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Thursday, February 21, 2019

From the Andes to the Amazon: part 2

My hiking boots, which have carried me up and down Kilimanjaro and around six continents now, are lined with GORE-TEX. My shell jacket is made of a similar “breathable-waterproof” membrane. But here’s a law of physics: To the extent that fabric is breathable, it cannot be waterproof. My poncho, or a plastic bag, is waterproof, but it’s not practical to wear plastic bags on my feet.

On the afternoon of day 2 we had a steady downpour for hours. Walking in such conditions, my boots (and jacket) inevitably soaked through. I was wearing my fleece on top, so that kept me warm, even though the outside got wet. In retrospect I should have been wearing an extra pair of socks to delay the moisture getting to my feet. But I don’t usually like to wear two pairs of socks, as my feet get too hot!

Fortunately it was not raining early in the morning. José, one of the horsemen, woke us up with cups of coca-leaf tea in our tents, which made me feel like I was drinking Sherpa tea on Everest. Then we set off in a mist.

On this day the other horseman, Francisco, accompanied us with Rosalio, the “emergency horse.” I took that to mean if someone got injured and couldn’t walk anymore, s/he could be carried by Rosalio. Occasionally, when things got really watery, Rosalio carried Francisco. We hikers just had to pick our way around.

Because I was the slowest, at every stop our guide asked if I wanted to get on Rosalio, or put my heavy-looking (but not full) backpack on the horse. I was determined not to do this. On Kilimanjaro, once the guide took my daypack off me I felt like I’d lost control of my hike. I couldn’t drink water when I wanted to, and at that altitude and extreme of effort, finding extra breath to ask someone else for water is out of the question! 

The other annoying thing about being slower is that you never get as much rest as everyone else. By the time I caught up, the others had already caught their breath, and started moving on. It was difficult to keep going but every time I paused, there was Rosalio, breathing his horsey breath down my neck. 

Luckily, the weather stayed dry, and we could still see some of the glacier we’d viewed the day before. When I finally reached the top, Salkantay Pass, I made sure Alasdair took a picture of me still wearing my backpack!
4,650 m
We reached the pass about the same time as a Canadian family whom we kept bumping into on other days. We congratulated each other, and got a group photo.

It’s considered less safe to ride a horse on the descent, not that I’ve ever been into horse riding anyway (though horses are beautiful). So the guide finally stopped bugging me. In fact, I didn’t see much of him after that, though he was around to point out a couple of chinchillas.
It was all downhill from there, literally.

Even without rain, there was enough water flowing down the mountain that we often had to step in or across it. The novelty of “ford every stream” was quickly wearing off. Then I heard thunder, and the rain started coming down steadily.
Even these horses were standing around looking defeated.
This was the type of weather I’d feared we might have the whole trek. It rained on and on. I reached the lunch spot, Huayracmachay (3,900 m) long after the others. Not until I stopped did I realize that both my boots and jacket had finally soaked through. Steam rose off me as I took off the jacket, and I didn’t even bother removing my waterproof pants. (That’s a garment I’ve only had a handful of occasions to wear, but when you need them, they’re priceless.)

As I mentioned, my fleece meant I was warm inside, even though the outside got wet. Crucial, because one can get hypothermia even at quite a mild temperature. I had to put everything back on to use the 1-sol toilet, which in this case was an outbuilding across yet another stream. Plus, I had to pass this dejected-looking Cerberus.

Holiday calendar--guinea pigs in a happier state
After lunch there was still 4 1/2 hours to go. The rain slacked off at intervals, but the descent was relentless. I started humming songs to myself like “Hang your head over, hear the wind blow,” because this was getting pretty monotonous, with no one around. To be fair, I would have been equally annoyed with the guide if he’d been hovering the whole time, bugging me or trying to put me on a horse.

Tragically, our group lost a horse that day. We heard that it slipped and fell (just as well it wasn’t me!), and had to be cut loose from the other horses, though the gear was recovered. I’m sad that this happened to any horse but I really hope it wasn’t Rosalio. Because in his own way, he did get me to the top.
Vaguely J-shaped piece of horseshoe, found on the trail and kept as a memento (mori?)
We finally reached Collpapampa (3,000 m) in a fresh downpour. We ate and slept under shelter again that second night, but the rain was endless. The air was far too damp to dry my boots; besides, I had to put them back on to go to the toilet, another outbuilding located across the sodden lawn. I know this is what I signed up for, but we’d reached Salkantay Pass at 10:00 that morning, and the sense of accomplishment seemed so long ago.

