Thursday, May 10, 2012

In which Kelly and I take the train back from Machu Picchu

I feel as if I should be labeling these posts "Peace Corpse" or "Peace Corp." There are people who were in the Peace Corps who spell it that way. Honest.

I told you I would tell you about the train trip back from Machu Picchu. And I will.

After the tax us to incremental death drama in Tacna, we arrived in Cuzco without further incident. We found a pension that was perfectly quiet at 11 a.m. but that was within drunken shouting and urinating distance from a cantina at night, so we did not sleep tranquilly.

Actually, we suspected something about the urine, both because we smelled evidence and we saw signs saying, "Do not urinate here." You can tell a lot about a place by what is forbidden. It's usually not necessary to tell people not to pee in a spot where they are not going to pee anyhow. In Ecuador, I saw signs on the buses pleading, "Don't spit here!" I tried not to touch anything.

In France, the sign on the train said, "No smoking." Well, what it really said was, "Defense de fumer." And, in a perfect example of French, "You're not going to tell me what to do," insouciance, a Frenchman was sitting in front of it, smoking. When I asked him why he couldn't just move to the smoking coach to smoke and let the non-smoking coach be smoke free for those of us who would prefer a smokeless environment, he just looked up and blew a smoke ring at me. I don't know if that was a commentary on my abysmal French or on what I had intended to ask him.

We verified that the shower had hot water. I had learned my lesson on that during my post-grad school travels in Europe. In Greece, I had discovered that the showers had hot water only in the afternoons after the water had had time to heat. It was held in barrels on top of the roofs. If you wanted to bathe in the morning, forget it. I mean, you could, but not with hot water. Nope, only in the late afternoon, after you had spent the day roasting at the beach and were hot already anyhow. Then you could cover yourself with more hot water.

Now I knew to ask. And to verify. Trust, but verify. That was my motto. Verify that the shower had a heating source that would not electrocute me. It wasn't until that evening that we discovered that they didn't actually use the hot water tank the manager had shown us. Electricity is too expensive, they said. Instead, there was a solar shower that gave hot water between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Who knew the Peruvians and the Greeks had so much in common?

Then we discovered it didn't matter at all that there was no way to heat water in the evenings because after 8:00 p.m., there was no water at all. Which lends a new meaning to the concept of a "dry" city and put a new question on my checklist before choosing a place to stay.

Speaking of "dry" places. Have I told you my joke about dry? There was a Peace Corps volunteer in my group who was from somewhere on the East Coast. He liked his beer. A lot. He was applying to PhD programs. He had applied to Texas Tech, in Lubbock, where I lived as a kid for several years.

"You know Lubbock is dry, don't you?" I asked as I watched him drain the last drop from his Genessee.

"Yeah, I know it doesn't rain a lot out there," he answered.

I tilted my head as I considered how to answer him. "Maybe there's something you should know," I said.

Kelly and I got up the next morning and took our cold, cold showers in the cold, cold bathroom. Cuzco is cold. It is high in the mountains - 11,000 feet. We had been taking diamox to prevent altitude sickness, but all that does is keep you from vomiting or passing out. It doesn't keep you from being short of breath or really, really tired after walking just one block. So we were cold and had no energy.

We trudged our way to the train station for the early-morning train to Machu Picchu. I won't even try to describe Machu Picchu. I can't do it justice. I will leave that for writers far more talented than I. Besides, I think it's kind of boring to describe what a place looks like when all you have to do is look at a photo. I will say, though, that it's about the only place I've ever been where I didn't think, That's it? That's all? The buildup actually did not do Machu Picchu justice.

The train ride back, though. We had reserved train seats on the ride there. Even though we had seats, that didn't stop the train company from selling additional tickets and cramming people in the aisles. People and their goats and their chickens and their children. You can fit a lot of living beings in the aisles of a train if you don't care about knocking into the people who are sitting in the seats. That they have paid for.

On the ride back, not only did we not have reserved spots, but it appeared that there were three times as many riders as seats. I don't know if there had been multiple trains out to Machu Picchu in the morning and only one train back or what, but there was a mad dash for seats. The guidebooks and word of mouth warned us that one had to throw onesself through the window to get a seat. It wouldn't have been such a big deal except it was about a four hour ride and who wants to stand that long?

