#Mike’sView on Peru

This is a new feature where my favorite travel companion gets to have a voice. This voice is mostly forced out of him by my begging and pleading and him acquiescing with succinct, begrudging answers.

Food in Cusco: llama, anything else weird you tried, did the price surprise you, was it boring/delicious/interesting/average?

Price – Food was cheaper, at least it should have been. We we’re magically in the tourist priced areas all the time. Overall, prices were lower though. Definitely had some great food that would’ve been $10 more in the US.

Food – Eating llama was normal, tasted similar to steak or the like. Other foods were different, but good. Not a huge difference than some things ive had in the states. The hiking companies multiple tea times and multi course meals was a surprise (super nice one). All that food was amazing.

Day 2 of hiking: the stairs (go ahead, hate on me)

Fuck stairs. I didn’t get tired, the lack of oxygen wouldn’t let me. Instead I would get light headed and unable to breath. We would stop every 20 steps to just breath, it sucked. Going downhill was so much easier, even though my knees had some close calls.

The atrocity that was the bathrooms

I’d prefer not to remember, but for others sake. Imagine a pure white tile floor in a bathroom. Now imagine it covered in dirt, so it’s all brown and black. Now imagine if you’re unsure what’s dirt and what’s shit. Then add in the smells of 20+ people all suffering from diarrhea or whatnot all shitting in one hole in the ground….knowing there’s shit around the hole as well.

It haunts me.

Hiking with a group (how did you feel about the porters, guides, other people versus when we went to the grand canyon)

We wouldn’t have survived this trip without porters. We would’ve run out of food, waters, or w/e. Moral would’ve sucked too, boy would’ve been a grumpy boy.

Everyone is nice, still can’t believe they do that every week.

The landscape: was it pretty, did it remind you of anything, did you get a chance to see it between panting/resting, did you wish you could move your office here, did the weather suck or was it cool?

I liked to say I wish my office overlooked some of those views, but that would spoil me. I was super surprise Scotland was located in the middle of Peru; seriously, wtf. Vast rolling plains with random rocks scattered around and livestock frolicking.

Plenty of time was spent viewing the views. Didn’t remind me of anything, it was it’s own thing (besides Scotland).

Traveling beyond the USA and Aruba (for the first time, sort of): Being in a third world country and seeing poverty, language barrier

I saw poverty like this in Aruba, but they had more options in Peru. Aruba was a super tourist island, so there’s little chance of self-sufficiency. At least in Peru they could have their own farms and get by.

The language barrier was fun, but annoying at times. If there was a serious issue like needing water or being seriously lost, it got stressful. If you’re just exploring the tourist area, where you have some chance to find English if you need it, then it was fun. Going from full English to no English immediately would’ve been really hard.

Whatever stories you told your parents/sisters

Peru was cool, try it sometime. Get a porter

Hiram Bingham III

No right answer – thoughts that circled my head on the trip, most of which have no conclusion

Part III: Hiram Bingham III

Hiram Bingham III was a pretty crappy Yale professor who used his wife’s fortune to seek glory as an explorer. It was the early 20th century – when the West was exporting enlightenment via colonialization and before the Great War ripped apart it’s social order and idealism. Africa was being divided and conquered, the Panama Canal was under construction, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt was living the ‘strenuous life’ and canoeing uncharted rivers in the Amazon, and National Geographic stunned readers as the last corners of the earth were discovered. But it’s that word – discover – which is so heavy and contentious nowadays.

On the one hand there’s this narrative of Bingham as a daring researcher and explorer. Bingham was originally looking for the last city of the Inca where, after the Spanish took advantage of an Incan civil war and usurped power, the last blood relative of the Incan King hid out in the jungle and waged guerrilla warfare on Cusco and the Spanish for decades. Bingham poured through Cusco archives, hired indigenous guides to lead him through dense forest for weeks, and bribed anyone he met along the way for Incan artifacts and information. And he found what he was looking for: two cities, including one currently believed to be the last city, and dozens of other Inca-era sites; finally, on a hint from a boy, Bingham made a side-trip and discovered Machu Picchu (the Machu Picchu tour guides declare the boy the first tour guide and therefore their patron saint). National Geographic devoted an entire issue to the journey, featuring the first of what is now one of the most easily recognized views in the world: Huyanu Picchu spiked up toward the clouds with a city full of ruins and llamas below. Except in Bingham’s picture, the ruins had yet to be excavated and dense greenery made it almost unrecognizable to my eyes – like nothing much was there at all. Bingham returned for two more journeys in 1915 and 1916, this time taking the now famous pilgrimage route, the Inca Trail. The same trail the Incan God-King would have been carried from Cusco to his Machu Picchu retreat and the same trail (with some updates) that Mike and I set out to tackle.

