Saturday, 24 February 2007

It must be the altitude

Westerners here seem to blame the altitude for everything, from lack of fitness to their inability to handle alcohol. Me, I'm just a creaking, lardy shandy drinking lightweight at any elevation.

The local beer here is called Cusqueña, which translates as Woman of Cusco. It's very much okay. I'm told that you can buy it in Tesco back home, and that they use better water for the beer they export than for the stuff the locals drink, so it might be worth trying. In the tourist bars you'll be ripped off up to a pound a pint for the stuff, but if you don't want to stump up at those prices you can find local bars where they'll virtually give it to you with a loving kiss.

Since it's such a tourist town they have imported British beer in Cusco, but I haven't tried it yet. I've watched them pour it and it seems to be a complicated process involving three pint glasses and a spoon, so I'm imagining it probably won't taste the same. It's the altitude, apparently.

In other news I've heard rumours of a game of football I can join over here, so I'm pretty excited. As anyone that's ever played football against me knows, the opposing player has usually had a shower and is on the bus home by the time my tackles go in, so if you hear of the Peruvian health service being bankrupted due to a spate of leg injuries in the Cusco area you'll know what's happened.

Speaking of beer and football, they absolutely love Solano over here* and are still talking about his goal for the Toon (it was a penalty apparently, but I didn't see it). It made front page of the newspapers here. It's a bit bewildering really, but I suppose if an English player was actually able to score from the spot we'd go crazy over it, too, so I guess it's fair.

* note for my non-football following readers: Nolberto "Nobbie" Solano is a Peruvian footballer who currently plys his trade with Newcastle United. I guess you'd have to say he's one of their better players - the fans certainly love him. Even though I think he once scored a winning goal against Arsenal, I can find it in my heart not to hate him.

My learning of Spanish continues, though admittedly at a pace that would make a particularly tardy snail say "pick it up a bit, can't you?". I have learnt one very useful word - permiso. It means either "I'm sorry, excuse me, could you possibly step aside, I'd very much like to get by, if you don't mind too much, thanks awfully" or "Oi, fat*rse, get out of my way", depending on the tone of voice you use. They're not shy about blocking the pavements and doorways, either, so you get to use it quite a lot.

I'm still struggling with other cultural differences, too, because as far as I'm concerned these Cusqueños are crazy. They have a thoroughly Latin disregard for trifles such as factual accuracy and the truth, which makes the whole process of flat-hunting very odd indeed. I think they take a magical realist approach to their ads, using them to describe the flats they want to be renting rather than the mundane ones they actually own. English estate agents could learn reams from them.

The other day one of the teachers I work with, a native Peruvian, was expounding his theory that Spanish is a naturally poetic language, and that English is no good for writing poetry because it has too many adjectives. I argued that Billy 'The Bard' Shakespeare had made a reasonable fist of it, all things considered, and there have been a few Irish guys over the years that could string the odd word together if there was a drop of alcohol in it for them, but he remained unconvinced. More cultural colonisation work required, methinks.

All the best

Your man in Peru (with aching legs and a beer belly)

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Peruvians are pretty short

I'm not disrespecting the race or anything, I'm just pointing out that there's a short@rse gene around here somewhere and they're all carrying it. Or maybe it's diet related - they seem to survive on chicken, rice and chips, possibly there's something lacking there. Like vegetables, perhaps. Whatever the reason, it does tend to affect the way they approach things like bus design. I'm not exactly a giant, but I can't fit my legs in a lot of the buses round here without contortion.

Their approach to timetables can be a little bewildering to a foreigner, too. I was sitting on a bus the other day and I asked when it was going to leave. "When it's full, of course" I was told, with a patronising look.

Which reminds me that I forgot to tell you the story of the time I caught a bus that was going in completely the wrong direction.

Well, I caught a bus, and the funny thing was, it was going in completely the wrong direction.

In my defence, I did know that it was heading in the wrong direction when I caught it. However, it had the name of my destination written on it and I assumed it had just come from there. I asked the driver where to catch the bus I wanted, expecting him to point out somewhere on the other side of the road, and he said (as far as I could tell) "Yeah, hop on" so I did. I was surprised, but pretty sure we'd understood each other, so I thought we were possibly going to loop round and head back.

It wasn't until we hit the edge of the city, on the wrong side, and hurtled out into the middle of nowhere that I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake. By this point the sun was setting, we were out in the countryside, I was still heading in the wrong direction and getting further away from where I started, let alone where I wanted to be, by the minute. Even the conductor was starting to look at me as if he was thinking "where the hell is this gringo going?"

The buses tend to have set routes that they follow, but they'll stop whenever anyone shouts, or whistles, or bangs the side of the bus. Wherever the buses stop regularly little oases of trade spring up, with some form of refreshments (which may be an actual shop, it may be an old guy sitting on a crate of Inca Cola), the obligatory genuine ethnic photo opportunist and old ladies selling traditional handicrafts. This is equally true out in the mountains, but whereas those in the city are bustling and vibrant, those out in the sticks have an air of desperation to them, as if these places are just hanging on to life.