When the train finally arrived, we pushed our way to the front of the crowd and jumped onto the coach, hoping to be lucky. But the people in front of us kept moving, so we knew there were no seats - until we saw one next to three Peruvian men, who were guarding it jealously from all takers. When they saw Kelly and me - remember, this was almost 20 years ago, they motioned to us eagerly. Not above using our sex and our blondeness - I was blonde once upon a time - to our advantage, we squeezed into the small space and looked smugly at all the long-haired, unwashed hippie backpackers crammed into the aisles. The cold shower that morning had been worth it.

But there was a price to pay for this seat. We had to sit next to these guys, none of whom were particularly couth. One of them was finishing his supper, which consisted of greasy meat (guinea pig, perhaps, and no I am not joking - in the depiction of the Last Supper on the wall of the cathedral in Cuzco, Jesus and the disciples are eating cuy, which is roast guinea pig) on a paper plate. He sucked the bones, licked his fingers, burped, and casually tossed the plate out the window.

Kelly said, "Oh gross," but even this was not enough to make us budge. We were not going to be grossed out of our seat by a finger-licking litterbug.

Then they started talking to us. "You're not from around here," they said perceptively.

We tried to pretend we didn't speak Spanish, but had to come clean when one of them told us he was getting off in two stops and we could have an extra seat then. We decided to be polite and suffer their conversation.

Don't be all, "Oh you girls are bitches. They were just being nice." This was a different culture. Latin men look at American women traveling alone and think, "Slut." They've seen American movies. They know what American women are like. They'll sleep with anyone! You don't think so? What's the plot of Mama Mia? Even I cringe at that one. A woman invites three old boyfriends to her daughter's wedding because she doesn't know which one of them is the daughter's father. It's a little crass, don't you think? Not that that sort of thing doesn't go on in South America - there was plenty of shacking up and sleeping around going on in Chile, but it's a little more discreet.

I got tired of being hit on in South America. I assure you, I was not the poster child for being hit on in the U.S. But by mere virtue of being a young American woman back then, I was easy in the eyes of Latin men. We were tired of it. We did our best to ignore the approaches.

But in this case, we decided to be minimally polite in exchange for a place to sit.

And then we cast our indignant principles to the wind. The door opened and in walked two gorgeous Brazilian men. They tried to place themselves and their backpacks in the aisle behind us, but the people sitting there wouldn't let them. Kelly and I looked at each other and it was as if we were communicating telepathically. At the same moment, we turned to the men, beckoned to them, and said, "You may stand next to us!"

Yes. Complete hypocrites. That's what we were. Superficial hypocrites. We didn't want the finger-licking Peruvian guys, but the Brazilians? Come to Mama, Mia.

We turned our backs on the Peruvians and focused all our attention on the Brazilians, keeping their interest by promising them they could have our seats when we got off the train.

We would have had a perfectly charming evening with them except for the fact that Brazil had just won the World Cup and some idiot just had to bring it up. Actually, that idiot was one of the Peruvian guys sitting next to us.

The next thing we knew, the entire coach was involved in the discussion. What were the pivotal plays in the series? What had Brazil done since the last time it won the Cup? What would have happened if Italy's best player had actually played?

"Wouldn't have made any difference," boasted Brazilian Number One.

"How do you feel about that?" I asked the tight-lipped Italian who was sitting across from me.

Men were shouting their opinions from all sides. When we made a stop, the guys standing outside yelled through the windows. Sports hell.

A woman sitting behind us - American - tried to get the Brazilians' attention, which we had lost for good, by feigning illness. Kelly and I rolled our eyes at each other. "Oldest trick in the book," we muttered. For the next three hours, we had to occupy ourselves by debating whether the "Can't be younger than my brother" rule applied to the Brazilians, whom we had discovered were all of 19 years old. For the record, we decided that the rule did not apply in the southern hemisphere, where people mature faster.

The rule turned out to be irrelevant, though, as all they wanted from us was a place to sit. Oh well. There were plenty of old Peruvian guys who thought we were hot.

Monday, May 7, 2012

In which Sly and Doris give us something to laugh about

On Sunday morning, when I wanted to bake cookies, Primo got all, "Whoooooo!" because he thinks the kitchen will turn into a big mess and it's soooo stressful. "There will be dishes all over!" he said. "How can I relax?'

"Because I'm not going to ask you to do any of the dishes?" I suggested.

"But you don't do them right," he answered grumpily.

"Your standards are too high," I told him.

"Yours are too low."

"Your parents think it's the opposite," I said.

We both laughed. How to unite people: Well, you know.