Stories from South America: Peru

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Perusin’ through travel weekend number 1:

WEDNESDAY

It all began one Wednesday afternoon, Stephanie and I readied our packs, checked into our flights, and jumped on a shuttle to the Santiago airport… but as smooth as this sounds, let me preface with our trip preparations: nada. Stephanie and I fretted over what to do, where to go, how to find a third person after ours had backed out, and then Magda and Steve Sherman (and Magda’s brother Abraham) jumped in and saved the day. They had an airport shuttle, a travel agent, tours, and hostels all ready to go, so we hopped on board.

Our first flight was slightly delayed for maintenance problems, which was a real promising start to the trip, and once we landed in Lima we found ourselves sprinting through the airport to the baggage claim, through customs, out the gate, out of the airport itself, and finally with ten minutes remaining to a ticketing counter where Magda assertively somehow got us a personal LAN airlines escort through security and onto our flight two minutes after it was scheduled to leave. And finally, we were in route to Cusco.

THURSDAY

Our first day in the city, we woke up to a cold rain and wandered around the streets taking pictures and falling in love with Cusco. The red shingled rooves on concrete buildings, the towering beige cathedrals, and the grey skies contrasted against the colorful cloths hanging from windows and children posing for pictures, as old VW beetles scurried through tiny cobblestone streets built on the steep hills of the city. It smelled like fresh rain, and we bundled up underneath our $3 umbrellas to keep somewhat warm.

By 1pm we had endured the 2 hour process of applying for a student ID (all for the tour discounts, of course), found our new favorite restaurant in the entire continent, and met up with the Shermans in the now sunny and 70 degree plaza for our first tour. We saw a cathedral with walls and sculptures plastered with gold and silver, stonework from an ancient temple, and some Incan structure built high on a hill overlooking the city. This was where we met Justin and Shawn, photographers from NYC. Friendships are easily made when you’re caught fangirling over each other’s L series glass lenses. We learned the art of detecting alpaca wool, scavenged for dinner (at the same restaurant as lunch…) and called it a day.

FRIDAY

At 7:30am we made our way to the main plaza, where we boarded a bus for the day’s Sacred Valley tour. Walking on and seeing the canes and glasses and “over the hill survival kit” hats, I quickly determined that we were 100% the youngest people on this vehicle. Justin and Shawn were picked up with us and the Shermans, and the adventure began. We saw cliffs overlooking valleys of villages and rivers tucked between the mountains decorated with the stripes of ancient Incan terraces. The view was stunning. At a small llama farm I met Brett and Wendy, a couple from Chicago. Brett was the jokester on the bus, and I came to find out that he has a doctorate in psychology, and has been teaching graduate level courses in Chicago, so don’t judge books by their covers. Brett was a very nice and curious man, asking about mine and Stephanie’s career plans, and from that point on he continued to refer to me as “Mother Teresa” as he asked for camera assistance and continued to get to know us. I photographed a little girl who then “helped” me photograph her mother, and we were off to the next places.

We visited many ruins on this day, where Stephanie, Justin, Shawn and I (and often Magda’s brother Abraham) would sneak off to take pictures while the tour guide explained the history to everyone else. The views were simply breathtaking. We were given lunch, where I helped Brett figure out his camera and Magda almost had me forced up on stage to play with the live Peruvian band, and eventually we were left in Ollantaytambo to wait for our train to Aguas Calientes.

This place. This might have been one of my favorite evenings. We sat in the plaza to kill the three hours before our train left, and Stephanie jumped in on a small game of hop scotch. It began with two kids, then three, and then four. One of the children who dress up to sell keychains came to watch, and sat next to Steve on a bench. She inquired who we were, and Steve suggested she go play, so she took off her hat, set it on the bench, and joined in the fun. Within thirty minutes three other working kids had joined, jumping about in their colorful clothing, and several of the girls came to “help” me take pictures of it all. Seeing the little workers just be kids was the best part of the night, and after a latte and a walk back to the train station, we were on the Polar Express (or the Peru Rail, whichever you prefer).

Coffee, Peruvian pop-tarts, French photographers, and friendly workers made the trip everything I ever thought a Peruvian train ride would be, but we could not have guessed what the landscape would look like in the morning. We arrived and found a small sign with our name on it, so we followed a small girl in a sweater through the dark, winding streets of Aguas Calientes into our small corridor of a hostel where children ran around and a mother was rubbing herbs on her crying baby. Tomorrow, life goals would be accomplished.