The one bright spot continued to be the cooking—four or five dishes at every meal. Things were looking up by breakfast on day 3.

Of course, there were still my feet to deal with. I’d noticed a blister while I was climbing up the previous morning and slapped a “second skin” on it right away, which would probably have been enough, had I managed to keep my feet dry. Since my boots were still wet, the only thing I could do was put dry socks on, then another pair over those that I knew would get wet, and just hope that kept my feet dry enough in the absence of yet more rain.
Speaking of feet--corn!
This was a shorter day. We basically descended for six hours from Collpapampa, into the Amazon jungle! We were following a river, not the Amazon itself but a tributary of it. One of the other joys of the wet season is that there are a lot of rockslides, so parts of the main trail were closed, and we had to keep crossing and recrossing the river. Sometimes this was a suspension bridge, at narrower crossings a tricky log bridge. Once we had to pick an elaborate path along stones in swiftly running water, and soaking my boots again felt like the least risk I was taking. But my favourite was this high, wide crossing, where an enterprising woman was running a “cable car.”
Cable car!
Funnily enough, I didn’t feel scared at any of these places. If someone had asked me if I wanted to pay a sol to have this woman haul me across the river, I would have declined; but we had to do it so I was the first to climb in. I even thought about taking pictures when paused high above the river, but we’d been told to hang on.

This was no Kili, that’s for sure. At the second campsite we actually had an electric socket, so I could charge my camera battery. I knew we weren’t exactly trekking in the wilderness, but I didn’t expect so many rest stops (not to mention the campsites) to be people’s yards. Every baño cost a sol but there was variety among them almost as wide as the river. I found one, still only a sol, that had a seat, a sink with soap, and papel!
Everyone seemed to have a dog, too. Our guide told us that in many places, there are just a few families living, so the children have to go to school in the village. This was Sunday, however, so we saw lots of kids around.
Our guide playing football with one of the little boys
I was tickled to be able to talk to the kids, even if it was just ¿Cómo estás? And ¿Te gusta? One thing I’ve noticed about language classes in general is they always teach the informal, so you can talk to your friends about how much you like the discotheque. But ever since I got to Latin America, every adult addresses me formally: Buenos días. And why wouldn’t they? We are strangers to one another. The only people I’ve gotten to use the informal with are little kids.
This little girl thought all the mud was just delightful to squelch her bare feet in. Not sure Grandma was as pleased.
I have mixed reviews of our guide. I do admire these men, mostly young fathers, who work hard guiding foreigners and invariably speak three or four languages. This guy was a native Quechua speaker (plus fluent in English and Spanish, obviously). As a descendant of the Incas, he was quite proud to tell us all the local knowledge, such as medicinal plants, the earth and sun and moon being gods, plus the tradition of sacrifice. The Incas used to offer human sacrifices—high in the glaciers such as where we’d climbed on day 2—and we know this, because of the mummies that have been found up there. The guide assured us that although “we have a different philosophy” today, back then, if your child was selected for the role of a human sacrifice, it was considered an honour.

I don't know if this is oral history or an anthropologist's theory, but either way, I'm skeptical. How can anyone alive today know what an Inca mother or father felt? But at least the guide talking to us meant that we were all together for once.
Faces painted, warrior style
Other than my damp boots, it was a halfway decent hiking day.

