Ceviche, Coca and Inca Kola – Two Weeks in Cusco (5 October – 1 November 2013)

Arriving into Cusco from Abancay involved yet another long bus ride. Thankfully this time it was only 5 hours, all in day light and supported by some very good travel sickness pills we had quickly purchased after the last dreadful bus trip. However, the road to Cusco is not like the one to Abancay. The road is broader, smoother and in far better repair. Taking a cheaper local bus rather then the 5 star Cruz del Sur also provided greater interaction with the locals. We stopped more than once to pick up ‘hitch-hikers’ moving between towns all of whom I am guessing were charged a few soles for their fare. Some of these jumped on board to sell their wears – food, drink and a few random gadgets. Our favourite was the ‘choklo’ girl who must have been caught a little by surprise by the bus as her and her girlfriend were still boiling the huge white corn cobs and taking the finished ones from the pan. These we’re then placed in a plastic bucket lined with a traditional, brightly woven blanket to keep them warm to sell on the bus. These girls moved fast to make sure one of them made the bus with the steaming maize.
Choklo girls

A ‘choklo’ with crumbly white cheese set us back just 2 soles and we should have bought two! The texture of the steamed maize on the cob is both soft and chewy and the addition of the almost feta like cheese added a nice sharp tang: in a word delicious. This would not be our last choklo snack.

Choklo and cheese

The bus meandered through the incredible hills and valleys further up into the Andes. Each corner showing off glimpses of the glorious snow capped Salkantay in the distance. The fields outside changed from corn to flowers to fruit trees (papaya, oranges, avocados) to prickly pear every few kilometres. Aqueducts and road side drains efficiently redirect the ice melt from the mountains down into the valleys and fields below making for lush detailed land. It seemed that the Peruvians could grow anything in the vast number of micro climates created by the conversion of the Andes to the east, the tropics to the north and the Pacific Ocean along the west coast. This was an assumption that was quickly confirmed by our first visit to the market in Cusco – a vegetarians delight if ever there was one (well at least in one half of the market, the other side could be considered a carnivores delight). Each house we passed had it’s own mix of chickens, pigs, sheep, cows, horses, donkeys and of course dogs. In the greener parts of the hills the number of baby sheep and pigs was high, indicating fertility was certainly not restricted to the fields. Eucalyptus trees, imported in the late 1800’s to provide quick growing, strong timber for railway tracks, covered many of the hillsides. It was obvious where logging had occurred as the original tree stumps now sprouted three to four new tricks all growing out at various angles. It struck me that Peruvian children were growing up with the same familiar smells and smooth, grey barked tree trunks that we had in Gippsland. The smell from the chimneys through the hills was just like home too only here it was quickly mixed with diesel fumes from the passing trucks and buses.

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The creation of mud bricks seemed to be the other main industry throughout the hills. Each small village had at least a few areas set up for their production, small piles covered with a piece of corregated tin or a plastic bag with rocks on top to keep the rain off. Some houses out of the villages were making their own. Often you could see a pile of bricks in the various stages of creation and drying lying to one side of what must have been someone’s very slowly evolving house. One wonders how long it must take to build a whole home…

Salkantay sneak peak

Our bus driver was also an interesting fellow. Clearly confident in his job security, he stopped for a pee on the side of the bus (some times it pays not to be a ‘chismosa’ looking out the bus window). And not long after this he stopped again to talk to a mate in a ute for at least 5 minutes in the middle of the main highway. I’m sure the conversation would have continued if it was not the arrival of other traffic waiting to continue their journey.
A chat with a mate

As we approached the towns on the fringes of Cusco we began to notice a pair of terracotta bulls together with a Christian cross on the roof tops of many houses. We later discovered that these were good luck charms that were thought to bring prosperity and wealth through fruitful harvests and healthy crops. These charms mark the introduction of beasts of burden by the Spanish in the 1500s and also their enforced Catholicism on the Pachamama worshiping Quechua.
Icons of the Spanish

As we turned the last corner into the heights of upper Cusco we realised that it was perhaps not the traditional Inca that were to be the icons of this town, for that sugary,sweet, almost fluorescent-yellow drink of Inca Kola was billed and advertised on every available space. The multi-national Coca-Cola bought out a hefty share of the local soft drink company back in 1999, a smart move as Inca K dominated the market far out selling Coke in Peru. Later we discovered another local trademark was also partially in foreign hands – Peru Rail. British Rail are one of a number of operators that have leasing arrangements with Peru Rail including trains that run out to Macchu Pichu and south to Puno, including the five star Hiram Bingham Orient Express. One look at the prices and it’s clear that like us, the locals are catching the bus!
Cusco proudly sponsored by....