SATURDAY

Machu Picchu. At 5am we woke up for our hostel breakfast, and were met at 5:50 to catch the bus up the mountain. The town looked like some sort of Japanese wonderland, with misty mountains towering above the tiny streets, and once we packed into a small, wet bus, we drove up into the clouds. The view might have been approximately zero miles, but they assured us that it would clear up soon enough (even if it meant sacrificing me or Stephanie to the Incan gods, according to our guide). Through rain and cold and illness, we toured the city, filled with temples and astrological tools and clouds, and once that was finished, Stephanie and I tackled Machu Picchu Mountain. We began at 9:30, and about ten minutes in we ran into some guys from Turkey, and their new Swiss friend. She was a beast, but the guys lagged behind and suffered through the climb with us. Stair after stair after stair, the wet, uneven, crooked, cliff-hugging staircase continued upwards deeper into the cloud. Finally after an hour and 45 minutes or so, we made it to the top, complete with a view of absolutely nothing. I talked to a Scottish marine biologist, and we congratulated our Turkish friend for making it up, but after about a minute of taking pics for proof of our climb, we migrated back to a ledge with a view.

I’ve always loved mountains, but never have I seen anything so majestic and powerful. The Incas believed that the earth is alive and must maintain balance, and looking at those towering rocks jutting from a raging angry river into the fast-moving mystical clouds, covered in trees yet still rocky and massive, I can see exactly where those beliefs came from. They were so in tune with astronomy, where the sun set and rose, and how the stars rotated in a cycle of rainy season and dry season. I would be so interested to see what our Christianity would look like if we lived in a place so remote that so fully depended on the weather and nature around us.

After taking selfies with people taking selfies in the background, photographing llamas, and wandering back through the city, we sat on the edge of a wall and stared into the abyss. Just having time to sit and think about life and earth and the world around us was so amazing, and to take in the breathtaking sights as the clouds rolled back into the valleys below. The rain picked back up, and we made our way to the bus down the mountain into Aguas Calientes. Our grateful guide greeted us at the hostel to retrieve our bags, and we grabbed pizza and headed to the train station. To get to the train you walk along the river, the beginning of the Amazon. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. Swells of rushing water crash into rocks, sending spray ten feet into the air, as the current could surely crush anything in its way. We crossed a bridge to the train, were serenaded yet again by a panflute beatles medley, and took our seats. This time we were able to see the mountains we drove through, with glaciers and rolling hills dotted with animals, children, and families hard at work. After about 4 hours on a train and 1.5 on a bus, we made it to our original hostel in Cusco.

SUNDAY

Another early morning and another bus tour. This day included Cincheros (an area where they make most of the cloth), Moray (a sophisticated terraced “greenhouse” hole in the ground), and Maras (a large salt evaporation area). The parts of Sunday I loved most were the rolling hills of yellow flowers, backed by large mountains decorated in the striped terraces and the start glacial mountains in the furthest background. The yellow against purple potato flowers against the blue and green of mountain and sky, overtaken swiftly by deep grey storm clouds.

Once we returned, Stephanie and I wandered into a coffee shop and down to the plaza, where we passed a woman begging. We decided to grab a box of granola bars and water from the market, and we brought them back to her. The woman’s name was Magdalena, and she told us she’d lived just outside Cusco for her whole life. She has two sons and a granddaughter, and that was about all we could get out of her, either because she’s hard of hearing or speaks Quechua. When we walked away, I turned and she was kissing the granola bars, raising her feeble hands up to the sky in thanks.

After hiding from the rain in a cubby of the Cathedral, we found balloons for Steve’s belated birthday, met him and Magda for dinner, handed the balloons to children, and wandered back to our favorite restaurant where we met Jeso. This boy was 7, and played peekaboo with us through the window, selling little llama keychains. I went out to buy one from him, and we found out that he has to wander the streets and sell until 1am every night. This was such a heartbreaking reality of the kids in this city, were poverty is so prevalent and unrecognized by tourists.

MONDAY

We awoke and went to The Meeting Place, a nonprofit coffee shop owned by a British pastor named Steve. The place was adorable, and runs on volunteers. We met a man named Eric, who grew up in Knoxville and went to one of my rival high schools. He’s in real estate, and has been called to start a mission in Cusco! He told us about his dream for the church, and how he wants to bring people from within American churches out to see the world, so that they will be energized to make a difference. There is so much untapped potential in the American church. We aren’t living out the church that we ought to be, and Eric wants to bring the revival that’s sweeping parts of Africa and Asia back into the U.S. Not only was Eric from Knoxville, but he told me I have to go to India, and invited me back on his mission-planting trip in September with his church. That might have been my favorite part of the weekend, just talking with this random guy from my hometown in a coffee shop in Cusco about our passion for the church and seeing the gospel go out into these places.

After we left, we went to the plaza for one last time and ran into a parade for Peruvian education. Hundreds of men, women, and children were dressed in native attire, dancing and laughing through the square. It was an incredibly beautiful thing to photograph. Somehow we made it to our plane, got our connection with ease, and were on our way home to Santiago.

Peru stole a piece of my heart, and who knows, maybe I will be there again sooner than I know!

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