Photo taken by Hiram Bingham. Retrieved here from National Geographic

I kept pushing our two guides for their opinion of Bingham. One of our guides, Marco, shrugged and put Bingham’s impact into a modern context. Decades ago, the indigenous language Quechua – one of the five languages that was part of the vast Incan empire – was beginning to die out. As people from the forest and valley moved to the big city where the Spanish language ruled, they stuck out like a sore thumb and were stigmatized as being poor, uneducated, and backwards. Their heritage was something to be ashamed of. Until tourism. Until the rest of the world saw value in their language and heritage and poured money into the region just to get a glimpse of it. Without Bingham, how would the word have gotten out? How would Machu Picchu have been restored and protected? Or declared a New Wonder of the World? Bingham led to celebrity which led to money which led to restoration of artifacts and preservation of a way of life. Now Marco, all of our porters, and all of the people of the sacred valley can speak Quechua proudly. And, unlike most other indigenous languages (3 of the 5 Incan empire languages are dead), Quechua looks like it will not die out any time soon: the next generation is taught in Quechua at school.

Our group: as many porters as trekkers with two chefs and two guides. Most porters are also farmers who do the trek as a side job a couple of times a month. In Quechua (and with our guides are translators) they introduced themselves to us: name, where you are from, married?, wawas (babies)?

Being unknown and unprotected puts a site at risk for plunder and decay; being too well-loved has put the site at risk for collapsing.

Our other guide, Raul, had much less praise for Bingham – I might even call it contempt. Within the first few minutes of arriving at Machu Picchu he asked: “where’s the gold?” Cusco – especially anywhere the God-King touched – was covered in gold. If this was the Inca’s Camp David and the Spanish never found this place – then where is it all? Raul’s conclusion: Bingham stole it. But let’s back up here: the real accusation here is that Bingham took artifacts from his dig site and brought them back to Yale. And now, within the past decade, Peru has asked for them back and Yale was like “nah”.  And Peru was like “I’ll see you in court.” And Yale was like “back then everyone stole artifacts, it’s fine!”. And Peru gave them side-eye and they went to couples counseling and now the artifacts have been returned to a small museum in Cusco. (A better breakdown of what happened can be read here though none of the artifacts contain gold).

So if we drop the discoverer term we can see Bingham as an explorer and the best tourism advertiser Peru has ever seen. And maybe his actions at the time helped preserve artifacts that could have been lost. But he was also in it for himself, not the locals – keeping in good graces with Yale, selling books, becoming famous – so maybe he did ferry artifacts out of the country without the government’s permission. What’s perhaps worse than whatever Bingham did is Yale refusing to stand by the contracts Bingham had signed for so long. An entire country should not have to sue a university to retrieve their heritage (don’t even get me started on the British Museum…).

To me, its not that Bingham doesn’t warrant a place in the Machu Picchu story, but he shouldn’t be the entire story, the only famous name associated with the site. Why not focus on the great Incan God-King Pachacutec, who is credited with doubling the empire’s size? Why not focus on a Peruvian anthropologist? If we don’t like the idea of first-world white males holding such power over indigenous sites, then lets change the conversation.


No right answer – thoughts that circled my head on the trip, most of which have no conclusion

Part 1: Haggling

At the markets in Peru (and around the world), you are supposed to haggle for whatever you want to buy. There are no stickers to mark an item’s price and when you ask, the answer probably depends on your skin color and how gullible you look.

With the right attitude, haggling that price down can be fun. It’s a battle of wits and stalling and forced compromises. It forces a traveler to speak and interact with a local who is not there to please them – not a hotel concierge or flight attendant or a travel guide – a real person who must be kind to tourists but is not directly in the tourism industry. Buying souvenirs becomes a living, breathing transaction instead of through a screen and a credit card. In Peru, the language barrier added another translation element to the sales where Peruvian Soles are converted to American Dollars and bids are tossed around in Spanish, English, or the Arabic numerals displayed on a four-function calculator. (My Spanish lasted for the numbers 1-10 and then sort of 11-20 and then very quickly died – the vendors, brilliantly, have realized they can sell more when they tell you the price/haggle in English – I call it “transactional” fluency even if there is zero “conversational” fluency.)

But it gets old. And I start over-analyzing. Because the price of something depends so much on your looks and nationality, it feels like you’re being taken advantage of. And I don’t want to be swindled! And how am I supposed to know what a good deal even sounds like? When negotiating the price of everything got tiresome in Pisac I just paid the woman what she wanted – like I am over putting time and effort into haggling over a pair of socks. But then for pricier items I went to the other extreme of feeling like I haggled too hard core. At one point this woman looked like she was about to cry because at the last second I tried to drop the price by 10 more Soles – and if it was a fake almost-cry to try and get me to buy the tapestry already, it was damn convincing desperation, as she tried to close the deal while corralling her toddler son as he peed into the gutter behind us. 10 Soles is the equivalent of about $3 US. I was haggling over three more dollars. Which begs the question of who is really the one being taken advantage of? Sure, vendors push us to pay more than the locals. And as a former starving-college-student-now-living-in-a-basement typical millennial, I’m keen on keeping to a budget. But even the over-priced goods here are still so much less expensive than in the U.S. Here, I am giving money directly to the person who will benefit from it, not Walmart. And in a couple of days I will return to one of the wealthiest countries on earth where clean water is plentiful and free (well, not in Flint…but you get my point) and where $3 doesn’t amount to much – and I have no idea where she’s returning to. Shouldn’t there be two prices then? One for the locals and one for us, the wealthy tourists flitting in and out of their country? On a moral level, sure. On an individual, person-to-person transaction level, it still feels dubious and confusing.