Korean monks in the main plaza. We had a brief chat with one of them and discovered that it was a pilgrimage of sorts that they were on to various religiously significant places. Still don’t understand the face masks. However, they didn’t seem to be sucking on oxygen bottles like quite a few of the Japanese tourists we came across. I guess if you haven’t brought Diamox with you and don’t want to chew on coca leaves the OxyShot canisters are viable option – but still hilarious!

Korean pilgrims

Mario Testino photo bomber – this kid was on to it. Picked his moment to pop up into the frame as I took the shot.

Gotcha!

CK checking out the ‘Palacio de la Justicia’ (Palace of Justice)
Justice found?

Local ladies in the street

The locals

The beautiful Palacio Arzobispal built on the foundations of Inca stone work.

The Arch Bishops Palace, Cusco

A close up of some of the amazing hand carved Inca stones that are the foundation of the most magnificent colonial buildings in Cusco. We discovered on one of our tours that many of the stones were rediscovered after a major earthquake in the 1980’s that caused the stucco that was covering them to fall off. It must have been a great annoyance to the Spanish that every time there was an earthquake their buildings would suffer huge damage whilst all of the Inca stones remained perfectly in place. I hope they regretted what they destroyed.

Perfectly carved and joined - no mortar here

And yes they are HUGE

The Plaza Principal
The Cathedral in the Plaza
From the steps of the Cathedral

One of the seemingly endless number of street cleaners who work hard to keep the streets of Cusco spotless.

One of the amazing women who work hard to keep the streets spotless

Rainy streets of Cusco. Thankfully the mornings were usually fine and sunny allowing lots of time to wander and explore. Come mid afternoon you needed to make sure you were either close enough to your hotel to make a run for it or you had packed a full body poncho. No umbrella is going to save you from this rain.

The rainy season starts in November

Save the animals! One of the walls along the main plaza seems to be dedicated to local protests and announcements. For a few days it was covered with posters made by school children. Some were quite impressive, others grousome and straight to the point.

To be continued…
Stay tuned for food, CK in suspenders, post modern bulls and lots more.

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Abancay, Peru – Religion, community and service

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El Mirador de Abancay

After the bus ride from hell, fourteen hours of switchbacks, gear changes that would make Jeremy Clarkson weep and speeds that could see the driver win the Dakar (perhaps that is what he was practising for now that it is held in these parts) we arrived alive into Abancay (2,378m). Abancay is the most important city in the Apurimac Region. With a population nearing 70,000, it is equipped with all of the necessities of modern living but still holds on to many of the traditional elements of life in the mountains. The people are warm, friendly and helpful suggesting places to visit and how to get there using the local public transport – an experience in itself. Perhaps their friendly disposition has something to do with their city’s famous year round warm weather, Abancay is fondly referred to as ‘the eternal springtime valley’ and the beautiful Pachachaca river provides fresh fish, water and even links to some pretty special hot springs not too far from town.

