Peru: Cuzco

I've moved out of the depressing coastal desert and back into the Andes and it feels great. A wholesome and noticeable change has come over me. The weight of the desolate scenes past seemed to be lifting. From Arequipa to Cuzco I engage another of the really great train journeys of the world.

A seat opposite two English people, David and Jill. They are good to be with and share the same type of childlike enthusiasm for the beauty and adventure that the Peruvian Andes offer. The train climbs methodically upwards. We're travelling above tree line at three thousand four hundred metres for most of this trip. The lunar landscape. Jagged snow covered mountains abound as we pass our time trading stories, eating and sleeping.

I would sit for long periods on some large wooden steps at the carriage door. The wind streamed past me as I was sheltered by the carriage in front, but the sun shone through. The heat and motion made me feel soft, very relaxed.

Occasionally, we would amble into a station or just make unexplained stops in the middle of the altiplano (or highlands). Good moments to stretch the legs and breathe the revitalising virgin air of the Andes. At the stations, we'd inspect the local weavings, or the food for sale by the track. Oranges, roasted pig or lamb and the original "cow pat" cheeses, or just take in the ambience of the scene. Every imaginable chocolate or sweet that they could sell, and other unknown fried goodies like empañadas that we would sample.

Our carriage was full of travellers. I would sit there, plugged into David's walkman, studying the faces. I often played a mental detective game, whereby I'd try to ascertain where someone was from. The criteria: Firstly, the face, colour of skin and hair, check out that nose. Then it was usually to the clothes, the type of shoes, I'd glance above them to the baggage racks, and see what type of pack they carried, the way they moved. I would throw into these clues a few theories I was working on and conclude as to their nationality. I was often wrong, but I was getting better. A silent passer of time.

Cuzco had a tremendous reputation to live up to in many respects. It was possibly the most touristed area of South America, due to the extensive and intriguing Inca territory surrounding it. It also had a great reputation as a thieves' haven. Standing at an altitude of three thousand five hundred metres with a mostly indian population of around a hundred and fifty thousand, it is a remarkable colonial town stooped in history; its many churches, monasteries and Incan history. It had been the capital of the Inca empire, one of the greatest planned societies the world has known.

The romantic cobblestone streets and phenomenal stone masonry were the furthest thing from my mind on Sunday, 5 September.

The squeamish curse of ill-health had been creeping over me since leaving Arequipa. It started to make real statements late that night. Cramps became worse as the hours passed and I was perspiring badly. Jill had gone to buy bottles of mineral water, while David stayed with me. They were great spirits for me over the next week. The next five days really taking a toll as my body engaged in some desperate warfare with spells between vomiting, headaches, intense back ache, diarrhoea, general muscle ache and, finally, a parched and sore throat.

After three days of mild death, it was decided that I should take a trip to the hospital. Luckily, our hotel was close and, with my arms drooped over the shoulders of Jill and Dave, we made our way slowly. The sunlight seemed unrealistically bright, and my worn-out body was heaving with the thin air. Three blocks seemed to take hours. But so it was, that as we climbed the pompous grey stairs to the hospital entrance, we meet another traveller who was just coming out. Over the next five minutes she told her horrific story; leaving Cuzco on a train and suffering an appendicitis attack; the rush back to Cuzco, the operation. Good luck had it that she had made it back in time for the operation, but bad luck meant that she was being operated on in Peru. Her sewn up wound had become infected with gangrene, they re-operated, a second infection, another slicing and the result was a horrible mess of her midriff. A story that sickened. I looked up to Dave and said, "Just take me back to the hotel, I'll sweat it out." We turned around, and I was put back to bed, deleting the thought of entering the hospital for "help".

I would come out of sleep with the feeling that someone, who had a poor sense of humour, was standing over me, alternating between opening and closing the doors of a large freezer, and a blazing steel furnace. Chief physicians, Dave and Jill, decided that eating was a waste of time, and that a trip to a GP doctor might be a good idea. I wasn't sure.

An old guy who had gained his medical degree in Spain, sat upright from the chair where I was slumped. Dave and Jill had all but carried me the two blocks to his rooms, and I felt more like a test-tube specimen than human. Extremely weak and a little delirious. Dave would answer for me as he asked the symptoms. He pressed here, took pulse there, poked things in my mouth and ears. His diagnosis: I had had a "slight" case of typhoid fever, and that rest and careful diet would soon have me repaired. Hmm! "slight" I thought to myself, trudging back to the hotel feeling almost decrepit. Certainly fragile.

Although the diarrhoea kept up for the next week or so, the storm had passed. I was now going for walks into the central plaza as rehabilitation. Sitting and reading in the beautiful sunlight. The air and the warmth never seemed so good.

It took about five more days before I was up and about properly. Only then, I started to take notice of the amazing city I was in. It was easy not to feel sorry for yourself in this environment, as poverty abounded and I had just read about the problems the people were experiencing with the "Sendero Luminoso" (Shining Faith) guerrillas in the region surrounding Ayacucho. Peru's two year old democracy was having its vitality slowly sapped by their acts of extortion and murder.

