Monday, February 12, 2018

peru is more than inca

A reader stopped me at church on Sunday, and asked:"Isn't there anything to do in Peru other than to look at ruins?"

Several snarky replies passed through my mind. And that is exactly what I let them do. Pass right through.

The question is a good one. Peru is not simply the Inca empire. It is a modern republic doing its best to overcome a lot of its past and to be part of the modern world. It is also downright beautiful.

So, in the spirit of Allan Sherman's "Holiday for States," I will give you my other 14 reasons for flying south of the equator.

1. Coca welcomes you.

That is, Coca-Cola. This sign is the first bit of cultutre you see when arriving at the Lima airport.

Of course, there is also the other coca. And it is readily on offer in leaf form. The raw product that is eventually turned into cocaine to dust the noses of northerners who want to feed their inadequacies.

The leaves are not only legal in Peru, they are ubiquitous. For good reason. The Inca learned that chewing the leaves like tobacco will reduce the effect of altitude sickness. It can also be brewed into a tea.

I am told it also has a slight inebriating effect. My observations of our tour group affirm that.

There is also another cola in Peru. Inca Kola.

Do not let the full lab specimen look fool you. It does not taste as bad as it looks. The taste is similar to -- bubble gum. I thought it might be a local rival to Coca-Cola. It once was. No more. It is produced jointly by the former owners and Coca-Cola.

When we returned a week later to Lima, workmen were busy dealing with the Coke caps. Had this been a Monte Python skit, a cap would have been pried off, and the workmen would have been swept away in a flood of dark, sticky carbonation. 

That may be an entirely different kind of movie.

2. The police are better looking than in Melaque.

I am not quite certain if it is the outfit -- or --. Nope, It's the outfit. A woman in jodhpurs is always stylish.

3. Being run out of town on a fashion rail.

On our return train trip from Machu Picchu, the three staff members in our rail car put on a fashion show. And not just any fashion show. All of the offerings were alpaca.

I have seen plenty of alpaca pieces in Peru. Most of them look as if they were designed for grandmothers. But not these. They were modern and versatile.

And it was the first time I have ever experienced a fast-moving fashion runway. (To a pilot, a moving runway is a rather unsettling concept.)

4. There is always a little bit of ethnic humor hanging around -- even if it is unintentional.

This one is for my British friends.

5. If you play that one more time, I am going to stuff that pan pipe down your throat.

Because we were on a tour, most of the restaurants where we dined must have thought we would abhor the sound of each other's conversation. To solve that, the air was soon filled with the sound of pan pipes, stringed instruments, and drums.

All went well until almost every band decided our northern ears would be offended by something original. So, we were assaulted with the Roger Whittaker songbook, "Guantanamera," "The Girl from Ipanema," and "My Way." Often more than once from the same band. The type of songs musicians play when they run out of good material with which to insult the taste of their audience.

The best bands -- and there were one or two -- played tunes unfamiliar to us -- often with dissonant chords that made them interesting. They were a pleasure to listen to.

But the best entertainment on our trip came in two quite different styles and places. Both were dance companies.

On our way out of Cusco, our assistant guide invited us to his family restaurant for breakfast. He promised a surprise. And a surprise it was. A local folk dance company made up exclusively of men and boys.

They entered to the wail of a saxophone, the thrump of a drum, and the crisp morning sound of cymbals. Exactly what should accompany a folk dance team.

The dance told an old story. How the people worshipped nature in the surrounding mountains until the lash of the Spanish arrived and taught the Indians that they needed to beat the sin out of one another.

It was a powerful program.

The only other entertainment that challenged it was on our last night in Lima. We had previously seen several folk dance companies of indifferent talent.

This group took the same material added costumes, lighting, modernized version of folk music, staging, and extremely talented dancers to produce a show unlike any we saw in Peru.

There were moments it was possible to believe Bob Fosse was channeling Pippin on a stage in Lima, Peru.

6. Little churches in villages await your sighs.

We did not stop at any churches. But I found this Virgin of Carmen on a litter awaiting her little walk around town in Pukara.

7. Where there is darkness, someone will light a solar panel.

We stopped at the highest point on our trip to Lake Titicaca, abra la raya. Even though, we were in the middle of nowhere, vendors had set up shop to nab any loose soles jingling in tourist pockets.
But what do you do when your telephone needs charging and your tape player needs power?  You whip out your portable solar panel, of course. The ingenuity of the Inca survives.

8. You can meet a president even more unpopular than Peña Nieto.

His name is 
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard. 

Yes. Peru has a president with Polish ancestry. Not too long ago, they had a president of Japanese ancestry -- Alberto Fujimori. 

Fujimori was convicted in 2007 of ordering an illegal search and seizure (one of the lesser charges he potentially faced). In 2009, he was convicted of human rights violations and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

His daughter, Keiko, twice ran for president and lost on the platform of being a loyal daughter who would spring her papa from the hoosegow. She is the leader of the largest party in Congress.

