Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Riding on the top of trash, and paying for it!!

MACHU PICCHU

"Unless hiking the Inca Trail (to Machu Picchu), visitors must come by train to Aguas Calientes. There is no other way." (Lonely Planet South America). Hah!! There is always a back door my friends, always some other way, never listen to the rules, I bite my thumb at them. The train to Machu Picchu may well be nice, I would sure hope so for the now cheapest price of $30 dollars US for one way from the town closest to the town situated below Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. This train lasts about an hour or two, for those of us from New England, it's roughly equivalent to the exorbitantly priced Amtrak line down to NYC.

This obstacle confronted Tatianna and I when we arrived in Ollantaytambo, the last station foreigners can board the PeruRail train (actually owned by a Chilean-American conglomerate, like all of Machu Picchu), and the place to catch the "backpackers" train to Aguas Calientes. Now, for some that may not seem like much, but for two erstwhile kids trying to make a dollar out of a fifteen cents while we wander and wonder at this great continent, $30 bucks one way is a little prohibitive to one of the most famous sites of South America.

Some time ago, while surfing the internet, I stumbled across a note that told of another way, a "backdoor" if you will. A little more adventure, a little more time, but a lot less money, and that's why I travel. Unfortunately I was unable to find that gem again, and could only encounter rare stories of people walking the 30 km along the railway. Honestly, this is tough, but doable for me, however, given our backpack weights and the burden of a sack of potatoes that we must now carry like an albatross or scarlet letter, the price of a few free nights stay, Tatianna and I decided 20 some odd miles might be pushing it. Luckily, along with the potatoes came the gem again. A Peruvian friend told us of another way to reach Aguas Calientes, a bit of walking, but nothing too much. And so when we arrived in Ollantaytambo and saw the prices, we hopped on a bus across the Andes.

Climbing up out of the Sacred Valley we summited a beautiful pass, sequestered in the driver's cabin of a rambling peruvian bus on an endless dirt road. As night fell we dove into the jungle on the Amazonian side of Perú. After some hours we arrived in a one horse junction town where we would stay. We were told there was another little van that took off into the mountains to the next village on our trek at 3 am, a little early. Instead, we slept in, had a nice breakfast, and caught the afternoon one. Climbing higher and higher into this valley to the north of Aguas Calientes, well off the map, I could feel a tinge or two of excitement. End of the line, a half horse town, and depending on who you believed we only had two or more like five hours of walking ahead of us.

It being 2:30 or so in the afternoon, 2 hours seemed fine, so we started. Crossed a river via a little basket on a wire, and got back on our feet. The way was beautiful and fairly desolate, a dirt road winding along a river. Incredible waterfalls and mountains rose to either side. Finally we arrived, or so we thought. Where we were was the Estacion Hidroelectrica, the end of the railway, and another two hours walk from Aguas Calientes. It was 5, but we pushed on. If you've ever hiked with a 30-40 pound pack for a ways, you know it's tiring, if not, believe me, it's tiring. Trying to focus on railroad tracks as the sun disappears and leaves you in an ethereal grayland for another hour or two makes one cross eyed. A hard slog, but we arrived, found our place to stay, and saved $30!

Machu Picchu, a lesson in how to not push your girlfriend over the edge. Machu Picchu is more expensive than the Taj Mahal. In keeping with the rampant overpricing, the short bus ride from the bottom to the top is about $20 one way. Student tickets are "cheap" but as I am sadly an adult now, entrance is roughly $25 US. Under my petulant impetus, we arose "early" and started the 1-2 hour hike up the mountain, passed continually by hordes of comfortable tourists riding Mercedes Benz "ecologico" buses. We arrived for the beautiful early morning sun hitting the ruins, obscured only by a pea soup of clouds that would last at least another two hours. Oh well. Hiked about some, then continued the climb up the mountain that rises over the ruins.

The Incans were some kind of masochists in my opinion, and perhaps I am as well. The thousand or so stairs to the top were all well and good, and the view fantastic. I then wanted to view another temple down the backside, little did I assume it would include another two thousand stairs, two plus hours more, and the end of Tatianna's energy. (She was a little bitter.) We limped back down after a little more exploration, again surpassed by endless hordes of tourists a bit more sensible than I.

After some hot showers, a little hot springs action for myself, we prepared for the next day's return. The railroad tracks were much easier in the day, and we met a friendly Peruviano along the way who was doing a little fishing. He informed us a train would come along and it was only $8 US for the ten km ride or so. We'll keep on walking thank you very much.

Well, the train did come, and as it passed, Tatianna fulfilled one of her lifelong goals of leaping onto a moving train, leaving me standing on the side of the tracks. Not to be outdone, I got to hustling, sprinted alongside, pack filled with potatoes et al, grabbed a bar and swung on.

A friendly Peruviano let me in the locked car, and I sat down as if nothing had happened. The conductor came through, and even though I tried valiantly to ignore him, he informed me I had to move to the "tourist" car, thbbtpt. Then he requested I pay the 8 dollar tarifa. I began a long spiel about how I didn't have the money, I had only recently boarded the train (which he didn't appreciate) and I felt it was unjust to be required to pay the full fare for half the ride. 8 dollars, he repeated, and kindly showed me the tariff list. Yes yes, and I went on with wild gesticulations of disagreement, when suddenly, another conductor threw open the tour and shouted "Hay una turista en el maquina!!!" (There is a female tourist in the engine car!!). I smiled, that's my Tatianna.

