Here I am in Cuzco, the major tourist hub of Peru. I intend to use it as the base from which I explore for a while.
I've hooked up with three Canadian guys who are pretty cool, but they drink like North Americans. Between us we ordered three beers and a coffee last night, and the waiter told us in an apologetic tone that they only had one litre bottles of beer. While I was still confused, wondering what the problem was, one of the Mooselovers had changed the order to two large beers to share. Afterwards one of the guys complained about feeling light-headed - "it must be the altitude" he said. Shut up, I thought, you've had one pint. I don't care if we're leaving Earth's orbit, a pint is a pint. The guy that ordered the coffee told me that he used to be quite clean living, but now he works with the others he's become quite intemperate. There was apparently one time, he was telling me, they all sat round a camp fire and had three or four shots of whiskey each. Sounds nice, I said.
I bumped into these kiddies on route, taking the same bus out of one of the mountain villages where white faces shine like beacons of gullibility, and we got talking. This is quite unusual because I've discovered that there's a real hierarchy amongst travellers out here, and the real hardcore travellers (the kind of people that don't know how good the Peruvian cheesecake is, for instance) wouldn't dream of speaking to someone that's so obviously ... well, so obviously nothing more than a tourist (spit loudly).
Admittedly maybe the Arsenal shirt and cricket hat wasn't the look best guaranteed to make me hard-core rather than a straight-off-the-plane tourist, but really that boat had well and truly sailed before I left the States - Michael Jackson flies out of NY with a rosier complexion than I did.
On the plus side the football loving Peruvians love to chat to gringos, and all of them have heard of Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool. I even got chatting to a six year old Peruano lad wearing a Beckham shirt who was talking about the Utd treble. On the one hand it was a lovely inter-cultural moment, on the other "thanks for effing reminding me" I thought. Especially since you probably weren't even born at the time.
They do love football here. They love the fouls, too. When they're doing a highlights show, after the brief and grudging resume of all the goals and good chances they´ll do a lingering slow-motion, multi-camera replay of all the juicy fouls. They love it.
The last stage of my cross-land journey, which started off being beautiful and fun, was pretty gruelling. A ten hour bus ride to Andahuaylas, with a woman next to me vomitting for half the journey, and then the following day another ten hour ride into Cusco itself, with a woman with a sick baby next to me, howling the entire way. On that trip I'd also been sold seat number 46 on a 45 seat bus and was hassled most of the way by the conductor - but in certain situations a blank stare and an absolute refusal to understand Spanish come in handy.
My Spanish is definitely improving when it suits me though. I've been conversing after a fashion, usually with the assistance of gesture and mime. One chap I was talking to was either enquiring after my marital status or wondering why my man-boobs were so big, though, so some of the details are still being lost. I've also become quite good at asking for directions, and absolutely excellent at standing idly by while they unleash Babel upon me, and then saying "¿Que?"
I did manage to communicate with a woman in a hostel who was trying to give me a fax for a Nathan Young. I explained that although I was Nathan I wasn't Nathan Young. Once she got the point she said fearfully "There are two Nathans? Here?", and then looked nervously both ways and I swear she crossed herself before taking the fax back.
I really like Cusco so far. It's baking hot during the day - this might really be the altitude, but when I tell you that I got sunburn while wearing sunblock on a cloudy day, you'll appreciate that the sun here is fierce. Then when the sun slips behind the surrounding mountains it's freezing, so you spend the day in shorts and a t-shirt and sleep in jumper and jeans. I've realised why they call it the rainy season, too, though as far as I'm concerned once you've experienced Fijian rain no other form of precipitation will worry you. If it doesn't make your head bled in Fiji then it doesn't really count.
I've even seen my first Inca ruins (it was a series of small walls at the top of a mountain, it was very moving) and I'm investigating a white water rafting trip in the Andes. I say investigating, I've picked up a flier, but it's all research.
Speaking of which, I normally advise people to read up about a country they intend to visit. I don't do it myself, obviously, ten minutes on wikipedia after I've checked the football scores and I feel well enough prepared, but I do think it's the kind of thing people should do. Having browsed a potted history of Peru, though, I'd say that you should under no circumstances learn any Peruvian history before visiting, as it's pretty grim. I mean, there are probably only a dozen countries in the world whose history actually makes positive reading and leaves you with a sense of progress and increasing civilisation, but for your average Peruano in the calle it's been pretty much one thing after another for about a thousand years. Just when you think the tale has reached its nadir you find that "it was round about then that things really went down the sh*tter for the Peruvians".
Hopefully things will pick up for them soon. As soon as I leave, probably.
All my love
Now I'm well and truly free of US jurisdiction I will tell you another couple of things about it. I was in a hostel with a Californian guy called Matt that was complaining about the street layout in Manhatten being confusing - "I just can't get my head round Broadway" he said. It's a grid, Broadway being the exception because it traces a very slight curve, almost an elongated S shape, crossing several of the other streets. That's it - pretty f*cked, huh? This same bloke was planning on coming to London at some point, but I advised him not to. If you can't get your head round these streets, I lold him, we've got alleys in London that will make your brain explode.
I was also on the Liberty Island ferry back to Manhatten and two girls behind me were wondering why the Empire State Building was so famous - "It's really teeny", they said, "you can't even see it behind all those other buildings". I swear, if I'd had a small plastic model of a building in my pocket I´d have introduced them to the concept of perspective in the traditional 'this is very, very small, whereas these are very far away' manner.
Although you'd expect Peruvian for cheesecake to be "tarte de queso" or something, they do in fact call it Cheesecake, just as God intended. Apparently Mango Cheesecake is a bit of a local speciality, though I've yet to try it.
More Cheesecake news next week.