It's 6:30 in the morning and they're dancing, their colorful traditional dresses swirling, blank expressions on their faces. The sun is coming up over the plaza but it's still freezing. They do this every morning for the sake of tourists en route to Colca Canyon. It feels ugly.
What should've been a four hour drive the day before was broken up by too many stops and ended up taking the whole day. I don't think we ever drove for a stretch greater than 15 minutes, always stopping so that all nine passengers (plus the driver and guide in front) could file out of the economy sized Hyundai van, whose pseudo-luxury teased with the possibility of sleep, which made the impossibility of sleep and completely anti-ergonomic setup all the more frustrating. At every stop, a beautiful view of harsh landscape spotted with grand volcanoes and mountains, pockets of glistening water, wild and leashed Alpacas and llamas (the difference is in their neck length), and the ever present Incan women in traditional garb selling the same Alpaca-material sweaters, hats, gloves, and those small ceramic flute instruments. Climbing our way into higher altitudes, one stop treated us to Coco tea, an all natural aide in the body's adjustment process. A Brazilian traveler in our van offered me coco leaves to chew like tobacco. I accepted them with apprehension out of fear they would induce hallucination. Foolish me. Then I grew some balls and chewed them. I didn't get altitude sickness.
Upon arriving in Chivay, we inspected our artic-chilled rooms before setting off for the hot springs. They were three pools set before a mountainous hill. The French-Canadians and I plunked down in one spot in one of the pools and never moved, watching as it filled up with scores of older and pastier European tourists. I felt like a leper with my shoulder acne, which was not taking well to the Peruvian climate. What's a 24 year old doing with shoulder acne?
Night fell and we were taken to a restaurant with only tourists for patrons where we watched traditional dance accompanied by a band over a forgettable meal. The music was good enough that I bought the band's CD. The dancing was performed by a man and woman. They performed several dances and each dance told its own story and required a different costume. At one point I was brought up to dance a whole song with the woman. I caught on quickly, quicker than I did with salsa (which I still haven't actually caught onto). The woman said I was the best dance partner she'd ever had. I told her I was a great lover. A potential life in Chivay flashed before my eyes – kids, a garden, llamas, coco leaves with breakfast - and then it was over.
Back in Arequipa, I spent the night hanging out with gregarious Carla, whose English is so good because she spent a year on exchange in Cincinnati during high school. She had me over to her house to hang out and drink tea with her family. They actually own two houses on the same lot, though both are primarily unfurnished and in the middle stages of construction - no doors, windows, or proper flooring (Peruvians don’t have to worry about seasonal constraints like cold and snow). This didn’t stop the family from moving into the third floor in one of the buildings.
We sat around and made chit chat about subjects which escape me now. I lamely tried out my Spanish and Carla’s mom tried out her English. Carla laughed heartily. Two of her cousins and her brother, Froy, spoke good English. Froy did an exchange year in Michigan a few years back. In case I wasn’t convinced, he was sporting a fashionable Detroit Pistons hoodie.
At the end of the night, Carla's mom extended an invitation for breakfast in the morning. “You must come,” she insisted.” I agreed.
The invitation was for breakfast, but Peruvians operate in a strange time space continuum, so it turned into lunch. And while the house was under construction, that did not stop Carla’s mom from preparing a whole chicken in classic Arequipeno style, smashing a rock into a sharp knife to cut the bone and seasoning it in an assortment of spices initially produced in a solid frozen block.
Since they do not have an oven, nor a kitchen sink (not sure how clean all the utensils were), we walked the chicken down the street to a restaurant with a giant wood oven, waited an hour and a half, then came back to collect. In that hour and a half, I juiced countless oranges on the family’s juicer. Carla’s mom praised me for the job I was doing, skillfully placing the orange half on the machine, holding it in place while the machine did all the work. For the first time in my life, I drank so much freshly squeezed orange juice that I could have no more.
When it came time to eat the chicken, me being the picky eater I am and attempting to eat the chicken off the bone, I struggled. This proved very amusing to Carla and her mother. They asked me if all Americans were babies like me. I started crying and replied, “I am the only baby in America.”
I stopped crying when they agreed to help me with my laundry. In the Arequipeno sun, hanging on a rack, my clothes dried in about 15 minutes. And they dried in good scenery, with the imposing volcanoes looking over them protectively.
I said my goodbyes to Carla’s madre and her brother in his same Detroit Pistons sweatshirt from the previous night. Her mother told me she loved me, and then Carla and I set off for a visit to her university.
I like universities – they provide familiarity and comfort no matter where you are in the world. Carla had an exam to study for, and while she prepared, I scoped out all the college kids and had myself a nap; maybe read a few pages in my book, The Dark. Then it was time to say goodbye to Carla, and that brings me to now.
As I sit and wait for my overnight bus to Cusco, I'm not particularly excited, even though I'll be reuniting with plenty of the colorful characters who have populated my trip thus far. There is something unappealing about the hotspot nature of Cusco, the gateway to Peru's must-see jewel, Machu Picchu. I don't possess a strong urge to go, but I know it is essential (much like a high school diploma). Cusco is a town enmeshed in hype, and hype often leads to disappointment. This is a common theme in my life. There are expectations for Cusco, whereas the rest of this adventure has been expectation-free. I don't like expectations, but here's hoping I like Cusco.