Monday, January 29, 2007

Day 10: La Playa y El Aeropuerto

Monday was my last day in Peru, but that's not a good reason to not oversleep since our tour guide was working in her hospital clinic all morning. Ryan and I finally got moving at around 10:30 and after packing up my goods for the red-eye flight later that night, we got picked up by Lili and Alfredo around noon. We hadn't eaten yet that day and I was basically famished, but we were going to experience Lima's ceviche at the beach that day so I had to be patient.

According to our tour guides, the best beaches were down in southern Lima so off we headed down the highways. Erika couldn't come with us because she had to work and was honest enough not to ask for a "doctor's note" to go to the beach with us. She is very sweet and I missed her a lot on Monday. She kept asking me on Sunday if I would remember her when I went back to the United States and I of course said I couldn't forget her that easy. I was very comfortable with her and vice versa and I thought it was sad when she asked me if I had a girlfriend back in the United States because I think these girls are treated really bad by typical gringo tourists, not to mention the stereotypical Latin attitude towards women that they are subjected to. It's no wonder they appreciate it when someone is a gentleman and treats them well...

Anyway, a couple hours later we got the beach, which is basically a parking lot lined with restaurants facing the beach and people begging us and running with our car trying to get us to come to their portion of the beach and eat their food. Thankfully our tour guide knew the one she trusted and parked in front of it.

Life is good on the beach. You basically go where you want and the restaurant workers bring you chairs, umbrellas, and a menu if you want it. You order plate fulls of food and drinks and they bring it out on trays for you. That's what I'm talking about! Alfredo and Lili ordered us "Conchitas" (mussels in the shell filled with lime juice, vinegar, diced red onions and peppers - out of this world!), ceviche (raw fish in lime juice, which 'cooks' the fish because of the acidity), and a plate of mixed fried seafood like squid, octopus, and sweet potatoes and washed it all down with Inca Kola. I was famished and I dug into the food and was amazed at how fast you can fill up on that kind of stuff.

After lunch we all kind of laid around, took micro naps in the hot sun, and even ventured out into the water. According to the local "reports", today's water quality was good but the brownish tint and the yellow foam on top made me wonder if maybe the water quality index was relative and not absolute for us gringos :o) . At least the temperature was perfect!

In the late afternoon, the restauarants were shutting up shop for the day and we decided to head back to the hotel to pick up my gear and then head out to a nice dinner. Lili decided that we should go to Jose Antonio's, where we were treated like first-class citizens with a bottle of wine, huge portions of delicious food, and too much customer service for a $20 meal. I prepared for the red-eye with white Peruvian wine to wash down my Argentine tenderloin steak with grilled onions and tomatoes and a patty of rice & beans cooked together.

Dessert finally arrived in the shape of a stressed out Latina finishing up last minute work on her mobile phone. I thought Americans were bad when it came to work, but Erika is right up there with working late every night and six or seven days a week as a marketing events planner. I couldn't understand why she like me so much because she hardly knew me and her and Lili were not "bricheras", girls that are looking for green cards, like many of the girls I met. They are both happy to live in Peru and pursue their successful careers without needing a foreignor to come and "rescue" them from Peru. No, some girls just need someone who makes them feel special. And some guys, too....

Yusteen, I got dropped off at the airport, said my goodbyes, was at work the next day suffering the consequences of ceviche that might not have been fresh enough, and missing South America.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Day 9: The Double-Date

On Sunday morning, we got woken up by Lili and Erika who were downstairs and told the receptionist to call us and wake our lazy butts up because they had a day full of activities planned for us. I was still sluggish from my lack of sleep the day before and Ryan was recovering from his 8 hour flight from LA, so naturally we were a little behind schedule.

Our high-class, $30 per night hotel had a free breakfast buffet downstairs that was...less than appetizing and we just barely made it in time to indulge in some greasy American continental-style sausage, fake eggs, and stale, dry toast. I think the yogurt was the most appetizing thing available, so I had a few of those. I guess I can't complain when the food is free!

Our first stop was the ruins at Puruchuco. The coast of Peru is basically all a hot, extremely dry desert, but interestingly there were dozens of native populations living in the area, thousands of years before the Incas ever emerged. I'm not sure how they survived in that weather or climate, but they did, and they did well. How they were able to survive when there were millions of poor people in the city now was interesting to think about. I'm not sure how that happens, maybe there were different work ethics back in the day or something like that.