Gone, along with my weight was my strength. It was with regret that I decided I would not make the classic walk, the Inca Trail. I knew that I would come back through Cuzco on my homeward path, and that I would have needed at least a week more to regain sufficient strength to go trekking through the Andes again.

I spent nights at the different peñas, listening to the beautiful music of the Andes. I found myself more and more engrossed in the flutes and pan-flutes and entertained thoughts of buying myself one.

I had met up with Brad again and spent my last night with him at a restaurant and peña. He had had enough of the South American experience and would fly out next day towards the US and, eventually, on to Europe.

Days were dispensed between museums, churches and markets. The streets, in general, were all living memories of a skilled and intelligent society.

Jill invites me to go wandering through the woollens and weavings market with her, and it is on this relaxed afternoon of marketeering that I gain first hand experience with the Cuzco "professionals". I'm walking just three metres behind her. We're heading down a typical market laneway, lined on either side by stalls. They're piled metres high with jumpers of alpaca and llama wool, weavings and bags, ponchos and hats. Colour everywhere. Underfoot it's muddy and you're always relinquishing focus between the wares and where you feet will go. There were endless potholes or mush on the ground and you had to be constantly aware of your next ten steps. Inspiration for yet another cartoon. Occasionally, a stall-owner would rattle off a well worn spiel. Dragnet for capturing your sale. They'd start at a thousand pesos for a hat and before you'd had time to take your next breath they'd already dropped to three hundred. You never went to markets in the morning because you'd inevitably get pestering dozens of stories which always revolved around a myth that it was lucky, and important, for everyone, at the "first sale" of the day.

So it is that my subconscious notes a strange set of circumstances happening in and around Jill. All of a sudden, she is "accidentally" bumped and bustled by some passing old indian ladies and, just as quickly, the way opens up, they're gone, and she's left oblivious to the large cut in the side of her newly acquired woven bag. A split second manoeuvre, executed with the accuracy and effectiveness of skilled thieves. The best.

I was now getting great ideas for my second book, to be entitled, "A thousand and one Ways To Get Robbed". I had already heard some classic stories like the German guy who was walking through the market. A guy approaches him and squirts what looks like tomato sauce on his shirt. In that split second that his concentration is focussed, glued to his shirt, someone else came from behind. They cut the strap to his camera and made off with it long before he realised what was happening. Always slick, nearly always successful, and a great variety of moves.

Then there were the travellers stories. Their attempts to thwart or fool their prospective assailants. Lining your pack with chicken wire was one anti slash-and-run prop. Then there was the funny habit of not wearing your day-pack at the back but, instead, at the front on your chest. There was the French guy who had a Nikon camera plastered with sticking plaster so that it looked old and worn and not the seven hundred dollar camera it really was.

It was easy to understand why pillage and plunder was so prevalent. You had to understand what seven hundred dollars represented to a Peruvian; it wasn't that "the more I take, the more I have" poisonous attitude of the Australian thief. A year wearing yourself out on the land, you knew that school teachers were only getting the equivalent of about a thousand dollars a year. And one had to admire their artistry and skill as well. These were known as some of the slickest sleight of hand thieves in the world.

And so it was that, amidst all these other situations; sickness and learning experiences, I was re-initiated to PT or Peruvian Time. Along the same lines as Mexican mañana time but with it's slight differences; it is best described with the following scene.

David and I had seen a poster advertising a local theatre event, had confirmed its actuality with the tourist office, with a starting time of six thirty p.m. A time lapse preview of events that night went like this:

Arrive and buy ticket at six fifteen p.m. from a small ticket office in front of theatre, wait fifteen minutes before a man at the door announces that the show will have a slight delay and will start at seven p.m. Running late! This is not unusual, so we go for a walk around the central plaza, returning at six fifty five p.m., they're starting soon .... some problems with the set. Sit outside and wait for doors to open. seven fifteen p.m. and still closed. "Typically Peruvian time", we thought. Another short walk to return to find the ticket seller gone. Ask questions and find that they're entering from a door at the other side of the building. Then the climax, as we find that there is no show and that the theatre had been cancelled at about six p.m. to make way for an impromptu political meeting. Ask for money back, but nobody wants to know us. Now we're seeing the humour, but still want the justice of returned money for non-existent tickets. We end up with our money back and an insight into PT! Now do I understand? Why not? No!

Memories recur of my previous weeks' illness, provided by slight run-ins with the "Q" or "Quickstep" or "Inca Quickstep" or better known as diarrhoea.

I meet the girl who I met that day en route to the hospital. Seems like her horror story is getting worse - stories of bad operations and lifelong scars now combine with a lack of money, negative support from her family back home. She's really down in the dumps and has gotten herself into further difficulty by being involved with the cocaine and marijuana set of Cuzco. Best described as ex-hippies, they eeked out either good or sufficient lives by selling drugs and jewellery on the streets. They seemed burnt out, just surviving, existing. Experience had also taught me to be aware as to their ways. It gradually became evident that this girl was "on the hustle". Either trying to get money from me, or checking out my worldly backpacking possessions. I had already heard many stories of people being "taken" by these hustlers. With tact I managed to move away from the would-be seductress. An Australian girl. Rejecting the life of house, car, husband and two point three kids. And for what?