I was so glad I’d thrown in an extra pair of socks, but I still worried I wouldn’t have enough dry pairs to wear next to my feet. Then, blessedly, the sun came out! 
I started having fantasies about hanging my socks on a clothesline and setting my boots in the sun to dry, and lo, these were about to come true. Just a little while longer of hiking by myself.
Election posters--signs of a democracy
At last, I reached our campsite at “La Playa,” a mere 2,000 meters above sea level. Despite the name, it was not, therefore, a beach. But at least it wasn’t raining. As soon as I got my stuff out to dry, I treated myself to a cold shower. It’s a little disconcerting to take a shower while someone’s outside the open window doing dishes the whole time, but this afternoon was my one chance to be comfortable.
Hammock time
Because now we had a choice. We could go to the hot springs at Santa Teresa, and then bus it farther down the line towards Machu Picchu pueblo; or, we could do another big uphill hike the next day to an Inca ruin, then a yet steeper and muddier descent. Our guide must not have felt like doing this any more than I did, because he made it sound worse than day 2. Alasdair and Josie, of course, wanted to hike up to Llactapata, with a view to seeing Machu Picchu from there. If, that is, it was not raining.

By the time we made this decision, it was raining. Again. And my left foot was a wreck. But Josie gave me some of her tape, and the guide said if I really couldn’t do the next day’s hike, I could always ride with the chefs. (We’d left the horsemen behind and there was a road now.) We also decided that if it was raining the next morning we would all just go to the hot springs instead. 

Somehow, just knowing I didn’t have to hike made me feel more able to do it. The next morning, it had stopped raining, and meanwhile I had dry socks and boots to get into. What could go wrong? 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Salkantay Trek part 1: Cuzco, Peru

There are a handful of famous sights that “everyone” has heard of in South America, but three have long been on my list. The Galápagos Islands, which are obviously not part of the continent but in the Pacific, a province of Ecuador; the Amazon, an enormous basin that stretches far beyond the eponymous river into several South American countries; and Machu Picchu, “the lost city of the Incas.” “Lost,” in that this mountaintop city was never discovered by the conquering Spaniards, and only rediscovered by the outside world in 1911, when a norteamericano was shown the ruins by one of the locals. (Who, of course, had always known Machu Picchu was there. But more on that later.)

Machu Picchu can only be reached on foot, or by bus from the pueblo (Aguas Calientes). But first, we had to get to the nearest city with an airport: Cuzco, elevation 3,399 meters.
My impression of Peruvians, starting in Lima, has been a friendly one. Limeños seemed to like waiting in lines almost as much as British people do, and even offered T. a seat when she was wearying of the bus. The altitude in Cuzco was dramatically different, but not the friendly welcome. In fact the first thing we were offered when we got off the plane was a coca leaf each.

Coca leaves are unfortunately known as the raw material for cocaine, after many chemicals are added, and most countries in the world treat coca leaves no differently from the processed drug. In the Andes Mountains, however, people have used coca for thousands of years to mitigate the effects of altitude. The leaves contain only a tiny proportion of the stimulant that forms the basis for cocaine, and are legal—and indeed recommended—in Peru and Bolivia. I have to say that chewing the leaf did not do anything for me. It tasted like lawn clippings. Brewed into a tea, though, it may have helped me on subsequent days at altitude, and certainly didn’t hurt or turn anything numb. (Sugar, also recommended for altitude, helped with the lawn-clipping taste.)
"Careful with your head"--a much more likely danger in Peru than coca
Altitude is perhaps not the biggest issue with Cuzco in February, though. It’s the wet season around here, the worst time of year to visit Machu Picchu, certainly if one is contemplating a journey on foot, as I hoped to do. In fact, the classic Inca Trail (part of a vast system of roads the Incas constructed, stretching almost 25,000 miles through South America) is closed every February for maintenance. So it was not going to be possible to walk to Machu Picchu via the stone steps and Inca ruins.

Fortunately, I’d picked up a travel magazine on the Canadian train and read that an alternative trek, the Salkantay, was one of the great hikes of the world. Some companies don’t organize this trek during February either, as it’s the wet season. But I found a small company called Llama Path that was founded by a former porter and had a reputation for good treatment. Llama Path assured me that I could start the Salkantay Trek in two days’ time (the minimum for acclimatizing in Cuzco). I walked out into the rain and hoped the mate de coca would do away with my headache soon.

Our first meal in Cuzco had been a moderate success. Neither alcohol nor coffee are recommended for acclimatizing to altitude, but carbohydrates are. It’s been a long time since I ate as much sugar as I did that week. We started at a folklórico restaurant, where traditional music and dancing (not by us) accompanied the Peruvian dishes. My drink of choice was chicha morada, a very sweet nonalcoholic drink made from purple corn. It didn’t taste as weird as it sounds, but it was served in an absolutely enormous glass. 