The weather was blistering hot outside, which I was loving since it was below zero (c) in NYC at the time, and we took a tour of the small museum before checking out the ruins that were rebuilt near the Universitario soccer stadium. I didn't get to catch a game there, but maybe next time...if I don't mind being savagely beaten by the Ultra fans that routinely over-run the field!

I was feeling a little awkward around Erika that day because I don't usually kiss girls at night and then spend the whole next day with them (yea, I'm that much of a player :o/ ) and I knew that Lili was keeping her eye on me. After we saw the ruins, I invited her to sit next to me in the car and she appreciated that. I could tell that she was a very sensual girl and since I'm a pretty sensual guy, it worked out pretty well!

After the ruins, we took a nice drive through the barren mountains of Lima, destination unknown. I thought San Diego was barren, but there was literally nothing, not even shrubbery, on these mountains. We drove past quite a few shack communities and also some gated communities where the rich lived out in the middle of nowhere. We finally came down into a valley and there was signs of life along a bustling river that was roaring down from the mountains, straight from the Andes, no doubt!

We pulled into the parking lot of a nice outdoor dining location next to the river with a bunch of horses for rent and kids running around by the river. We hiked down to the river and Erika and I enjoyed some relaxing, private time together with our feet in the river, watching people wash their clothes on the other side, people going down the crazy rapids with their clothes on, and little naked kids grappling onto their teenage brother's shoulders while trying to walk across the fast currents. During this day, I thought back to my conversation with the guy living in Lima from Nebraska, when he said that if you connect up with a girl at a club or something, you are pretty much boyfriend and girlfriend the next day, no dating required. It certainly felt like that with Erika.

After we cooled off, we headed over to the outdoor dining area that seemed to be set up exclusively for bus tour groups that were stopping by the area, except that they weren't gringos visiting but other Peruvians or Spanish-speaking folk. They had giant stone tables, live music from the Andes flute players (similar to those I see in the subway everyday, strange enough), occasional regional dances, and great food! They apparently cooked the food in underground holes, which is how the ancient cultures used to cook as well. We each shared a clay cooking pot full of pork, chicken, and beef cutlets along with a variety of vegetables like sweet potatoes (yum!) and corn as well as Peruvian tamales, which are very different than Mexican because they are sweet inside. We of course washed it down with a pitcher of sangria and another grape-based juice that had a cinammon flavor and was delish.

Fat and happy, Erika and I passed out in the back seat on the way home, waking up at the hotel. The four of us kinda chilled out in our room, Ryan bringing gifts for Lili along with things that she had left at his house when she lived in Long Beach for four months last year while I tried to explain "Only Child Syndrome" in English to Erika, who has no brothers or sisters :o/. I'm not sure she got most of the explanation, but the English practice was good for her.

The girls finally left to go home and get ready for the evening while Ry and I napped for a bit and then finally got ready for the evening. When I fell asleep on the bed, I had crazy, psychodelic (sp.) dreams that were quite odd. I told Ryan about this once we both had woken up and he said that he had these kinds of dreams too. Maybe our hotel was haunted, but I think it had something to do with the shape or incline of the beds, or the fact that i had my pillow folded in half and it was cutting off circulation to my brain. I have no idea!

Once we were all ready, the girls came to pick us up again and brought along Lili's friend Alfredo and we headed down to a shopping center to go bowling in Mira Flores. Alfredo was an interesting guy, he started his own business selling illegal DVDs, which sounded like a very competitive industry in the pirate-happy country, but he focused on a niche of mixed-martial art fighting DVDs (Pride and Ultime Fighting Championships), which I hadn't heard of before. He learned Jiu Jitsu when he was younger and knew lots of people that wanted to watch these fights, so he started selling DVDs to them with the latest fights. Like Lili, he is also a recent graduate from medical school. What's interesting is that as a new doctor they make maybe $150 a month but his DVD business was making him about 4x as much money as being a doctor!

The bowling rink that we went to was great, everything was pretty much brand new and this was the nicest, cleanest bowling alley that I've ever been to. We played for an hour and my master curveball technique that I pulled out of the bag after a few gutterballs had mixed results. The first time I threw it I got a strike, so I thought I'd be on fire. But when I didn't knock all the pins down, I couldn't get a spare cuz I couldn't aim anywhere but in the middle. Oh well, maybe I need to work on that a bit more!