As you know I have nothing against poor people, as long as they're photogenic, but I would have rather walked into a US embassy wearing a fizzing padded waistcoat and burning the stars and stripes than get off the bus at any of these stops, so I wanted to wait until we reached somewhere I wouldn't have felt so exposed - like Bolivia.

Then, just as I was mentally composing a letter to my loved to be discovered with my body (I've always been a secret Spice Girls fan, please pay off my credit cards, I want my body to be cast out to sea in a burning canoe with a can of guinness in each hand, that sort of thing), I saw another bus up ahead with the city written on the front, banged on the side of the bus I was on, leapt off and ran across the desert to wave down my saviours.

On the way back, retracing my route through the mountains, I was able to relax and enjoy the evening landscape for the first time, and by the time I got back into the city I fell in love with the place all over again.

No movement on the flathunting front. In 1541 the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro heard rumours of a golden king and his city of gold, went out on a wild goose chase and almost went mad trying to find it. That's what flat-hunting here is like. I keep hearing rumours of a one bedroom flat in a decent location for a reasonable price, but when I investigate further it turns out to be a two bedroom place in the seedy end of town and the price has doubled.

It's almost as frustrating as shopping here, for which I'm temperamentally unsuited. Like any true born Englishman, I like to get the whole business of shopping out of the way with the minimum of human interaction. I've been known to leave shops if a salesperson politely enquires if he or she can help me. That's simply not possible here, the whole system seems geared towards the customer having a six month relationship with the storekeeper before a purchase can be made. Here there are no prices on anything, you see what you want and have to ask for it. When you do you can see them adding the special gringo tax in their head, plucking a random number out of the air and seeing if they can get away with it. Then you have to haggle, despite the fact that the ridiculously inflated price they've quoted you is still a pittance. After a few rounds of intense negotiation you will have knocked about 15p off the original price, found yourself a bargain but paid twice what the locals pay, and walked out of the shop feeling both exploited and exploiting at the same time.

Best shops for random impediments to the shopping process are the chemists. You can't just pick an item off the shelf and go and pay for it in most of them. You have to ask someone for what you want and someone will rush off to get it. Another person will give you a slip of paper with a price on it. You take this to another counter where you hand over the cash and your paper is authorised, then you go to another side of the shop to collect your purchase, which another person has wrapped and will give you on production of an authorised slip.

It's an awful lot of effort for a tube of toothpaste.

I tried the coca leaf tea the other day. It was foul. It's supposed to have a mild stimulant effect (roughly equivalent to, say, a cup of tea or coffee) but all it did was give me gut-rot. Someone I know tried chewing the leaves. I don't know if he got a high from it, but it turned his teeth green. The same guy also tried San Pedro, a cactus with hallucinagenic properties that you crush into water to create a disgusting green mulch.

As any designated driver will tell you, being the only sober person with a load of drunks can be pretty boring, but I think the award for most tedious person to be around has to go to someone whose trying a drug for the first time. They'll spend two hours saying "It's not having any effect, I've been ripped off, I'm getting nothing, it's not having any effect ..." etc, then they'll spend a further six hours saying "Wow, this is amazing, you've got to try this, it's incredible ...". Yes, go to bed now please.

I'm not sure I can be bothered to try drinking liquified cactus. God it makes me feel old to write that. I'll let you know if I change my mind and suddenly become funky.

The thing that's always put me off expanding my consciousness with hallucinagenic drugs is that, to judge by the people I've known that have gone down that route, when you become one with the universal consciousness and discover the distilled wisdom of the cosmos, the message from the spiritual centre seems to be 1) don't wash and 2) it's okay to wear tie-dye.

If that really is what consciousness expansion is all about, I'll have a cup of tea, thanks.

And maybe a slice of cheesecake.

Anyway, more news from the cutting edge of international travel soon

Friday, 9 February 2007

There is a corner of a foreign classroom ...

... that is forever Arsenal.

I'm still teaching in Cusco and I've had a slight pay rise, so now I'll be earning a decent weekly wage. Problem is, I'll be earning it over a month.

Apart from working hard I've been to see 'An evening of Andean folk music', an entertaining evening in a room full of white faces and European accents, probably the highlight of which was the traditional Incan rendition of the Doors' classic "Light My Fire". Then I walked home past the young Cusqueños breakdancing in the main square.

Plus I watched the Superbowl* with some Americans from the hostel.

* The Superbowl is to American Football** what the FA Cup is to real football, except it takes about five hours to play because they stop playing every six or seven seconds so someone can explain the rules to the players and show commercials to the fans.