“The dancers are wearing fencing masks with faces painted on them,” T. said. “Giving me the willies!” What gave me the willies was the guinea pig I could see being served to other tables (roasted whole; they don’t serve it up in a lasagna, like alpaca). We stuck to the “hen soup."

The next day, we walked a couple blocks from our Airbnb to Qorikancha, once the richest temple in the Inca empire. The Spanish colonizers built the Convento de Santo Domingo on top of its stone foundation, and the convent still stands today as an example of the two cultures smushed into each other. One of the most remarkable things about Inca architecture is that it was built to withstand earthquakes, and has done so for centuries. Certainly most colonial buildings in the Andes, never mind modern ones, have not done as well. (We're pretty sure we felt a few seconds of earthquake on our first day in Cuzco, though it was only a tremor.)

Another remarkable thing about the Incas is how they did all this stonework without mortar or, as far as we know, iron tools. No one really knows how they did it so there are lots of fanciful theories (involving aliens, etc.) But you can walk down many a street or alley in Cuzco today and see it for yourself.
Trade union demonstration. Nice to see democracy in Latin America
At lunchtime, we were beckoned by a very friendly woman into her restaurant. No English was spoken whatsoever, but there were only two dishes on the menu, and I figured out that one was “cow.” As I have mentioned, a little Spanish  is a dangerous thing. T. was so put off by the meat that she put me off too! Fortunately, there was plenty of rice, plus potatoes, salad, and picante. Peruvians are very proud to have given the world potatoes—they have some eight hundred varieties, and like the British, they figure two kinds of starch on the plate is better than one. (In the case of our “hen of farm” soup, the potato just floated around whole, along with some kind of corn ball. Peruvians love their corn, too.)
View of Cuzco from Qorikancha
And they love guinea pigs, but not in the way they love dogs, which are everywhere in Peru. I like to think I’m a fairly adventurous traveler, but I’ve never been a big “gotta try the weird meat” person, Woozy notwithstanding. No matter what it is, the only description you ever get really is “tastes like chicken.” Some guy in Lima told me it tasted like chicken. Well, chicken is on the menu. We just order that! 

Meanwhile, my head still hurt. I remembered ibuprofen was supposed to help on Kilimanjaro, so we went in search of that. All drugs are locked behind a counter in Peru, so I had to ask for it. Here’s something useful: If you add -o to an English word, that’s often enough to make it Spanish. “Ah, ibuprofeno,” the druggist said, and cheerfully sold me ten pills for some tiny amount.

But the best money I spent in Cuzco, and possibly ever, was 3 soles—about a dollar—for a green plastic poncho. My raincoat can’t cover my 40L backpack, and that’s what I was planning to pack for the trek—not full, but so I could wear the comfortable waist straps. Everything inside would be wrapped in plastic bags anyway, but in the likely event of a downpour, this trash-bag equivalent could keep the backpack from getting completely soaked.

The wet season seems to involve clear-ish mornings and rainy afternoons, and so it proved on our second acclimatization day. We walked through Inca alleyways with stones dating back to the 13th century, and ended up at the main square, Plaza de Armas.
I hadn’t realized when we attempted to eat vaca the day before that T. was still not feeling well. As it turned out, she was coming down with another ailment, her resistance probably weakened by the first one; all I knew was that her appetite was going. We decided it would be safe to try something at Paddy’s, which claims to be the highest Irish pub on earth.  

I decided that, as we wouldn’t be staying at the same Airbnb by the time I got back from my trek, Paddy’s is where I wanted to meet T. Many a time in subsequent days I would think of Paddy’s and its promise of Cusqueña beer. For the time being, I forewent Cusqueña and had some nice trout. And corn soup, and rice and potatoes.

An altitude headache is not nice. Back at base camp on Kili (not, funnily enough, at 5,200 m) my head hurt badly enough that I couldn’t keep food down. That was how I felt our second night in Cuzco. Despite all the carbs, I was not acclimatizing fast enough, and we were to hike the next morning. The only good thing was that the trek itself would start somewhat lower than Cuzco, at Challacancha. 