After bowling, we walked around the nice shopping center, which was situated on the previously-mentioned cliff that was actively deteriorating down into the ocean. I was thinking about the support structures that were holding this shopping center up since it was such a high-class place. The poles must go hundreds of feet into the ground, crazy. Hope it's still there the next time I go to Lima :o)!

After bowling, we decided to go eat in another part of Lima that was very dark but looked like a pretty fancy area. Apparently the place we were going to eat at specialized in beef hearts, of all thing. I was a little sketched out about eating organs of questionable cows, but Ryan assured me that it was good. After all, the heart is essentially just a muscle and it was very lean because there's no fat in the heart. That sounded logical enough and it was damn tasty stuff along with the bed of potatoes on the plate.

After our leisure dinner, it was getting really late and some people were unlucky because they had to work the next day. Luckily Ry and I weren't included in this group so we could get lots of sleep. We dropped Erika off so she could catch a taxi and we said our goodbyes and I hoped that I would see her the next day before I went home....

Yusteen, we were exhausted by the end of such a long, busy, but exciting day

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Day 8: She Makes A Man Want To Speak Spanish...

It was a late night, and an early morning. I woke up at around 7:30, paranoid that my human alarm clock would miss her alarm and not come pound on my door at 9:00am. I really need a watch, because waking up and having to use the camera as your only source for time is kind of annoying. I decided to trust her and try to get some more shut eye rather than start packing early.

She came and pounded on my door and said it was 10:30 (my flight was at 12:30, half hour drive from the airport) but I checked my handy camera and saw that it was 9:00, as she promised. I had just enough time to shower and clean up, pack my bags and head out to the jeep, sans breakfast and sans enough sleep :o/ . I said my goodbyes to a barely awake Kira and their mom and Rob...I mean Rov... and I piled into the car with Vanessa behind the wheel.

Lucky for me, Cusco is a small airport and there isn't much human traffic there. I say this because it was already 11:15 and I was checking in my bags, only to find that not only had they charged me $25 to change my flight a week prior, but they had cancelled my return ticket! This happens when you miss the first leg of your flight, as I had, but I'd had them confirm this leg of the flight when I was dealing with them the first time and they said it was all set to go! This was a problem until Vanessa, as usual, noticed that one of her friends was working at the counter. Rov quipped that I was on the flight for sure now, probably upgraded to first class, and had a limo waiting for me in Lima because on his last trip to Peru one of her friends had helped sort out his flight too. Well, I didn't get upgraded but at least I was on the flight. I napped a bit on the quick flight and touched down in Lima, where part two of the trip would begin.

Some Background

My gigantic roommate from college Ryan came to South America for six weeks about two years back with some of his SoCal friends and had met Lili through one of the guys he was traveling with's girlfriend (a Peruvian) while they were in Lima. Sure enough, they hit it off and they've been virtually long-distance dating since then with him making the trip down once a year or so. If anybody out there knows Ryan, you know that he doesn't exactly talk a lot. So when he visited me in New York last year and would spend an hour a night talking to her in Peru, I knew that she must be something good for him. When I went to Vince's wedding in LA back in September and stayed at his house while she was at the tail-end of a four-month visit and had a chance to meet her, I thought she was quick-witted and sparky and a great match for him - since he's the opposite.

Since I chatted with her every once in a while after meeting her and she got to know me a little better, she decided that she thought I'd get along great with her friend Erika and even if we didn't hit it off, she thought we'd make good friends with each other. When I first chatted with them when they were together and found out they are massive Shakira fans who love to dance, Erika was thereafter known to me as 'Shakerika' ;o). Because of her busy work schedule, Shakerika and I didn't talk much but I figured it would be fun to meet her while I was there.

As an added bonus, Ryan decided to visit Lili and arrived the same day as me in Lima! They were going to go on vacation for two weeks through the northern coast of Peru the day after I left, but we'd all get to spend a good three days together which was great. And it would be wonderful to finally have another male friend to hang out with, especially one as good as Ryan (who was my roommate all through college).