Airport Sparklers

Mike and I were sitting on the floor in line to board our last flight from Lima to Cusco when we heard a woman at the counter call our names. It was 8am and we had been flying or in airports from DC since 5pm the previous day – Christmas day. The lady looked worried and said in broken English we had something not allowed in our checked bag. One of us (not both, she stressed) would have to come with her, claim our bag, and take it out. Somehow she volunteered me as tribute.

I vehemently loathed the Lima airport. A loathing founded on irrational fear founded on my thorough confusion during a six hour layover here eight years ago. Eight years ago, no one spoke English or could interpret my charades; at one point I ended up on the curb outside the airport; I wasn’t allowed back into the terminal until two hours before my flight; I had to pay a fee to get back into the terminal I hadn’t even meant to exit (in Peruvian Soles no less which I had to exchange American dollar for and which were useless when I got to my real destination, Chile). To ease my fears this round, Mike had tried to google how to properly navigate the Lima airport, but the internet only returned threads where people suspected the Lima airport was ruled by the mafia. So…that image helped my anxiety. As I followed the airline woman down a set of dreary, dark cement stairs, through the underbelly of the airport, I wondered if she was part of the mafia and if I would ever see Mike again. I mean what is not allowed in a checked bag?

I arrived at what I pictured to be an interrogation room where the contents of our bag were spilled onto the floor: two sleeping bags, two backpacking packs, a variety of liquids, and a can of sunscreen. I immediately thought the spray sunscreen was the issue: maybe pressurized cans become explosive at certain altitudes? But they kept searching…until they pulled a box of sparklers out of Mike’s pack. Freaking sparklers! Dulles airport hadn’t caught it (when we first checked our bag), Miami airport hadn’t caught it (when we switched airlines and had to re-check our bag) – but a third world country that let us through security with our beloved water bottles, belts, and shoes caught the actual explosive devices we had mistakenly forgotten about. Good job guys. Happily, my bag was re-packed, and Mike and I were re-united sans mafia harassment.

Alas, on the way back, I grew to dislike Lima again. They lost (or took) my Machu Picchu dirt. And then didn’t think my dirt was important enough to file a claim. I miss my dirt. I want my dirt back.

Paddington Bear

<I left grad school in Blacksburg, Virginia to start a job in Raleigh, NC – my fiance was staying behind and I needed a quick place to crash to start my new job until we figured our lives out. My aunt and uncle are AMAZING and let me move into their basement. The best part was hanging out with their three children – my cousins ages 5, 7 and 8. >

Me: “OK girls, I’m leaving for my trip today. I won’t see you for Christmas or New Years, ok?”

Chloe: “Where are you going?”

Me: “I’m hiking to Machu Picchu, remember?”

Chloe thinks for a minute

Chloe: “That’s in Peru, right?”

I’m shocked an 8 year old knows that Machu Picchu is in Peru – I mean I didn’t even really know it was in Peru until I started researching the trip

Me: “Yah! You’re right!”

The 8 year old is always right. She smiles, knowing this. The 5 year old starts to think for a minute.

Lucy: “Deepest, darkest Peru?”

Well…that’s a very precise phrase…

Me: “Sure”

Lucy: “That’s where Paddington Bear is from!”

Me: “Really, I thought he was from England?”

Lucy: “No let me show you!”

The 5 year old brings out her collection of Paddington Bear books. Apparently Paddington boarded a ship from Peru, ate a lot of marmalade on board, and wound up at Paddington Station in the London underground. Apparently ‘Paddington’ is much easier to pronounce than his Peruvian name.

We review what Paddington Bear looks like so that I can search for him (or his relatives) in deepest, darkest Peru. And we discuss ways to lure them out: maybe a jar of marmalade?

The 8 year old steps in and says deepest, darkest Peru must be the jungle and there’s no way I’d go to the forest – there are boa constrictors there. Hiking is through the woods, I respond.

With this new information, the 5 year old thinks finding Paddington is still way more important and tried to push her Paddington book collection on me for more thorough research. The 8 year old is convinced I’m going to die from a boa constrictor attack.

Our first morning in Cusco, we were served marmalade with our Airbnb’s breakfast and I considered keeping it as a lure.

On the last day of our hike, as we maneuvered Incan steps from the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu (the last 3 miles of our 26 mile journey), we spotted Paddington hitching a ride on a fellow hiker’s pack, decked out in rain gear versatile for both London and the Peruvian rainy season. We found him!