Kuczynski was sworn in in June 2016. Ever since then, Congress has made his life miserable by forcing the resignation of cabinet members and a series of impeachment votes.
He barely survived the last vote on charges that he was involved in a bribery scheme out of Brazil that has touched most Latin American governments -- including Mexico's. The votes that made the difference in saving the president's bacon came from Keiko's brother's faction of her party. The brother, of course, is the son of Alberto Fujimori.

Three days after surviving the vote, President Kuczynski pardoned the former president. The president's approval rating has simply disappeared.

Our first afternoon in Cuzco, this political protest marched by our hotel. In Peru, to be called a rat is undoubtedly not meant as a compliment. But rat constitution, rat Fujimori, and rat Kuczynski strikes me as both redundant and rather dull.

Ah, well. If they are focused on their own president, maybe they will leave our president to us.

9. Something to bug you.

Yes. Yes. I know. It is an ant. Not a bug. But none of the mother's sister puns worked as well.

This beauty was on my wall at the hotel for our Machu Picchu stay. Just a reminder that it is a jungle out there. Literally.

As for its size, if you have to ask, you do not want to know.

10. Dying to sell you.

I know several of my readers are enthralled with textiles. To me, textiles are what keeps me from having to talk to the judge about that restraining order.

Those of you with a better eye for crafts would have loved one of our first stops in the Andes. It was a little "factory" where colorfully-garbed women purported to clean, comb. spin, dye, and weave sheep and alpaca wool into some extremely intricate designs -- all of them symbolizing something or other.

Watching the process was fun. But, like all of these places, these women did not truly weave there. That was done elsewhere.

This was a place to pass on a little lore to tourists while seducing them out of their credit cards. These were not pocket change pieces. That is why everyone who could not resist the sirens' allures had plastic in hand.

There is no debating the fact that the pieces were well-made. But none of them appealed to me. They seemed -- well -- old.

11. Aliens did it.

Any of you who were alive in the 1970s probably recall the eccentrically-rambling theories of 
Erich von Däniken. Chariot of the Gods  and all that unscience gibberish.
Well there are plenty of his "intellectual" descendants who still believe that the little brown people of the world could not possibly have built the Egyptian pyramids or the monumental structures of the Inca empire. They had to have outside help.

And the most logical source of that help? Aliens, of course. Or were they simply undocumented workers?

Whatever. This is one of the art pieces the tin foil hat brigade relies on. They claim it is a man driving a space ship.

They, of course, are nuts. Any sane person can see that is Luke Skywalker and his speeder. Luke horns in on everything.

12. This will float your island.

I have been less than candid about the 12-year old inside me. Everything I said about loving the Inca is true. But there was something else that piqued that kid's interest.

Lake Titicaca. And I can still hear those sixth grade snickers.

It is, of course, the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. That is higher than the highest mountain in Oregon. And navigate it, we did.

One of the tourist attractions on the lake is a visit to the "floating islands" of the Uros. No one knows where the Uros came from. But they probably migrated from the Amazon.

When they arrived, the other tribes would not let them have land. So, they built their own. In the lake.

That portion of the lake is filled with very buoyant reeds. They used the roots and soil as a foundation for the island. And then piled reeds on top of that to keep the island as dry as possible. And, just like a houseboat, they could up anchor and move the island away from any perceived danger.

It was a harsh lifestyle. When we visited, the "elder" told us how they now lived on the islands, sent their children to school, and survived by selling embroidery (made by the women) or mobiles (made by the men).

I must confess the place had a Disney feel. It looked authentic, but something did not quite seem to be as it was told.

Our guide told me what it was. What we were seeing was a show. The way things used to be. Like the re-enactors at Williamsburg. In truth, once the tourists are gone, the families pile in their moto boats and return to their homes on the lake shore.

That did not bother me. Real or re-enactment, people actually lived and thrived on the resources of the lake.

But, we had to say farewell to the Uros because we had another lake adventure. We boated for two hours until we reached the island of Taquile in the main body of the lake where we had lunch and went on a steep hike around the island.  About an hour trek. And at 12,500 feet, it was a strenuous walk.

Strenuous, but beautiful. There was no other noise than the birdsong. The day was sunny. The shade was seductive. And a little voice kept nagging at me. "You have been here before."

Of course, I hadn't. And then I realized what it was. Everything (with the exception of the altitude) was something I had experienced before. When I lived in Greece. On the Adriatic islands. I almost wanted to sit down and soak it all back in.

But there was a boat to catch for the two hour sail back to Puno.

13. Keep your Mary's face on a tortilla; I saw Jesus in a tree.

It sounds like a reversal of 
Zacchaeus story. But there he was. Right outside the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History in Lima.

'Nuff said.

14. And then you get to go to Mexico City where sweeping everything together is just like ending this series on Peru.

I am not a bottom line guy. But, if I were, I would tell you that a trip to Peru is well worth the effort. You don't have to have a chest of Inca dreams.

Just go to enjoy yourself. But go.

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