And Back to the Story

In any case, Lili was going to pick me up at the airport and take me back to the hotel near her house where Ryan and I were staying. After I got off the plane and got my baggage and headed for the exist, I looked around for Lili but all I found were taxi drivers that were swarming around me offering to take me wherever I wanted to go. I thought for sure I looked like a local and nothing like a gringo with my button-up shirt, cargo jeans, and lace-less shoes, not to mention the blonde hair and blue eyes, but somehow the taxi drivers picked me out of the crowd :o/.

After waiting around a while, I hit the pay phones and got ahold of Lili, who was stuck in miserable traffic, which didn't surprise me because this was Lima. This gave me a chance to go talk to the very unhelpful American Airlines desk, who told me that Lan should not have charged me the $25 to change my original flight to Cusco and that if I wanted to be reimbursed, I should talk to them about it. He even suggested writing to them through an inevitable black hole: their website. I was too tired to fight, so I just walked out and headed down to get some food. In Lima, Peru, there is a Papa John's next to a McDonalds in the airport. Disgusting. Looking at the array of fast food venues to choose from, I immediately disqualified Papa John's and McDonalds and although there are a lot of Chinese in Peru, the Chinese food didn't look interesting to me. Which left me with the Peruvian fast food counter. I ordered an appetizer of what looked like fried yucca, but I think it was more like potato. I was eating out of necessity, not looking for a fine dining experience!

Shortly thereafter I met up with Lili and was whisked away down to the hotel Ryan and I were staying at. Because of traffic, we drove along Lima's coast, which I hadn't been to before, and I got to admire the beautiful coast line along with massive cliffs that were crumbling to our left with houses sitting precariously close to the edge. Rocks were falling from the side enough that the authorities had closed two of the lanes closest to the cliffs because people were getting killed by the landslides. in South America!

After checking into my hotel and slipping into something more comfortable (it was warm and humid!), Lili and I went to grab something to eat. There's a great place called Norky's (which is as hilarious a name as Yonkers) that was within walking distance of the hotel that we checked out. Apparently, this is their definition of fast food but it was anything but. They specialize in roasted or bbq chicken and it did arrive rather quickly, but the quality of the chicken was amazing. I typically cook organic free range chicken because it tends to be a million times more tender and juicy than the hormone, antibiotic infested stuff that is sold in Gristedes. This chicken was easily as tender, if not more tender, than my free range stuff. Add to it a wonderful rub and some chimmichuri sauce on the side and it's a recipe for delish! Not bad for a meal that cost about $5.

After lunch, Lili and I took a cab into downtown Lima for a quick little tour. I've heard basically nothing good about Lima, all I've heard is that it's a very dangerous city and it doesn't offer a whole lot to visitors. Despite Lili warning me about locking my wallet in my pant's cargo pockets, I was surprised by the beautiful buildings downtown. Well, at least the big green one, the presidential palace, and the Cathedral! I guess compared to other cities it's not the most fantastic, but I did find it somehow exciting to be on the verge of being mugged at every moment. I found out sometime later that Lili, weighing in at somewhere around 100 lbs, knows a few Jiu Jitsu moves so I was in safe hands ;o) .

After going to another district called Mira Flores, which is very popular with the young crowd and with younger tourists, for ice cream and a walk around the park in the center plaza, we headed back to the hotel so that I could take a nap and Lili headed home to get ready for the big evening. Lili had plans for meeting up with Erika in a few hours and at 9:00pm to be at my hotel, grab a little something to eat, and then head off to the disco for the evening.

I begrudgingly woke up at 8:15 to start getting ready and was somewhat out of it. I got ready and prepared for yet another evening of dancing the night away at a real Latin disco, Lima style. At 9:00, I was ready to go and just waiting for the phone call from Lili to meet her and Erika outside. I guess when Ryan had told me in the past that things operate on island time in South America, that should have been a clue that they wouldn't be on time. At somewhere around 10:00, I finally got the call and headed out to meet Shakerika and Lili and then to go get something to eat.

After climbing into the back seat, I said hello to the girls in the front seats and we were off to San Antonio (the restaurant, not the city). Once we finally got out of the car, I got a formal introduction to Shakerika, who was beautiful!! We went into San Antonio and perused the 100 or so sandwich variations they had, most of which came on hard bread that's difficult to eat, but I ended up getting a mozarella and tomato sandwich (plus an Inca Kola, of course) because I was still pretty full from eating lunch.

