For the six or seven people reading this blog, I’m sorry it’s been idle for so long. A combination of conditions have made it hard to keep up to date. I’ll be better from now on. I recently went to Machu Picchu and it was such an experience-for reasons other than you might think-I decided to break protocol and skip ahead.
I’ll be back in Russia soon.
Today we went to Machu Picchu, and it is a tale of more woe, that that of Hamlet, Brookside and Othello. What a trip it was. So much to say. So let’s be having it.
The day before we picked out our tour agency and got ourselves booked up. We were to get a bus from Cusco all the way to a town named Santa Maria and from there we would travel to an area in which a hydro electrical plant operates and get a train to the town of Aquas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu Mountain, stay in Aquas Calientes for the night and in the morning, after hot toast and tea, we would scramble up the mountain, see the place, take lots of pictures, scramble down and do the trip in reverse. Like ‘Memento’ but with nicer scenery and lots of Spanish.
We were told to be up and ready for 7:30 because the bus will arrive between 7:30-8:00am. Now I am not nor will I ever be anthropologically apt in the ways of Peruvians but since arriving I have been informed of, and observed a phenomena known as ‘Peru time’. Peru time is a simple way of saying the people are often late. If a Peruvian tells you they’ll be there for 7, expect them at 8. If dinner is planned for 9, it would be prudent to eat a chicken wing at around 7:30 to stave off the next few hours’ hunger. So it was with this in mind that I got myself ready at 7:20, picked up my bread roll from the breakfast counter and, I swear it, the moment my knife touched the bread to separate the bun:
What Peru time?
“Tomaaaaaaas! Rapido rapido!”
The large woman-with a frown lines so defined I wondered if she was born disappointed-was in a right moody, and any chance of asking for another half minute for me to spread some jam I saw wouldn’t get me far. I hollered for Youngja to get a move on but the hostel manager wouldn’t let us leave.
“You must pay first.”
“We’ve already paid!”
“Wait, I must check the system.”
“We are leaving our bags here. It’s not like we’re running away. We’re coming back in two days.”
“I must check.”
We finally got out and found the street completely blocked on account of the tour bus idling by our hostel. The minivan was full of unhappy, but seemingly well breakfasted, foreigners of all colours. We got the last seats next to the driver and bolted.
We were told to get comfy because the journey would be 7-8 hours. The bus departed the beautiful city of Cusco and headed into dusty roads and vast expanses of emptiness. I can never get over places like this: how a country can be so completely different in such a short amount of time. I’m from England, and the variety of the place is vast but with countries like Peru or Bolivia, the contrast is incomprehensible. One minute you’re drinking a skinny latte and watching a bit of capoeira next to the main square fountain, the next you’re seeing a woman catching toads for dinner. Possibly my brain is too slow to compute these contrasts. It always strikes me as bonkers.
After an hour or two we stopped for a leg stretch and a coffee. I played with a cat and avoided the gift shop. There are only so many llama embossed trickets one can see without exhaling rudely.
We arrived in the town of Santa Maria at around 12, stretched legs and had lunch. By all accounts Santa Maria was once a bustling town on the rich railway line joining Aquas Calientes to Quillabamba but since the 1988 floods, which literally washed the tracks away, it is now a quiet, sad town that makes do with tourists stopping for lunch on their way to someplace better. Since I had been perched at the front in perpetual distress this was the first time I could see who was joining us: We had a Dutch family, pale as paper, a newlywed couple, mucho in love and a group of five Peruvians, combined age of around 650. The Peruvians seemed to be bracing themselves, as if something was upcoming, and oooh Nelly it was.
If you are cheap like me and don’t want to take the train to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu you have to make do with the bus. It’s long, uncomfortable and scary. The discomfort settles in right away and the length takes care of itself but the scary part was coming right up. Between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa is, as Paul once said, a long and winding (dirt) road, affixed to the side of a vast mountain range. The road is spectacular, but it is also terrifying. For the next 90 minutes I don’t think I once unclenched. The side of the road that follows the mountain down has no barriers, no fences, not even a ruddy sign post. And the van drivers love it. They can really show us how these old, unreliable boxes with bad breaks can fly on the side of a mountain. Twice I truly believed we were done for.
“Youngja I love you!”
Once we were off the sprawling curly wurly road I kissed the ground and swore to be nice to all of God’s people from now on.
I was to break my promise before the end of the day.
The town of Santa Maria and the area known as Hidroelectrica was where we ended. We had arrived! Time for our train ticket and a beer.
“Vamos! El tren y camino es aqui.”
The group spread out and we were left alone.
“Erm. Excuse me, Mr Driver. So where do we get our tickets.”
“No se. Chaio, amigo.”
“Ok, er, so we go to the ticket office?”
A simple shrug of the shoulders told me all we needed to know. This man was a driver, nothing else. It seemed that a train ticket would not be waiting for us. We wandered around like two lost sheep until we realised that hope for a train ticket was gone, like our driver.
“What do we do?”
“I guess we walk to the town.”
“OK. Good. Then what?”
“Then what, what?”
“Well, not to sound negative, but we don’t know who to meet or where to go. We have no ticket for Machu Picchu and we have no phone to call anyone.”