They took off to apprehend the "turista," and left another less diligent fellow to mind me. At one point the train slowed to a stop and I tried to make my break but I was told to sit back down. Being a well mannered individual, I complied graciously. A few minutes later, my "guard" decided to relieve himself and visit the little chico's room and I surreptitiously unlocked the door and gingerly stepped off with only a slight stumble. Waved the train goodbye and continued on my merry way, hoping to run into Tatianna.

After some time and questioning of the locals, who all knew of the gringa that jumped the train, I found her well back on the tracks. Apparently the first stop of the train had been the conductor throwing her from the train in a rather ungentlemanly manner, shame on him. Milling about, completely ignored by the train officials we had so recently duped, we waited for the truck that would return us to the town we had started from two days before, this time, no walking thank god.

The truck arrived, and after they loaded it with suspicious blue barrels, we were told to hop on. The driver wanted Tatianna and the other gringa (white female) to ride in the cab with him ( suprise ), but Tatianna being game, we clambered on top and let the other less adventurous couple ride inside. "What's in the barrels?" we asked. "Oh all the trash from Machu Picchu!" Super, and with us as the additional trash on top (they all liked that joke) we lumbered on out.

After only a minor fiasco with the dump truck driver ( trying to overcharge us for riding on his trash, the nerve) we crossed the river via basket on a wire again, and set up camp with a truckload of gringos on some sort of tour that had found our little backdoor. In the morning, hiked down to some incredibly well done thermal pools and then ran back to town for the van that would take us out of there. Junction town revisited, and grabbed a bus for Cuzco. Only slightly delayed by a wall of rocks in the road, but these things are normal when travelling through backdoors. All told, we had a three day adventure for about the same price as the one way train ticket, hoorah as Al Pacino would say.

CUZCO

Due to random connections of Tatianna's, we had a free place to stay in the Sacred Valley, in the town of Urubamba. Lovely joint, wanted us to go horseback riding with them at a measly 40 times the going rate of other places, but oh well. We decided to take a day and go visit some ruins in Cuzco. On the bus ride there, Tatianna slept while I saw all these fascinating ruins from the window. We arrived and realized, those were the ruins we had come to see, drat. So we set about walking around.

Stumbled across a bunch of people in costume getting loaded and dancing. Well, as you can imagine, soon we too were imbibing in the local culture. While I negotiated a reasonable bride price for Tatianna with a lecherous man named Jesus, she danced with a man with a 10 inch tongue and colorful socks. The situation got a little awkward, it tends to and I don't know why, so we took our gracious leave.

Filled to the brim with national pride and the national beer, we were absent mindedly looking for a baño when we stumbled across a crowd and some street performers. Gringos not being so common in that area of town, and my long blonde hair being something of an abnormality, we drew a little attention and were invited into the circle and the performance. This is how I came to dance with a short man in a seventh grade pink prom dress, and subsequently whip him.

We also were duped into hawking wafers for the buskers (street performers) for their day's take. I must say I sold the most by far, I think the people were sympathetic to my plight, for if I did not sell all my snacks, the performers were going to steal Tatianna. We then sat down to enjoy the rest of the show, sort of obligated as the guests of honor in the center of the crowd. All the while, the few bottles of beer and water we had taken were rising to our ears, finally we could take no more, leapt up and dove out of the crowd, not even taking the time to say goodbye.

Ah sweet relief, we ambled through some markets, came across the most delicious thing ever, churros, fried dough stuffed with some sort of sweet lard (don't knock it 'till you've tried it) and grabbed the next bus home. The next day, bid our farewells to the horseback folks, they sang us a sweet song and the son told us about the backdoor to MP. The father then asked a "small" favor of us. Could we please take a small sack of Peruvian potatoes to his daughter in the States? Sure! Oh, five pounds of potatoes, and so, I have five pounds of peruvian potatoes in my bag, my albatross for three free nights stay.

NOW

We are in Ayacucho, birthplace of the "Sendero Luminoso" ( or Shining Path ) a guerrilla terrorist group responsible for 40 to 60000 "disappearances" in the late 80's and early 90's, it's a great little city. To arrive here, we arose at 5 am in our Cuzco hotel with no water ( don't worry, we didn't pay very much ), took a 4 hour bus to Abancay, from there a 6 hour bus on a terrible dirt road to Andahuaylas, and then a ten hour bus on a worse dirt road over night. Yeah!

Ayacucho is great, maybe three other tourists in the whole town, bumping action in the plaza and market place. Had a discussion about meat prices in Croatia with a butcheress (we're from there, didn't you know?), held a set of bull horns, part of the bloody skull still attached up to my head for a photo, watched a man remove a frog from it's body ( this is difficult to explain ), and did a little anonymous people watching while indulging in a local treat, like a milksicle. Soon we head to the coast, a little sunworship and fish eating.

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