After dinner, Erika and I caught a cab to the disco while Lili drove to the airport to pick up Ryan. The disco was going to have a show with all the different dances from Peru and then the place would open up and we could all dance. But the place was already full (it was late, like 11:00), so we ended up hopping in another cab and going to a new place called Producto Peruano, which had an atrocious cover charge of $10, but with limited free drinks until 3:00am. I typically only drink water when I dance because I sweat profusely (I know, that's hot), but in this case I guess I had to stick to rum & cokes, pisco sours, beers, etc! The place was pretty empty for a while which gave Erika and I time to talk and get to know each other well.

I may not be John Travolta, but I do like to dance and I think I dance decently well with a partner, so when Erika and I got on the dance floor and I started my Latin twirling moves, we had a great time out there. I was very much into her and her dance moves and she was clearly into me, which was a great combination for a night of dancing. Eventually Ryan and Lili came from the airport and we all got to catch up together and do some line dancing to an annoying singer called Guajaja, who was the special guest of the evening and is apparently popular in Peru (for some reason). I was hoping that he wouldn't be there all night and he only lasted for an hour or so, thank goodness, before the dance floor opened and the DJ started playing some great Latin music. Erika and I were on point, big time, and the chemistry on the dance floor was perfect. On one of my dips, I even snuck in a timid little kiss ;o).

We stayed at the disco for a few hours and everyone had a great time. Major props to Ry for arriving at midnight after flying all day and lasting until 4:00am! I don't think I could have done that, but he's a trouper. Once we were all done at the disco, Lili drove Ryan and I back to the hotel and dropped us off. I got a few goodnight kisses from Erika before Ry and I headed up to crash and get some much needed sleep!

Yusteen, I really dug Lima this time around ;o)!

Justin dancing with Lili

Friday, January 26, 2007

Day 7: Vivaaaa Las Vegas

After lazying around on Friday morning, we decided that we would take the day easy and make a two hour drive out to Ollyantaytambo, which are a set of ruins that I didn't see the first time I was out in Cusco a few years back. I didn't have a chance to study my Inca history source (Conquest of the Incas, a great book!), but I was pretty sure that they were a set of ruins from a fortress and that there had been a battle with the Spanish there, though after seeing them I wasn't so sure.

After a morning smack-down from Kira about why it's so terrible being American, it went even further on the drive as she opened up her opinion box and laid into Rov and I for a good half hour about our country. Even though I am not one of those ultra-proud, conservative, patriotic Americans I felt very personally attacked by her tirade and I know that Rov was also a bit miffed by the whole one-way "conversation". At one point, I finally opened my mouth (I kept it shut for most of the trip) and told her that I thought it was funny that she was telling two people who have traveled the world much more extensively than her that we were close-minded people that don't care about anyone else and think that everything that we do is right while everyone else is wrong. This naturally led to a stalemate in the conversation that made for an awkward few minutes. I don't have a problem with people criticizing America and the people, but the personal nature and the passion of her argument just went too far and I wasn't very happy about that. To make matters worse, we were traveling through some absolutely stunning open, picturesque country while she was going off on us. It's kind of hard to truly appreciate something like that when you're in such a negative frame of mind at the moment. Kind of sad, really. To change subjects, we started talking about the most exciting thing that you had ever done in your life and we had events on our list from being at Soldier Field for the Bears game when they won and went to the Super Bowl to....a boat ride between two rocks ;o) .

Ollyantaytambo was a small, pretty town along the train route to Macchu Pichu that was towered over by huge Andes mountains. One of the things that the ruins are best known for are the massive rocks that were put on top of the mountain by the Incas. The fact that the Incas (or, most likely, the slaves ;o) moved them from one mountain to the top of another without the use of the wheel. The rocks were smoothed out and put together with incredible accuracy and each rock had a number of parts that jut out which I can only imagine were for holding while carrying them.

