Bopping and Twirling Around Cusco

Jackie Steves is guest-hosting her Dad’s blog with 17 posts in 17 days. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they — the first Steves to venture into South America — report on their experience.

We took the train, then bus back to Cusco. We suffered through cold showers — the hostel had run out of hot water to rinse off our Wayna Picchu hike sweat. Then we put on our beer jackets with a couple of Cusqueñas (Peruvian beer) to warm up. We met a trio of hilarious Brazilians who whet our excitement for visiting Rio de Janeiro.

In a hostel like ours it’s a matter of minutes before you’ve made 10 friends. That’s how friendly everyone is. Introductions usually go something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Have you been here long?”
“Where else have you been / are you going?”

Then you usually proceed to share travel itineraries, with envy on both sides. Most everyone I’ve encountered has either just been to Machu Picchu or is about to go. For lots of backpackers, Bolivia is on the itinerary. Our three-week trip is definitely on the short side. Other people are going all out with South America during a period of two months to a year. It’s also not uncommon to meet people who are doing a world-wide tour (usually from England, Australia, or New Zealand), and South America is only one continent among many they will visit. Andy and I agree that it’s definitely a different demographic here than what you encounter in European hostels.

I would love to do a sociological study of the social dynamics of hostels. It reminds me of the first week of freshman year of college. You are rewarded for being warm and outgoing. Arrogance or snobbishness is punished because you simply won’t make friends. The social dynamics are so great that many are satisfied by staying in at the hostel bar and hanging out with other travelers (although only really great, fun hostels pull this off).

Tonight, with our exhaustion at having woken up 20 hours ago, staying in at the hostel bar was just what the doctor ordered. I made friends with the bartender, who was an absolute clown. And he made me his Pisco sour (the characteristic Peruvian cocktail) of which he was very proud.

Andy was either tired or has grown too old/mature/boring to dance with me. So while he sat and observed, I took on the dance floor. Oh, how I love the dancing style of Europeans and South Americans — bopping around, totally dorky by American standards — but I can definitely dig it. So I bop around too. I alternated between French friends and Brazilian friends. Andy faded off to bed. Pretty soon I grew dizzy from dance partners twirling me around (they have a thing for twirling it seems) so I wished everyone good night as well.

The next morning we visited Koricancha, an ancient Incan temple that the Spanish built upon to convert into a convent, Convento de Santo Domingo. We viewed some Catholic paintings a few centuries old. Since these Spanish Catholic-inspired paintings were done by Incan artists, Incan spiritual symbols were incorporated to create a unique Peruvian flavor.

This museum didn’t do much for us, but that is probably a testament to the value of a guide — which we lacked. It’s like the Spaniards and the passing of time stole the spirit of the Incans by taking all their treasures and destroying some of their productions. A guide is invaluable to serve as a figurative and verbal restoration of that splendor.

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Me and my juice lady friend.

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We ambled through various neighborhoods and perused the San Pedro market. The conditions of the market seemed far from sanitary. The meat row stank of bloody beef. Mangy dogs patrolled the aisles. A whole grocery-store-variety of commodities was crammed into single stalls. Milk from large canisters was ladled into take-away bottles. Old women stooped sleeping, images of decay. Toddlers with dirty faces and clothes waddled about freely; some even crawled on the grimy ground. Desperate for business, vendors hassled us, urging us to consider buying their wares. In the midst of it, a Catholic shrine, sticking out like a white sheep, framed in that silver tin metal, encasing an image of the Virgin mother and the childish hearts and flowers characteristic of the sacred imagery here.

Three rows of fruit juice vendors pleaded for our attention. I decided I’d like to try one for the cultural experience. I perused the rows, seeking the one that looked the cleanest. I chose a smiling woman who had just finished serving a local. I requested pineapple and mango. She peeled and cut the fresh fruit and pushed it through her blender. Then she dumped a can of milk in — yuck. She handed me the finished orange product and I tried it. Pretty good. But as I took a few more thick, creamy sips, I couldn’t get the disgusting thought of canned milk out of my head. I felt terrible, but I handed her back the glass, with most of it remaining, and paid. I pretended I really enjoyed it and made the patting-the-full-stomach sign.

As we moseyed back to our hostel, we passed stand upon stand of the same souvenirs. The only souvenir I would like to take home is one of the local toddlers. How do Peruvians make such adorable babies? Even Andy noticed their absurd cuteness.

The fact that the world of those backpacking through Peru is small was reinforced when we ran into the American couple we met in Ollantaytambo at the restaurant where we ate dinner. This was not the first time we re-encountered people we met days before. We ran into the same Irish girls we met our first night in Cusco three days later at the restaurant where we watched the World Cup in Aguas Calientes. On our first day at Machu Picchu we met a couple of American guys whom we ran into twice in Aguas the next day and a third time the following day in Cusco! A small world, at least for travelers in Peru.