inner monologue took place, “Tucker, its after midnight. You’ve been drinking. And you’re talking about $3 fucking dollars!!! Get in the cab and go to bed!” So I got in the cab.
As we drove, the driver radioed in his fare and I understood the dispatcher to send him next to “3 Americans who need transport at such and such location”. He acknowledges and responds, “Dias, quatro.”
I immediately start giggling; did I just hear …10-4 ? And I ask him, “Did you just say ‘Dias, quatro’? “Si Senor, es telephon procedro blah, blah blah”, and I’m falling out in the back seat. What is this, Adam fucking 12? I ask, “When you do a com check, do you say, “I read you, cinco by cinco?” Not sure he gets that one, but no matter, that makes my evening and I’m still giggling as he first misses then backs up to turn into my hotel street. And at the intersection ahead is an accident. Two cabs, blocking the narrow street and three Peruvian men standing in the street, pointing, shouting, and all clearly bent out of shape. We ain’t gonna get around them, I don’t think and I’m not real sure just how far my hotel entrance is beyond them.
Well, there’s no meter to worry about, my concerns are, “suppose this shit escalates and these guys throw down.” I’ve no idea of Lima street mores. Do they pack, are they strapped, are bullets about to begin flying about in random directions? Admittedly, I’m being dramatic, I’ve been drinking…but in truth, I really don’t know what to expect. Fortunately my driver does… and he begins a very deliberate negotiation around the lead car, up on the sidewalk (aided by an onlooker or one of the drivers) and we ease by to pull into my hotel drive, just 50 yards ahead of the accident. I step out, greet my doorman and make my way upstairs.
I arise early the next morning. Lima is once again, socked in with fog, but I want to return to the plaza and parks and get a little more of the Lima street scene. It’s morning, folks walking, loaded on mini-busses on their way to work, laborers cleaning the streets policemen in pairs on patrol. After sitting awhile on a park bench and people watching, I make my way up one side of the park, returning to a Middle Eastern restaurant I’d noticed yesterday. I have a gyro for breakfast, seated outside on their sidewalk patio. It’s pretty good and I tell him so. Tucker, we got a long day of travel, let’s check our packing and saddle up.
As I’m checking out; my doorman grabs my duffelbag and I stop him. “Are you sure he’s here?” Indeed Ivoldo is waiting at curbside. I’ve enjoyed our conversations, his English is quite good and he seems to get my combination of tourist, adventurer, observer. We discuss lineage, I explain my ancestry is a combination of African, French, Choctaw…I describe it as ‘Creole’ which he understands, but mestizo might also be applicable. The vast majority of Peruvians are mestizo. He tells me that my doorman had thought I might be Brazilian. Apparently my features and coloring are suggestive of their people. But I said, “Ivaldo, this guy watched me struggle with ‘Buenos noches’ and ‘Buenos tardes’, how fucking Latino could I possibly be?” He agreed…but I gotta ask Elizabeth about that…
I relate to him my casino adventures the night before and he chuckles appreciatively at the “Dias, quatro” exchange. I tell him I’ve still more adventures I want to undertake, but I appreciate how much traveling (particularly alone) takes out of me at this point in my life. He asks, “How old are you?” When I tell him 60, he looks incredulously at me. “I thought you were about my age.” “Well, how old are you, Ivoldo?” He says, “I’m 47.” And I look at this lined, balding middle-aged Peruvian and say, “Jesus, Ivoldo! You look old enough to be my fucking father!” He almost drove off the road; he was laughing so hard. So was I.
We arrived at the Lima airport, he gave me final guidance about airport taxes and check in and we said goodbye. I met so many helpful tour professionals along the way who facilitated my visit, but Ivoldo was the most fun. I was recognized as an actor throughout this trip, but only by visiting outsiders. I’ve been to India, Australia, Germany, Canada, England, Romania, Mexico and Alaska in recent years. No matter where I travel, I’ve encountered native people to whom I am familiar. But evidently my work has yet to make an impression among Peruvians. So it goes. They certainly made an impression upon me.
There was mercifully no drama during my return flight, landing first in Panama City. I’d noticed an exuberant group of young Americans who’d boarded in Lima…and during the flight, apparently someone recognized me, for the whispers began and the heads began to turn, and one young man came up to my seat to ask if I were an actor? I told him I was. As we changed planes in Panama City, they were waiting as a group for me in the departure lounge, wanting me to autograph their boarding passes. I did, and gave one, (whose father was apparently an avid Trek fan) an autographed picture of my character in this past seasons Star Trek: Enterprise. I’d thought perhaps these kids were military brats; I’d forgotten that time for us had come and gone. His father was a civilian foreman, and they were part of a Christian group who’d gone to do missionary work in Peru. Well, good luck to that, Peru is about 95% Catholic, but you never know.
As I prepared to board my final flight home, a woman spoke out to me. It was the couple I’d met that first night at LAX while waiting in the line for our cancelled flight. What nice synchronicity and symmetry. They’d enjoyed their vacation in Panama, our difficulties extending their trip by one day and I was returning on time. (I only wish I’d remembered to tell them about my Silvio sighting.) I filled the next 7 hours with sleep, and began a novel by one of my favorite writers. For years I’ve admired the prose and wit of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaason. They both write books that engage my mind when I’m on the road. I’m a paperback kind of guy, (tho these days, paperbacks cost as much as hardcover novels did in my younger days.) I was struck by the realization that both of them had best selling books out in paperback (no surprise) that were intended for kids (big surprise). Gotta wonder how much the recent (and deserved) success of J. K. Rowling has to do with that.
Customs at LAX seemed somehow more complex than I’d remembered (and I’ve flown internationally a lot in recent years.) I went thru checkpoint after checkpoint, each manned by staff that recognized me and passed me along…but it never seemed to end. Eventually it did, I emerged from the LAX International Terminal and almost immediately boarded the Flyaway Bus to Van Nuys. I often park my car there, but this time, I left my car at home and planned to take a taxi. We reached the Valley, I walked outside to the sidewalk…and at 1AM Wednesday morning (jetlagged to death) there was not a cab in sight. LA is not a cab kind of city, to my mind. But I know they exist, right? I’ve just traveled to Peru, visited Machu Picchu and back…and I’m standing on Woodley Blvd at 1 AM with no idea how I’m going to get from here to my bed, just 3 miles away. Couple of cars came along, I actually considered approached them, “Hi, sorry to bother you, I’d be happy to give you $10 if you’d drop me off on Victory and Reseda…” Can’t do that. I haven’t hitchhiked in 40 years…but I was seriously considering stopping a trailer truck at the light, south on Saticoy. Eventually a cab appeared and my brief and absorbing journey was coming to an end.