Vanessa and I hiked up the mountain terraces to check out the view, snap some pictures, and check out the famous rocks and the view up there of the town, valley, and mountains was quite impressive and definitely worth the effort. Once we came down the mountain, we met up with Rov and Kira at a cafe and drank tea while the sun dipped into the mountains. One the long drive back to Cusco, we stopped at a spot on the road that had a red flag hung on a branch, which was the sign that chicha had been brewed fresh and was available. So, for about ten cents, we went into a room that had a dirt floor and guinea pigs in the corner and the vendors poured two Super Big-Gulp sized glasses of chica that was from a big cast-iron cauldron on the floor. Chicha is essentially fermented corn that is drunk by the local campesinos. The campesinos that work on the family corn farm drink it all day, every day because they say it makes them work better. Yea, beer makes me work better, too! But my gringo taste buds clearly tell me that beer tastes a hell of a lot better than this stuff! Chicha was very sour tasting and they even add a few tablespoons of sugar on request. I had a few sips of the stuff and that was more than enough. The thought of how clean the cups were crossed my mind as well :o/ !

After our drive through the countryside and back, we decided to head out to dinner before my last night out on the town. I had been bugging them to take me to the disco Las Vegas all week and before my trip and they finally had relented and agreed to take me there for one hour at the most. Las Vegas was a disco that some of my friends had told me about because it was a totally local place that played almost exclusively Latin American music. My friends that had gone to the place a few years back said that they were the only gringos in the place, which is exactly what I was looking for. But, because it was mostly "lower class" folk, the girls had absolutely no desire to go there, claiming that it was dangerous and that not even their maid would go there. How awesome did that sound?

But we had some drama to get through first. One way or another, we had reminisced about the girls' trip to New York and the subject of Kira's NYPD boyfriend while she was here came up. There were some comical moments during their time here that she remembered, and in order for Rov to understand, she had to tell the story about Lee, her NYPD friend. After she divulged their story and her infatuation with Lee while she was here, Rov was pretty upset because she had kissed a "greasy Italian cop" but wouldn't give her a kiss even though he flew down for her birthday, spent the night at the airport in Lima, surprised her, found her favorite flowers, bought her an iPod, etc. etc. To tell the truth, you had to feel for the guy. I eventually left to go change, but apparently they got into some sort of argument which lead to an extremely awkward dinner of Kira not talking and Rov pretending like she didn't exist.

We had dinner at a place called Fallen Angels which was well known for having great food, having tables that were glass and had fishbowls underneath them, and for having gay waiters. Who would think that you would find places like this in Cusco?? As we navigated through our dinner and the subject and stipulations of how long we'd stay at Las Vegas later in the night, Kira and Rov wouldn't even talk to each other and Kira wouldn't really talk at all through her frowning face. That's not a great way to spend the last night in Cusco and I wished that I could cheer her up so that she could have fun, but it just wasn't going to happen. And then, to cap it off, Vanessa told me that they were mad at ME for the whole incident, which was just ludicrous because I was the one that warned Kira about this in the first place! Single ladies out there, this is what happens when you lead us poor guys on! I was just amazed that they were blaming me and I wasn't very happy about that.

After being absolutely stuffed at dinner, we headed over to Las Vegas. I was imaging a big warehouse kind of in the ghetto with dim lights, a few plastic chairs and wooden tables, and a plywood floor. I don't know why that's what I was expecting, but whatever. Turns out that the club was actually pretty nice! It had a big sound system, a packed dance floor in the center, tables on the outside and upstairs, and even dancing Latinas overlooking the dance floor. I was totally stoked on the place so we ordered a beer and Vanessa told me to be careful because you could get hepatitis from the glasses they brought to the table. I laughed out loud about that: I've seen how rustically bartenders clean glasses and just because the patrons were not from the upper class didn't mean that they washed the glasses any more or less than any other bar. Not to mention the fact that we had drinken chicha brewed in a windowless roomo with dirt floors from the side of the road earlier and she didn't have any problems with that.

I wanted to head out to the dance floor but was apprehensive about going out there alone because it's never fun to breach the crowd by yourself. At least, for me it is. And neither the girls nor Rov would head out there with me. So I headed out to the edge of the dance floor and kind of loitered and watched the crowd. I was getting weird looks from everyone (since I was the only gringo in the place and was taller than most people). A guy came up to me and asked me (in Spanish) if I spoke Spanish and I told him a little. He asked if I wanted to dance with a Peruvian girl and I said "sure". After hearing about how bad this place was from everyone related to the Sumars (except the maid's daughter), obviously I was thinking that this guy was a pimp or something like that. But before I could even come up with a contingency plan, he reached into the crowd and told a girl that I needed a dance partner. She'd been dancing with her friends and I figured that they must have just been in a big group together.