Something interesting I have noticed since arriving in Peru is the number of environmental murals adorning, mostly, the outer walls of schools. It is very encouraging to see that th local government and educational institutions take looking aft the environment seriously. Some of the murals are comical and easy to understand showing before and after pictures. Others are quite confronting, almost threatening. I guess it’s another way to get the message across if the warmer fuzzier messages didn’t hit the spot. Perhaps a trip to Peru should be on the agenda for Australia’s newest Prime Minister and his team… Despite the apparent environmental awareness, the petrol here seems to contain levels of sulphur the last of which I experienced in Waiotapo in New Zealand. Catalytic converters are clearly not regulated or possibly even required. At altitude, this makes for pretty dismal air quality and any attempt to go for a run results in chest pain and a kind of wheezing that sits in your throat (a bloody good excuse to hang about drinking pisco sours and eating these incredible shallow fried potato stuffed capsicums far as I’m concerned).
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Abancay was a rest stop, for me in particular, an opportunity to begin to acclimatise to the altitude in preparation for Cusco and the Inca Trail. Most days were spent wandering, eating and drinking. But like in every Latin American town I have spent time in, there was always something going on. On our first night there was a street parade of sorts honouring ‘El SeƱor de los Milagros’ (Lord of miracles). Dutiful priests and alter men carried a cumbersome, magnificently adorned glass casket of Jesus through the streets followed by a band and a man pushing the required generator to power the lights and microphone of the head priest. Every once in a while the whole group stopped and performed a two-step type dance movement turning the whole parade to face an alter that had been set up by one of the shop keepers along the street. Earlier in the afternoon I’d spent time watching a group of school kids – they looked like year 9s – dutifully creating a brightly coloured mural in sand on the street. The teacher had blocked off passing traffic to allow this and no one seemed to mind, clearly they knew more than I at the time. As the procession moved closer and closer to the students work (more the 6 hours worth) I watched as the kids hung from the school fence overlooking their work. Some looked excited to see the damage that would be done (yes, they were largely the boys) others seemed a little sad. When the procession had moved past the school and further up the street I hung back to take a few photos of the aftermath. A couple of the kids approached, interested in my choice of taking a photo of their now ruined efforts. As we chatted about their hard work and dedication, I explained that I was teacher and I couldn’t imagine too many of my year nines giving up their Sunday afternoon to create something that would be destroyed within an hour of being completed. The boys explained that their efforts were part of a bigger tradition, a service that they willingly (although one of the two mentioned that his parents were rather insistent that he help out) performed. In the absence of such religious traditions in our public schools I found myself considering the other traditions and community interactions we create with our students. Tree Day, Harmony Day and Clean-up Australia Day were a few that instantly came to mind. Then there are the ANZAC day parades and Remembrance Day services, all of which many of our students give up their own time to participate in or even organise with equally little reward other than the knowledge that they have participated and served. It seems to me that our kids have plenty of community after all – if they choose it of course.
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Lunch at ‘Don Francisco’, Abancay, Peru

Lunch at 'Don Francisco', Abancay, Peru

It would seem that ‘Don Francisco’ is a bit of an institution in town, with the locals and also with the alternative kids hanging out in town. Entering through a narrow hallway leads one out into the partially covered patio restaurant whose walls are covered in classic alt rock memorabilia. The green courtyard that lay beyond would be a great place to bask in the sun and knock down some ceviche and cervezas, but as the drizzle had well and truly settled in we chose a table under cover. As the boom box rocked out hits from ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners to The Cure and even a little classic Phil Collins I noticed a very cute imitation ‘Banksy’ had been painted on the wall. It is amazing the way street art, particularly political graffiti, a tradition well established in the Americas, has become increasingly accepted in the west as legitimate art. But I digress, back to the food.

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We went with the ceviche mixto made from pota (cuttlefish) and tollo (spotted dog fish). Needless to say I had not had a chance to translate tollo when we ordered and perhaps may have went with the plain pota but so glad we didn’t. The ceviche was excellent – fresh and perfectly limed and salted. The boiled sweet potato on the side seems odd at first until you put it together with the fish and it all makes sense on the palate. Sweet ad soft with the tart lime juice and fleshyness of the fish. Christopher’s ‘seco de res con frijoles’ was simple and again perfectly balanced. The Peruvians know how to season their food. We have not had a bad meal yet. And for the second time, we were treated to the wonderfully salty and nutty, unpopped toasted maize kernels. Why some hipster restaurant in Melbourne hasn’t picked these suckers up yet is beyond me. Foodies out there be on the look out – they are sure to make it to the bar snacks menu of one of the plethora of ‘Mexican’ restaurants that are slowly taking over Melbourne.

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