I slept through the flight from Lima to Cusco until turbulence jolted me awake, and I opened my eyes to the most incredible mountains looming outside my window. Stepping off the plane and onto the runway, my mind still felt like it was high in the clouds; the altitude and fog melded into a strange dichotomy of obscurity and definition- a bright haze settling over everything. In a blur, I retrieved my bags and merged into a cinnamon-colored crowd pleading with me in Spanish and English to please stay at their hotels.
For the first time since I had begun my journey, I was confused. Where were the people I was supposed to meet? After having to convince many a taxi driver that I did indeed already had a ride to my hotel, I finally spotted two white faces in the distance: a man with glasses holding a tiny sign with my name scrawled across the bottom, and a friendly looking young woman. I made my way over to them. The man introduced himself as Tilman. I failed to mention that I already knew him and that he was German through the organization’s facebook page (best not creep out these people from the beginning), and instead introduced myself. The girl, Sarah, an aspiring archaeologist from the UK, and though she seemed a bit shy at the beginning, she opened up soon after, admitting to a deep love for all things Inca.
Sarah and I quickly caught onto the practice of thrusting ourselves into the middle of traffic in order to get across the street- a habit that I am now struggling to break- and nimbly climbed into the taxi that took us to our hostel, the Hotel el Rosal. Even after all the days we spent there, I still can’t tell you what that place is. Tidy and bright-colored, with statues of llamas and a neon-lit Virgin Mary, there are always tourists, children, and nuns coming and going, and populating the lawn. My best guess is that it is one part hostel, one part convent, one part orphanage, and two parts labyrinth. Basically, it’s an awesome place to stay. When we arrived, the other volunteers were still asleep after their nearly two-day long voyage from Singapore, so we drank some tea for the altitude sickness and went off to explore the city for a few hours.
Cusco is a modern city with a rich history as the Incas’ capital and the center for Spanish colonization beginning in the 14th century. In some places, the stones of the ancient Incan walls look as if they were erected yesterday, seemingly left unscathed by the Spanish conquest. More impressive than the endurance of these massive walls are the images that they hide in plain sight. If you look hard enough, you can see that some of the stones make up the city’s symbols: the puma, representing strength, the serpent, representing knowledge and a connection to the spirit world, and the condor representing wisdom, freedom, and balance. This information, of course, was derived from a savvy artist who decided that Sarah’s and my walk to the nearest deli was actually a tour which had been entrusted to him. Needless to say, I bought one of his paintings by the end of the day at much too high of a price.
As we walked down the spacious sidewalks, I realized that I had never really experienced sticking out so much as much as I did at that moment- my dark hair and eyes usually let me pass for many nationalities, but in Cusco, my light skin and cargo pants definitely gave me away. While I certainly did not look like a local, Sarah had me beat with her fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Taller than most people there, she shone like a beacon from miles away.
Sarah and I bonded over some coca tea at Jack’s café, discussing our pet cats and mutual love of dresses, still somewhat reeling from the altitude. Please, if you ever go high above sea level, do not underestimate altitude sickness. You walk over a speed bump and you get lightheaded. A flight of stairs? You’re out of commission for at least a couple of minutes. Your body feels like a ton of bricks, and you basically just feel like poo for a good while.
Anyway, by the end of this very long day, we finally met the other volunteers, Hanako, who is of Japanese descent, and Erica, who is English- both friends living in Singapore, traveling together on their gap year. Tilman, our ever-helpful guide took us all to a pizza place where we met Harol who also works for the organization. Things were a bit awkward since we didn’t know each other and we were all tired, but the pizza was delicious.
So, all in all, though we didn’t know quite yet what we would be doing in the jungle, this first day gave us a taste of what Cusco is all about. Like many other places, the city is a contradiction where new and old, wealth and poverty, acceptance and rejection exist alongside one another. There is the brightness of the multicolored hats and dresses, plaited hair, and smiles of the locals, and the sadness of the homeless, shivering on the side of the road in the cold, Andean nights. Tiny children play on the side of the road while their parents work to sell their wares- beautiful textiles, jewelry, and hot meals. Tourists are at once cherished and detested depending on the person, depending on the day, depending on the season. The weather is changeable too. In the rainy season, one instant it’s warm and sunny, and the next it’s raining and freezing with not even a hint of what’s coming next. And that is life in Peru. What will happen tomorrow? Heaven only knows. But you know it won’t be boring.