I was having a great time dancing with the girl (Jessica) and the girls came up and told me that they were leaving and going to Mama Africa since they didn't like the place. I told her to go ahead and I'd meet them there in about an hour, and told them NOT to leave without me! Anyway, Jessica and I were having a grand old time and she was showing me a whole bunch of new dances like the Lambada and some that I'd never even heard of, like "Wino"(??). I found the people there to be very friendly and everyone was smiling (or laughing ;o) at me while I was dancing. We eventually took a break (it was HOT in there) and talked a little bit (as far as my Spanish would go) before I convinced her and her friend to go to Mama Africa with me to meet up with the others. One thing that was interesting was that at the tourist bars, the girls almost always ask you to buy them something, but at Las Vegas, people seemed much more down to earth and didn't ask for anything. Naturally, I bought water for Jessica, but it was nice that I at least got to offer it and didn't have someone demanding anything.

Mama Africa, being a major tourist hangout, is so different than Las Vegas. They had huge bouncers at the front door that recognized me as a gringo and so they let me right in without a problem and stopped my new friends. I felt totally like a VIP when I turned around and told them they were with me and then it was no problem for them to come in :o/. We walked around inside and finally found the girls, who were hanging out and getting hit on like always. At least by this time Rov and Kira had reconciled, so the night would end up friendly again.

A few hours later, Jessica and her friend decided to head home so I walked them out and paid 3 Soles/ $1 for their cab to take them home (they were going to walk). We took off not long afterwards and got home at around 4:00am. My flight was at noon the next day, so we decided to stay up and trade pictures before going to bed for a few hours. I was going to Lima the next day and was looking forward to linking up with my other friends there, but I knew that I wasn't going to get much sleep between now and then!

Yusteen, I got a good four hours of restless sleep that night!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Day 6: We're Gonna Party Like It's Your Birthday

The climax of my trip to Cusco had finally arrived - Thursday, the day of Kira's birthday party! This is one of the reasons that I had come to town during this week because I was promised a memorable birthday party and I'd seen pictures from past events and they looked like a lot of fun. During the buildup to this day, the party planners had set everything into motion and purchased the supplies required.

But I wasn't the only one who was in town for her birthday. Vanessa and Kira had met Rov (as it's pronounced with the Spanish accent ;o) during the New Year's festivities in Cusco earlier in the month and, like the characters in the Odessy, he fell into the Sister Siren trap. This is pretty typical for gringos when they come down to Cusco and meet these girls. I can't say that I haven't been there before! To demonstrate his love, he told Kira, who had said that she wasn't interested, that he would fly down from the City of Brotherly Love just for her birthday a few weeks later. And, in true Vanessa/Kira spirit, she invited him to stay at their house since he was coming down just to see her. I gave her the full run-down on this guy and told her that she was misleading the poor guy into thinking he had a chance, but the tracks were already laid and there wasn't much that could be done by the time I came down there.

To further the plot, he called her two days before her birthday and said that he had come down with a case of seafood poisoning, cough cough, and wouldn't be able to come after all. But Vanessa let me in on the secret that he would be there on the doorstep the day of her birthday as a surprise.

I woke up Thursday mentally prepared to get my hands dirty cleaning up the spotless house, helping to prepare the Mexican food (as the local expert ;o), blow up balloons, etc. , as the Sumars had said that it would be a very busy day for everyone getting ready for the 30-odd people that were going to come over that night for the birthday party. They also had a handful of maids that were from their grandmother's house that were there to help out. They were already hard at work cutting up the chicken into fajita-sized slices by the time I even woke up and got ready for the day.

An hour later, Vanessa came home from picking up the cake with an extra surprise on the doorstep - Rob...I mean Rov! Not only was he there, but they had waited for flowers to be delivered to the market so that he could get the lily bouquet that they had ordered and were the only ones that could be found in town. And, as an additional token, he brought Kira a brand new iPod Nano and USB converter that put my personal gift to her in shame, along with perfume for Mrs. Sumar and a set of books for Vanessa, which didn't make me feel awkward at all, honest. But I should take lessons from this guy because he was the number one gringo in town at that point. I guess the things that I brought down were more of expectations while he and his gifts successfully utilized the element of surprise.

