It’s a slightly surreal journey back to Lima from the Cordillera Blanca. In another zone completely, touched by purest nature, thinnest air, highest heights and long, slow walking we drive slowly and a little unwillingly. A crazy ice-cream vendor dressed in bright yellow flies past us on his bike, ringing his bell hectically. Crazy because it’s one of those endlessly long, downward sloping roads at a degree I can barely look at. No problem for him, and he seems like a portal out of our liminal space.
Coming into Lima on the road from the north feels a bit like entering a post-apocalyptic Armageddon. Desert, wind, dust, smog, informal homes blown away, walls built and abandoned in the middle of nowhere and the industrialised informalised formality of people vibing, and surviving. I am filled with a funny kind of awe. How do they do that? The resilience of humankind is often really beyond my comprehension.
We unpack, trekking clothes lovely and dusty. I’m floating on the Andes in my dreams, and I’ve slept my first night through in four years. Something’s afoot. My beloved travelling companions dive into their respective work projects and I have four free days. Ha!
I find my yearning to actually do the mandatory pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. Big breath - and I head right into the touristy-thing. I can’t do crowds, and nervously head off to Cuzco. It’s a small city of around 430 000, a manageable snip after Lima and its 10 million. The amazing thing, apart from being the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century til the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, is that this city apparently hosts up to about 2 million tourists each year. I’m filled with dread about that. And I am so wrong.
There’s a simple, beautiful place to stay in the historic centre - I love this place! Narrow roads, human-scale, pedestrianised, low buildings and extraordinary warmth, kindness, humour, welcome and tolerance in the people I meet. There is massive evidence of the Spanish - cathedrals and churches - and there is also far more present a sense of that which is indigenous. As if this is still being explored - how to be a city welcoming all cosmopolitan and also fiercely proud of its own intrinsic roots. I walk and walk. I’m strange here because I’m tall, and a woman travelling on her own. Experimenting with being ‘other’, these strangenesses teach me a way of being where I seem melt into anonymity, becoming invisible. I feel free, untethered.
Finding the San Marco Market! Oh my word. Every cliche in the book about markets. Vibrant, colourful, noisy, everything I could ever imagine or not imagine buying - head of a pig, chickens’ legs, combinations of juices, fresh bread, fat olives, Andean cheese, gorgeous fabrics, soft alpaca sweaters, and fabulous smiles on women’s faces as they vie for attention to sell. The food is fantastic here. I’ve learned so much about different cultures, just from stuffing my face. There’s the only English sign I see anywhere outside an ice-cream shop: The more you weigh the harder you are to kidnap: stay safe.
I immediately buy a huge chocolate ice-cream. My purchase is carefully noted in a receipt book, in triplicate, with real carbon paper. I get a copy for my own records. No one hurries. A small ritual, beautifully executed, wonderful smiles and the best ice-cream ever. I amble down to sit in the Plaza del Armes de Cuzco. It is known as the ‘Square of the Warrior’. Tupac Amaru II, leader of an Andean uprising against the Spanish was vanquished here. I love stories of resistance in all parts of the world, especially the stories of the famous Khoikhoi heroes resisting the colonisers of the place where I live. This Plaza is also one of the places where the famous Inti Raymi festival is held each winter solstice. An Incan tribute to the sun god, there is a modern day version every year in Cuzco. Quechua blessings, ritual sacrifice, full ceremony, drums, panpipes and horns.
I sit, in the sun, eating my ice-cream. Watching people. There’s an intrepid explorer - crawling his way across the entire plaza. A mom, quietly watching at a distance, no cell phone in her hand. With the time not to interfere in his big adventure. Gentle smiles of encouragement from people walking past, minding way for this tiny human. She does swoop him up just before he goes headfirst into the fountain, much to his loud and vociferous protest. A toddler, almost running to keep up with herself. The inevitable over-balance, and immediately up. Not even a thought about whether to try again. She just does. Every time. A marching band. Sellers who inspire me so much - they also just never give up. Selling selfie-sticks, massage, shoe shine, cigarettes, and without pushiness.
Suddenly, I have sat for nearly four hours. How can that be? It’s a vibe, a creativity, a sense of being alone and connected at the same time. Soft and warm, my daydreaming seems to have put the world to rights, and the sun has started to drop behind the hills.