We asked a cocky Englishman about the train and the walking option.
“So how long does the train take?”
“About 45 minutes.”
“And how long does it take to walk?”
“A lot longer. Ha ha ha!”
You can always trust an Englishman to put a worried mind at rest.
What were we to do? Mr. Driver was gone, none of the tour guides had our names in their books and the train was leaving. Time for a stroll, I guess.
After a slight detour up a hill we found ourselves following the train tracks that lead all the way to Aquas Calientes. It was hot but not offensively so and the scenery was quite pleasant. Small streams leading to small rivers sauntered under us and an ever present dog kept us entertained. At one point there was an abandoned train car which was now being put to great use as a climbing frame. Another highlight was a rubbish dump with a variety of different colour rubbish bags: red, green, blue. Youngja even saw a yellow one. What a time we had!
The hours rolled on and at around the 2.5 hour mark we saw the town of Aquas Calientes, all cosy and welcoming. A town such as this, with the sole purpose of accommodating foreigners going to Machu Picchu, is never a charming place to be but after 8 hours of terror and almost three hours of walking on big hard rocks it was Shangri La. However, our problem remained: where do we go and what do we do?
We went to the train station: nothing. The bus station: nada. We wandered around the main areas: nicht. It was getting dark and I was starting to get all kinds of emotional. I checked my receipt and there was no phone number printed, but my wonderful wife snagged a leaflet from the tour agent’s. We had a number! Unable to find a public phone we walked into the first hotel we could. Youngja did the talking.
“I want to use your phone.”
“I need to make a call.”
“I’ll pay you! I need to phone my travel agent.”
He man kindly let us use it for free and I waited for them to answer.
“”Hello, this is Thomas.”
“Hello, what can I do for you? Are you having a nice day?”
“Not at all. I am in Aquas Calientes, and I don’t know what to do”
I explained to him the deal, what was wrong and where should we go. His reply was less that soothing.
“I have no record of your booking.”
“Well look again. I was there yesterday.”
“I have the receipt in my hands.”
“Are you sure?”
It was around this time that I started to lose my cool.
“Am I sure that I have a receipt in my hands? I’m not sure how more sure I could be.”
“Well, you’re not on my system.”
“Take the receipt number!”
“Do you see my booking now?”
At the end of it I made it promise to ask his staff and phone me back. I put the phone down and cursed the sky, the sea and everything in between.
After the call ended our receptionist friend, a young and handsome Peruvian called Cristiano asked to be brought up to speed. We let loose the spoils of the day and his face changed from disbelief to anger.
“You walked from Hidroelectrica to here?”
“Yeah. Knackered we are.”
“OK, I’m going to phone this company. I don’t like this. Have a sit down. Take some coffee.”
Cristiano, an angel among us mere mortals, saved our bacon. He rang the company again, used his big boy voice, demanded answers and three phone calls later he was back in our corner.
“This is your tour guide’s name and this is your hostel. I’ve called my friend and she will take you there now.”
When you’ve had a day of sitting in a van for 8 hours, being scared to death, embarrassed, confused, lost, exhausted, lied to, cheated and forgotten, a simple act of kindness can mean a lot to you. Cristiano had no cause do help us in any way. We were not guests in his hotel. We were a couple of dirty, smelly backpackers who (quite rudely) shoved ourselves into his business.
“Mate. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“Just have a good time in Machu Picchu.”
Youngja was crying. She couldn’t help it. He gave her a hug.
Once we got to the hostel it was a dump. It was also full of people who had had at least as bad a day as us. Down to a man, everyone had either been forgotten, lost or just badly treated, and for some of us, all three. The Dutch couple were there, much more red in the face, and a French girl we met on the drive up had also just arrived. As we were all so pissed off the atmosphere was quite jolly. We were united in anger, and our unity was about to get much stronger, for we hadn’t yet met our tour guide.
Juan Carlos was his name. A short, ugly, miserable, capricious, slimy excuse for a human being. He strutted in, refused any blame and started barging out orders. He wouldn’t listen to a thing people were saying. I at once realised that I’d seen him at the train station and he had told me that I wasn’t on his list.
I won’t go into it fully but what happened next was that he was very brisk and extremely rude to me and I admit that I rather lost my cool. Voices were raised but soon lowered. What did Juan Carlos do in retaliation? He told his co-worker not to give me a room. Told her to make me go and find a place by myself. Never mind we had paid for a full tour with meals and guidance. His honour was so tarnished with my harsh words that he wanted to kick me off the tour. At that moment I’m not sure I have hated anyone more.
His co-worker, not as much of the devil as he, didn’t listen and gave us a room with ants for company, though after the day we had the ants were welcome. We had an hour to kill before dinner so we rushed out and bought Cristiano and thank you gift.
Dinner was a great laugh for the single reason that everyone hated Juan Carlos. The food was awful but the company was wonderful. We ate with two Colombians and an Argentinian couple. After the food was forced down J.C. stuck his ugly face into our lives and told us the plan for tomorrow. We were to get up at 4am for breakfast, then head off to start the ascent. Ninety minutes walking would get us to the top of the mountain and our tour would start.
And thus ended a truly memorable day.