To get there, we had to meet in central Cuzco at 4:30 A.M. Even though our meeting place was seven blocks away, I called a taxi. The only part of the dispatcher’s Spanish I didn’t understand was “What is your name?”, so there goes my elementary Spanish class! The driver didn’t overcharge me, attempted conversation in Spanish, and waited with me in the taxi until the rest of my group got to the square. I was happy to tip this guy.
Here you can see our pack animals being loaded at Challacancha. Given the name Llama Path, I was somewhat disappointed to find that our pack animals were horses, introduced by the colonizing Spanish. On this trek we had two horsemen, two chefs, a guide, and two other hikers. Fresh out of university, this young English couple had signed up even more last-minute than I had, as this was when they happened to be in Peru. They had not fully taken in that this was not the season to be trekking in the Andes.
A bridge of things to come
Before starting the trek, we’d stopped for breakfast at Mollepata (2,900 m). I’d been off coffee for a few days in hopes that that would help with the altitude, but despite ibuprofeno, my head was still hurting. I decided to let myself have one cup of coffee and, unusually for me, put sugar in it. The effect was far more dramatic than anything mate de coca could do. I felt like I’d been shot full of adrenalin. The headache was gone, and I decided not to forego coffee anymore—at least one cup.
Day 1, not a bad view 
My excellent feeling lasted until the beginning of the climb. I was huffing and puffing uphill, quickly falling behind Josie and Alasdair, who were after all half my age. It was to be this way for much of the following four days, although things leveled out after a while.
Sure-footed cow
After a few hours we reached our highest (and coldest) campsite of the trek, Soraypampa (3,850 m). This is where Llama Path’s promise of the “best food” started to come true. The lunch these chefs threw together in a camp kitchen was unbelievable. I had to take a picture because they produced, among several other dishes, ceviche. Fresh fish on the side of a mountain—and it was far better than the ceviche I’d had in Lima. We also had pasta and roast potatoes (no idea how they roasted anything), soup, and vegetables. T. reckons this is the only reason I signed up with Llama Path. Every meal was like this.
We were then shown to our tents for a siesta. I was glad to see the tent was pitched under a kind of thatched shelter. Not that I didn’t trust the rain fly.
Our work was not done for the afternoon. We had an acclimatization hike (more uphill!) to prepare for Day 2, the highest, and therefore presumably hardest, day of the trek. Fortunately, it was clear enough to see the Salkantay glacier, which we’d be approaching on our Day 2 climb to the Salkantay Pass.
We weren’t just doing this hike to “walk high, sleep low,” as mountaineers say. Our goal was a glacial lake that can only be reached by two hours’ walking steadily uphill. When I say steadily, of course, I mean slowly.

People coming back down from the lake said it was worth it, though. And it was.
It came into view so suddenly I almost didn’t take in that there was a little stand there, with a woman selling Cokes. Heaven knows how she gets to work every day. This is one way in which the Salkantay Trek is quite different from Kilimanjaro: People live here and there all along the trail, and it seems every one of them is selling Kit Kats, or a 1-sol trip to the toilet. Pole pole, however, was exactly the same.
I wouldn’t say the uphills got easier, but I managed to find my rhythm and just did it. Being behind has its advantages; on the way up, the guide pointed out a condor to me, which is not as common a sight in Peru as it once was. And on the way back down, I saw this beautiful reward for the sporadic rain (and hail!)
For supper, the chefs produced fried yucca (yum!), “Arabic” rice, trout, chicken—and bananas flambé for dessert. Unbelievable. If I didn’t make it to 4,600 m the next day, it wasn’t going to be because I lacked fuel.

But I was determined to make it. I’d been 600 m higher than that on Kili. I’d camped higher than the altitude of the Salkantay Pass.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Continent #6: The trials of Sra. Nols

Here’s an amazing fact: Hardly any women in Latin America have short hair or dress like I do, and yet not one single person has had any difficulty identifying me as amiga or “lady.” Unlike in North America, no matter what hat I may be wearing, I have complete confidence entering a women’s room and not being accosted, as far as Spanish speakers are concerned. I have had 100% the same experience with French speakers. Why do you suppose it is so hard for anglophones?

