Saturday, January 24, 2009

8 Meditations on Cuzco, Perú

Yes, like all Latin American cities, Cuzco is overflowing with churches. A half dozen grace the borders of the main plaza alone. San Francisco, Santa Teresa, San Antonio, Santo Domingo, San Blas...with their tall towers and crosses caught in silhouette against the midday sky, they serve as magnificent and austere landmarks.

While the abundance of holy buildings suggests subservience to the Almighty, on the ground it's clear that the higher power is none other than the tourist dollar. You'll find them all here, from gap-year backpackers to elderly package-tour aficionados. As a rule, prices for everything steadily rise the closer you come to the central plaza.

The Inca Massage
"¿Masaje, amigo? Inca massage?" I must of heard this pitch 100 times in four days. Who knew the Inca left behind such a legacy of deep-tissue relief?

A Beautiful Plaza
Another Latin American icon, the Plaza de Armas is done in high style in Cuzco. Flanked by churches, colonial building blocks, and a cobblestone circle and containing a lovely variety of manicured vegetation and a terrific fountain, the plaza will turn anyone's impression of Cuzco towards the favorable.

Competing for breathing room with tourist admirers in the center of the plaza are dozens of the city's canine residents. I noticed the dogs immediately on arriving, as in Lima they were conspicuously absent. Whether man's best friend is traditionally well represented in the Andes, or whether Cuzco's canines are an anomaly, I have no idea.

The Mountains
The Andes are starkly evident in the city, rising up on all sides of the valley in rough, green contours. They challenge the tourists newly arrived from lower locales, simultaneously throwing steep sets of stairs in their path and snatching away the oxygen they need to ascend them. At 3,325 meters (11,000 feet), Cuzco's narrow, rising streets refuse to be rushed along.

Socioeconomic Division

Of course, there are those who make their homes high above the city center, in small brick and adobe huts clinging to the steep grades. They are uniformly poorer up here, largely untouched by the rollicking sea of tourist dollars far below them. When the two worlds do meet, as when the train to Machu Picchu inches its way up and over the mountain pass, the result is no better.

City of Lights
This is the memory of Cuzco that will remain strongest in my imagination. At dusk, the entire valley comes alive with flickering pinpoints of soft yellow and blue light. From every mountainside they glimmer, and when viewed from beneath the amber glow of the lanterns in the Plaza de Armas, it's a sight not easily forgotten.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Where Am I?

Colonial architecture and grand, imposing cathedrals dominate the cityscape, the calls of street vendors echo down narrow alleys, and Spanish rolls effortlessly off the tongues of those around me.

Where am I?

Throughout my brief stay in Peru's capital of 8 million, I had flashes of the Mexico City I came to know during a 5-week stay last autumn.

Historically speaking, it's natural that Lima should bear a likeness to the D.F. After all, these two metropolises were the centers of Spanish colonialism in the new world for centuries after the conquest, anchoring the viceroyalties of PerĂº and New Spain, respectively.

But the similarities transcend history. Both cities are surrounded by mountains, dark, hulking forms whose silhouettes can just be glimpsed through the haze and smog of the urban jungle.

And, as anyone who's researched these destinations can attest, both have been dubbed "dangerous" by guidebooks and popular opinion. Crime is indeed a problem in Lima; one has only to listen to the symphony of overly sensitive car alarms in the posh districts of San Isidro and Miraflores to grasp the locals' concern over the issue.

All this being said, however, Lima is a completely distinct locale in many respects. Take, for example, the carpets of deep green that coat city parks and boulevard medians. Here, in a region where it famously never rains, lies a city in which palms tower, mysterious tropical flowers bloom, and the air is always humid.

Mexico City had its share of green spaces as well, but, in the throes of the dry season, the shades there tended more towards a dusty olive, and the dry air/pollution cocktail sucked the moisture from my skin.

Lima owes its balminess to its coastal location, another feature setting it apart from Mexico's inland capital. Down in the ultra-swank, cliff-side shopping complex of LarcoMar, you have a 50/50 chance of stumbling into a surf shop or a beach-ware store. This imbues the city with something of a tropical party atmosphere (at least in the coastal sections of Miraflores) that cannot be found in Mexico City.

But the time for comparisons is over. I'm in South America now, and will be for some time. As I venture deep into the Andes highlands, I expect to encounter scenes that in no way resemble Mexico, or anywhere else I've been.

I can't wait.

Monday, January 5, 2009


It's 45°F and misting--a typical winter day in San Antonio. Here, the seasons' cycle doesn't announce its progress in terms as blustery as other places I've called home. But a new year has begun just the same. Ready or not.

I don't feel ready.

Sure, I've written up a tidy list of New Year's travel resolutions, spent some quality holiday time with family, even given the blog a makeover. But what comes next is still shading my perspective with an uncertain ominousness.

Maybe it's only the usual pre-departure anxiety, that feeling of plunging into the unknown. Or maybe it's the fact that in three days I'll be arriving in the city where my family was robbed within the second hour of their visit. Or, most likely, I'm worried about trying something new--about volunteering.

2009 is my volunteer year. I start out in Cochabamba, Bolivia, working through Sustainable Bolivia in the area of green energy and economic development. Further plans are contingent on that experience, but I hope to move down to Patagonia sometime in the summer to participate in an indigenous language preservation project.

In many ways--most, perhaps--I don't know what I'm doing. I have no experience with nonprofits. I've never touched a solar panel. My Spanish is awkwardly passable, at best; my Quechua and Mapuche, nonexistent.

But it's a new year. A time to start over. A chance for rebirth and renewal--in my travels, my career, my life. I may not feel ready, but it's coming nonetheless.

Welcome to WayWorded, 2009.