The view from the front seat of the Vista Dome train enroute from Cusco, Peru to Aguas Calientes (hot water) is superb. Unfortunately, the Merlot I am sharing with Danny (short for Danielle), an Aussie lass sitting next to me, is undrinkable. Of course, that doesn’t stop me or her from finishing the bottle.
Along the way, the conductor blasts his horn at dogs, cows, and people who wander across the path of the train. We see suspension bridges slung over rushing brown water and high green Andean peaks shrouded in clouds and mystery. We pass through tunnels and towns so obscure that they have no name. Mostly, we laugh at our travels in the spirit of camaraderie that only world-weary travelers can.
I spend the night in Aguas Calientes, I tourist town that is a base camp for Macchu Pichu. Throngs of travelers, mostly younger than me, roam the streets. So does a giant Neapolitan Mastiff that appears out of nowhere while I am bar-hopping down the town’s main street. He swaggers through town like he owns it, oblivious to the lesser animals he finds himself surrounded by. The city is aglow with neon, and the cafe’s are open to the narrow pedestrian-only street. As I pass through, I am accosted alternatively by restaurateurs and hookers eager to sell their wears. To say this is an inauspicious beginning to my trip to the famous Incan temple would be an understatement.
I started out today with my guide, Juan, who seems to think that my foremost ambition in life is to enrich the many friends in his life that own shops in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Silly me. I thought I was hear to see the Incan ruins. Eventually I get to that, but first I must peruse the Alpaca sweaters, Coca teas, jewelry, and food for sale at some roadside stops. Sure, it took precious time away from seeing actual archeological treasures, but at least I got to see some Llamas and Alpacas up close, as well as some native women doing their weaving.
We pass through villages famous for the delicacy of roasted Guinea Pig. Along the roadside, women wave the impaled critters on sticks to entice passers-by. Many homes in the Sacred Valley are adorned with a curious talisman on the rooftop-small statues of two bulls and a cross above them, the better to ward off evil spirits. I guess they’re trying to cover all of the bases.
SIgns of construction are everywhere. Juan explains that this valley is a magnet for hoteliers and the rich who are trying to escape the congestion in Cusco. Property prices are an eye-popping $100,000 and acre! He even has a Swiss friend who moved from Lugano to olive and work. I look around me, and yes, there are mountains, greenery, and the Urubomba River, and there are many fine fincas (ranches) and even upscale condominiums in the area. There are also feral dogs scavenging for food in the open garbage dumps along the side of the road, crumbling concrete structures scrawled with graffiti, and, of course, you cannot drink the water…nor expect that you will be able to go a full year without bribing an official at one level. I think of beautiful Lucerne, the quintessential Swiss city, and I can scarcely believe anyone would trade one for another.
That said, I have found that the citizens of developing countries have something of an inferiority complex, and it manifests itself via the exaggeration of the charms of their own country. Thus, that same guide Juan, with a straight face, compared Tuscany with Cusco. The actual resemblance ends with the terra cotta tile roofs and the gently rolling hills, unfortunately. On another occasion, I had two women swear that a so-so Chilean Cabernet was better than anything from California (uh…no). And when this doesn’t work, they seek to subtly denigrate America even when they haven’t been there…”Isn’t every US city exactly alike?”, “Americans can’t be trusted”, etc. Some of this is no doubt due to our waning prestige in the world, and some of it to simple envy.
I just smile and answer that they should visit Savannah and San Fransisco and tell me they’re identical. Or I tell them that they should visit Denali National Park, which is bigger than most countries. In all honesty, the more I travel, the more I love America.
By the time we reach the Ollantaytambo Ruins, there’s only thirty minutes left before I must board the train. Juan explains to me that he won’t accompany me to the top like all of the other tour guides because he’s eaten too much at lunch and it’s raining. Oh. Never mind, I tell him, I’m going anyway.
I climb what seems like a thousand steps to the Temple of the Sun in gusting winds and a steady drizzle, but am rewarded with a fantastic view and sun before I’m forced to go back down in the valley to walk through the Temple of Water before meeting Juan again.
I am amazed by the ingenuity and industry of these ancient peoples, They managed to carve an empire out of the jungle, and left an indelible imprint on the land and its people that can be seen to this day. The roads they engineered are still there, the precision fit of the walls and boulders still impresses archaeologists, and the beauty of the people is ever-present in the smiles of these handsome folk, who, by the way, live far longer than we Norde’ Americanos do. When I ask why, I am told it’s the organic food. Maybe, but I’m inclined to believe it’s in the genes and the culture. A local tells me that these indigenous country people marry for life, and to cheat on their spouse means eternal shame. They seem genuinely happy despite what I would call impoverished surroundings. And sure, they eat right. It seems like that works for them.
It would probably work for me, but I’d have to give up my drinking and become an optimist. Oh, well. I can always dream…:))