I’ve always been inclined to like Peru, and that is where we began our travels in South America. My favourite Spanish teacher in high school was from Peru, as was our Airbnb host in Madrid who gave us so much unexpected help when our car broke down (in return for the car). Plus, I had a guinea pig when I was a child—Woozy, of blessed memory. Guinea pigs originated in the Andes, although because of Woozy, I cannot think of them in the same way Peruvians do.
The most difficult thing about Cuba was the leaving of it. Not because of travel restrictions or because, like Cubans, we didn’t have enough money. It was because departing Havana airport is about as efficient as departing Hanoi. We stood in line for at least an hour to check in for our flight to Lima. Elena, the Russian speaker who finally checked us in, asked if we had an onward ticket out of Peru. I thought she might not let us board the plane, since we didn’t have one, but she didn’t seem to care. Then I stood in another line to exchange the Cuban currency we hadn’t managed to spend. They only had U.S. dollars but I was happy to take them; apparently they don’t charge 10% to sell USD, only to buy them. They were already calling our gate by the time I met T. at passport control. After exiting Cuba, we had just enough time to spend our last 3-peso notes on two bottles of water (since we hadn’t been able to take liquids through security) and get a bus to the gate. There was no time to enjoy the airport, even had there been anything to enjoy.

Once we were on the plane the flight was unusually nice. On the right we could see a beautiful sunset and on the left, our first glimpse of the Andes in Ecuador.

At immigration, the officer asked how many days we were planning to be in Peru. In the absence of firm plans, I gave him an estimate. He asked if we were tourists, I said yes, and he stamped us in. “Welcome to Peru.”

If Havana airport reminded me of Hanoi, Lima airport reminded me of Johannesburg. Although we only changed flights in Jo’burg it was a culture shock, after the cheap and cheerful chicken shack in Dar es Salaam where we’d boarded the plane. Outside, Johannesburg (and Lima to some extent) is a land of haves and have-nots, but inside the airport it’s bright with shops and WiFi. Just as well, since we hadn't been able to connect with our Airbnb host from Cuba.

Our neighbourhood was Miraflores, as central Lima is not supposed to be the best area after dark. This is what I mean about haves and have-nots. Our local supermarket had security guards (to be fair, the building is open to the elements). Cuba does not need security, but then it doesn’t have supermarkets either.

We were all set up to enjoy our sixth continent, a new one to both of us. And then T. got sick. Possibly a chest infection contracted from one of our fellow travellers in Cuba, but whatever it was, it was nasty and disabling. We’d both been pretty lucky on these travels with our health, but all T’s luck seemed to run out in Peru. So much of what follows will, unfortunately, be as much news to her as it is to the rest of you.

Of course the first day, I was more than happy just to glory in the supermarket and our Airbnb’s washing machine. Like Havana, Lima has its Malecón, a seafront walk along the cliffs. It was only blocks from our place. I could not get over looking at the map and realizing that we were directly south of eastern North America. Although we were on the Pacific coast, we were still in the Eastern time zone.

I also walked along to an excavated Wari’ site (which now includes an acclaimed restaurant). The Wari’ people lived in the Andes between A.D. 600 and 1000, long before the Incas whose empire gets all the attention. I was to be struck over and over again by the contrast with North America (and Cuba for that matter): Peruvians are, still, largely an indigenous people. About 45% of Peru’s population is indigena, and another 37% are mestizo or of mixed indigenous and European heritage. So the country looks very different from any place I've ever been before.

We’d had good experiences with the “free” (tips only) walking tours of many European cities, so I thought I’d give Lima a try. My first visit was to the neighbourhood of Barranco, which borders Miraflores. It was lots of traipsing around art galleries, as Barranco is that kind of neighbourhood, but there were also some cool murals and, looking down from the cliffs, a surf beach.