** American Football is like a sport for people with a thyroid problem.

Anyway, that evening I was chatting to an English guy and his crazy Israeli girlfriend, and she told us that in Hebrew the word for footballer is the same as the word for actress. If anyone is in a position to verify this I'd be grateful, because I love the idea of those overpaid premiership nancies being described in this way.

I've also discovered my new favourite occupation, which is the professional local. You get quite a lot of people in the streets around here wearing traditional dress, wandering about with animals, being ethnic, engaging in traditional handicrafts and suchlike - what they want is for the tourists to take their photo, for which they charge a small fee (to cover wear and tear on llamas etc).

My favourite was an old guy a group of us surprised on our way down a steep hill from a ruin. I don't know how we surprised him, we were all exhausted and puffing like Prince Harry, but from a few metres away we saw him leap up and grab a small bundle of wood to throw over his back, so that as we walked past we supposedly encountered him traditionally gathering authentic ethnic firewood in an authentically ethnic and entirely traditional way. He wasn't best pleased that we didn't actually want to take his photo (well, he'd woken up for it and everything) and I'm sure his curses were entirely authentic as we walked past.

I have a mental image of this old guy, slipping into his Levis at the end of a long day being ethnic and authentic, sitting in front of his gas fire and complaining that modern tourists just aren't what they used to be.

On this same trip myself and one of the Canadians (who was fortunately in possession of a working set of bowels at this point) took a breather on one of the small walls, just in front of a slightly smaller wall. A guide came up with a group of Americans and explained to them that this was the site of an ancient temple of the sun, you could tell this from its position in relation to the dawn and the carvings on the rock, which, though worn, were clearly of a traditional Incan sun god. A minute later another guide came up with some English tourists and informed them authoritatively that this was the site of a temple of the moon, which you could obviously see from the worn carvings and its position in relation to the stars.

While this was happening I could hear another guide tutting behind me, and as soon as he got his chance he started explaining to his group that *actually*, this was indupitably the site of the barracks, located as it was adjacent to the fort, and bearing the tell-tale, but slightly worn, carvings of the Incan military. After that it became both a grain store and a kitchen, but I think if we'd waited long enough it would have been where they dried the alpaca dung to make fuel.

Unlike in a lot of Europe, where the older buildings have been regularly demolished to make new ones, modern and ancient Peru coexist quite happily side by side. This is because modern Peruvian cities are quite sensibly built in the valleys, were there is a convenient water supply and it's not so hard to shift the big slabs of heavy rock, but the Incas, being the first genuinely masochistic society known to man, seem to have built everything on the sides and at the tops of the steepest slopes available to them, causing themselves all kinds of logistical difficulties.

I've hard the guides marvel at the ingenuity of these people, enabling to solve issues like 'how do we get all this water from the river up to where we've built our homes?', but the idea of building in the damn valleys in the first doesn't seem to have occurred to them.

I always try not to, but I am enjoying some of the mis-translations here. I had lunch in a place yesterday that offered "small sticks of potato" as a side order to almost every dish, and it was an embarassingly long time before I realised they meant chips. Obvious, really.

Yesterday a guy that works in the Language Centre apologised to me because "My English isn't well". Don't worry about it sunshine, I told him, there are times when my English isn't well, either. Mainly on a Friday night, it must be said.

It put me in mind of a recent panic I had when the bus I was catching with the Canadians wanted to leave while one of them was in the toilet (he spent a lot of time in the toilet that week). I managed to blurt out "Mi amigo es ...", then had a mental block on the tricky word 'in' (en) and finished "... el baño".

So I told the cobrador "My friend is the toilet". And you know, there are times when that's true as well. Those same Fridays usually.

They're either gearing up for the next war here, or they have a military parade every Sunday, I'm not sure which. It's impressive because they have rows of heavily built guys with machine guns marching the streets, and behind them they have the women's brigades, who have little khaki hand-bags instead of guns, thereby managing to be socially inclusive and thoroughly patronising at the same time.

All my love


North Americans have a reputation for one-up-manship in England, for always having to outdo everyone and everything they encounter. As you'll see from this report, this reputation is thoroughly undeserved.

A guide was showing a couple of North Americans some of the sites of Cusco, and he told them that even in the most expensive part of town you could buy a property for about thirty thousand dollars.

"I don't think you can do that in America, no?" asked the guide
"It depends where you are" said the husband "I think maybe some places you can"
"Yeah, sure you can" countered the wife "even in California you can buy a place for fifteen, maybe twenty thousand dollars"
"I thought American houses were more expensive?" asked the guide, slightly discomfitted
"Oh no, we've got some of the cheapest places in the world back home"


My final mention of the Canadians, and possibly a "you had to be there" moment: the poor sick man was in the bathroom, making all kinds of interesting noises, and one of his friends tried to pass him a bottle of water to rehydrate. In a loud, booming voice, the invalid warned:

"Watch out - I'm naked and I'm covered in sh1t!"