The real point of interest, though, was our guide, a Peruvian-American. His family had left Barranco when he was a young teenager, as the Internal Conflict of the 1980s spread to Lima. He was quite open about the fact that his family entered the U.S.A. as tourists, and then illegally overstayed their visas (this, and not sneaking across the border, is how most people become illegal immigrants). Eventually, his mom married an American and they got permanent residence in the U.S. I imagine that nowadays, people fleeing violence in other parts of the world would not get so easy a reception, but it was fortunate for his family.
He told us his story while we were standing around La Ermita de Barranco, which must once have been a beautiful church. Sadly, it suffered damage in 1940 in an earthquake (a common danger along this fault line of the world) and has been closed ever since. Our guide wondered aloud why the Vatican didn’t just shell out for repairs.

Guinea pigs excepted, I felt that I should try some Peruvian treats. So I snacked on Inka Corn (a success) and tried Inca Cola (kind of bubblegum flavoured; less of a success). I even tried ceviche, a marinated raw seafood dish which is a specialty of the area. This was one of many occasions on which a little Spanish was a dangerous thing: The waitress asked if I wanted picante, or spicy salsa, and I said “Sí, picante.” But she took it as “sin picante.” I think I would have preferred it with! 

As I mentioned before, I was thrilled to be consistently recognized as female, and Señora Nols became my go-to name. I found that it was easier to spell my name this way in Spanish, plus, Spanish speakers could then pronounce it in a way I would recognize. 

Like the walking tour of Barranco, my trip down Javier Prado Este would not have appealed to T., even had she been feeling well. It is a crowded and busy major road, and it was very hot and sticky. Probably if you arrived in Lima from North America you would be shocked by all the honking horns and the aggressiveness of the traffic, but believe me, it's nothing compared with Vietnam.

Lima has something called the Metropolitano, but it isn’t a metro—it’s a bus system with special lanes. It is very hot and unbelievably crowded at rush hour, but it’s still the only rapid transit Lima has. I made my way via the Metropolitano and a local bus to Javier Prado Este with one goal in mind: the Museo de la Nación.

Lima’s museums, inconveniently, are scattered around various suburbs, and most of this one seems always to be closed. It does have one permanent exhibition on the sixth floor that I was determined to see, about the Internal Conflict (1980-2000) I mentioned earlier. This exhibition is the product of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is called Yuyanapaq—Quechua for “to remember.” (Quechua is one of Peru’s official languages.)

Except for a leaflet in English, the exhibition is all in Spanish, so there was a limited amount I could get out of the text. The real value is in the photographs, though. These document a period in which two groups terrorized Peru, provoking, in turn, extreme violence by government forces trying to root them out. The better-known group was called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), whose goal was a Maoist peasant revolution completely reconstructing Peruvian society. Another group, known by its Spanish initials MRTA (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), were Marxists who did not kill as many people, but were involved in some notorious events. Among these was the takeover of the Japanese embassy (an episode on which Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto is based).  
Journalists who were later killed in a massacre in Uchuraccay, January 1983. The photographer, Octavio Infante, was also killed.
It is probably not surprising that the very people these revolutionaries supposedly represented were the ones who suffered the most. The violence was centred around Ayacucho in the Andes, and 70% of those killed during the Internal Conflict were Quechua speakers. Many people fled to Lima during those years, which in turn led to shantytowns and a growing crime problem. Others, like my guide’s family, fled Peru itself. The crisis is called an Internal Conflict because it is really a war between the terrorist forces and opposing forces from the government. Human rights groups estimate that as many as half of all the casualties have been at the hands of military and police.
Mothers of the "National Association of Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared Relatives of Peru" 
Both Lima and Peru are doing better these days. Peru is still a poor country, but it’s trying hard. 

On a breezy Sunday afternoon everyone in Miraflores and Barranco seemed to be walking along the Malecón. I joined them, from Larcomar (a big, generic shopping mall built into the cliffs) across the Villena Rey Bridge to Parque del Amor.

Along the way, I was offered, but declined, surfing lessons and tons of helado (ice cream). There is no shortage of activities along the Malecón de Miraflores.
Beach volleyball


I was starting to worry about T. We were scheduled to fly to Cuzco, over 11,000 feet above sea level, in two days, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea with a lung infection! But thanks to that blessed dentist in Arusha, she still had some amoxicillin that seemed to be killing it off. Random antibiotics is not a good idea in the developed world, but for travellers, it’s any port in a storm.
La Marina lighthouse
She thought oranges sounded good, so I had a conversation with the most local of the fruit sellers who stand on every street corner. This lady saw me coming so I ended up with kilos of mandarins and apricots, but I did manage to decline a plastic bag, and she agreed that that was best. Whatever was coming out of my mouth may not have been Spanish, but it definitely wasn’t English!

Lima is supposed to be a foodie capital, but I still wasn’t getting it. T. finally felt well enough to go out for a meal and we got some seafood paella, but it was only O.K. At least it wasn’t a ham and cheese sandwich. Between Cuba and the supermarket, that felt like all I’d been eating. I was also disappointed by the national drink of Peru, the pisco sour. Chocolate pisco, on the other hand, was a revelation. 

I went to the Chocolate Museum as part of another “free” walking tour, this time to central Lima. If you’re ever in Lima, I wouldn’t bother with this tour. It was five hot and sticky hours starting with the Metropolitano, which I’d already negotiated myself. Besides talking about how important it was to tip her and how other visitors had let her down in the past, our guide mostly kept repeating the same thing: that Catholicism was from the Europeans, in contrast to the Inca religion. Now, I didn’t know previously that La Catedral de Lima was formerly the Temple of the Moon, but I didn’t have to be told four times either. I could have walked from the Plaza San Martín along the pedestrianized Jirón de la Unión by myself, and not spent as much time hanging around or going in shops.

Iglesia de la Merced
We did reach Plaza de Armas in time to see the changing of the guard. This ceremony seemed to go on for a long time. At one point, I confess to wondering why they were playing a Simon & Garfunkel song, then realized that of course, Paul Simon used the melody of “El Cóndor Pasa” for his song “(If I Could)”. 

Our unhelpful guide then lost half the group on a walk to the central market, scolding us after her apprentice (I can’t imagine what he’s learning) finally found us again. I blame myself for not bringing a map and having to follow her around everywhere. We finished the tour in Barrio Chino (Chinatown), where she told us that there are no longer any Chinese people. This seems unlikely. There are Chinese people absolutely everywhere, even a South African township. 

Whatever you think of China as a power, if there’s one thing you can count on finding in this world, it’s Chinese—both people and restaurants. The particular Peruvian version of a Chinese restaurant is called a chifa, and every neighbourhood has one. Maybe we would have had better luck there.

For the record, I did tip the guide, not because she guilt-tripped us but because I don’t believe people should work for nothing. If you’re reading this, Claudia, here’s another tip: Try not being such a ditz!

T. braved the bus system and returned to Javier Prado Este with me on our last night in Lima. She was determined not to miss the Hard Rock Cafe, as we had in Chiang Mai. Like other things in Lima, the Hard Rock Cafe is inconveniently located, this in a big mall miles from anywhere. It was a simply awful journey at rush hour, which in Lima lasts till 10 P.M. I knew this from the taxi driver who’d brought us from the airport—a helpful, English-speaking guy who charged us a fair price and didn’t try to change it when we got to our destination.

I wish I’d called him for our return taxi to the airport. Instead, I got the bright idea to again use my little Spanish, and ask the driver who brought us back from the Hard Rock to pick us up in the morning. He was there promptly (for “Sra. Nols”) but that’s all that can be said for him. He ripped us off and then turned out not even to have a proper license for the airport—so as we got out of the taxi, he was being questioned by officials. I hope he paid it all in fines.

Here’s another fact: Some taxi drivers are going to rip you off. Not all of them by any means, and you can try to avoid it, but at some point, as a foreign visitor, you are going to overpay (meters are unknown in most parts of the world). Marek Bron of calls this type of experience “the angel’s share.” He’s comparing it to the small percentage of every barrel of whiskey that inevitably evaporates during the distilling process. In order to get whiskey, there is always a little bit that just disappears into the heavens. Getting ripped off by taxi drivers is that part of the travel experience.

Or, as our much more tippable guide O. in Cuba put it: The first few drops of every bottle of rum are poured out “for the saints.”
The rainbow flag of the Inca empire (not gay pride!) and the Peruvian flag
Next stop: Cuzco!