And then came the party preparations. This essentially involved me trading MP3s with Vanessa's computer while the maids prepared the meat and beans for the evening and set the table for lunch. Their aunt, uncle, and two cousins came over at lunch time and we were treated to a great meal prepared by the maids. The relatives seemed very very friendly and we had a nice discussion (through translators) about architecture and technology in China (he is a well-known architect in Peru) and I wish that my Spanish was better so that I could get more involved in the conversation, as always!

After our long lunch, it was time to be put to work - blowing up balloons. The first thing that came to mind was that despite not being a smoker, my lungs were really weak - at sea level. I have a hard time blowing up a balloon normally, let alone 300 at 12,000 feet above sea level. Lucky for me, they weren't very good at it either so they had little hand pumps for blowing them up. So I sat down with Dayse, the daughter of the maid, and got to work filling the floor with balloons. She had a system down and I couldn't figure out how she tied them so quickly. She showed me over and over again and I just couldn't figure out the steps. After about 100, I finally nailed the system and was busting them out in tandem with her. In addition, she was a friendly college student and I got to practice the little Spanish that I knew (which improved throughout the week) and found out a little bit about her - and the disco Las Vegas (see the next blog).

After a a few hours of balloon inflating and after sustaining multiple battle wounds to my raw-from-the-latex fingers, we had all 500 inflated and the floor was, as Vanessa called it, a mattress of balloons. People began trickling into the house at this point and I finally met some of the people that I'd seen on Vanessa's friend list on Hi5 (Latin America's Myspace, on which of course I have a fully updated profile ;o) and some people that I'd met earlier in the week or that I'd heard about before. By this time, the special hidden reserve of tequila had already been tapped into and the fun was just beginning.

Then, the laptop-turned-DJ started playing some real authentic music for a Mexican party - mariachi music! But through the tequila-inspired haze, I realized that the sounds quality was too good to be on the stereo and a group of mariachi musicians strolled into the room, complete with a ginormous guitar, violin, crooner, sombreros, black & glittery costumes, etc. This was too awesome! And of course with any mariachi music there has to be dancing, so people took turns dancing with the birthday girl while the band just played away for about an hour or so. To simulate the feeling of a Mexican party, gunshots were replicated by stepping on and popping my precious, self-sacrifice-inflated balloons. Oh, what the hell, I stepped on a few myself!

After the band, it was getting late but there was still some time for food! I dropped the liquid diet and made myself a few tacos and fajitas along with everyone else. There was so much food prepared, there was no way that we'd ever finish it off. Speaking for myself, I know that I'm not able to plan very well for more than two people, let alone thirty! Being a Thursday night, most people had to work the next day so the crowd started to thin and just a few of us hung around (mostly since we were already home ;o) . Even though the birthday girl doesn't like it, Kira was playing some salsa music on the laptop so I got to practice a bit more of the Latin music and finally had a chance to dance with the girls on an open dance floor, which didn't last long because I don't like it when partners just critisize the way you lead. I always find that with some people I have a good dancing connection but with others it just doesn't work out right. You quickly find these things out when you learn in big groups like I did back in the day.

The final treat of the evening was at around 2:00 when I was beckoned from my room because Kira and Vanessa were going to give me and Rob - I mean Rov - a demonstration in Arabic dancing, which they learn in their Palestinian cultural meetups. One thing that's interesting about Arabic dancing is that when a man and a woman dance, they get very close to each other, but never actually touch. That sounds about right from the little I know about the Arabic/Islamic cultures, though.

Yusteen, I'll always remember the image of their mom staying awake until 2:00am, smoking a cigarette (she's not a smoker)! Good times!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Day 5: A Break

Wednesday morning - or afternoon, rather - was a day of preparation for Thursday night's festivities. It was going to be Kira's 23rd (AHEM-27th-AHEM) birthday and she was going to have a Mexican party of unknown proportions at their house in Cusco. She had Mexican food shipped in from Lima from a friend there (can you believe they can't get chips, salsa, tortillas, taco seasoning, etc. in Cusco) and during Tuesday's run-about around town we had successfully found a waiter who was willing to work at night as a bartender at the party and the whiskey, tequila and beer was already purchased.

But: there was still plenty of grocery shopping to do. Cusco has a massive open-air marketplace where you can buy fresh flowers, fruits, vegetables, and fish & meat (freshness is questionable) from the local Quechua-speaking campesinos (indigenous population with the colorful clothing and little top-hats). We had a laundry list to shop for, mostly vegetables that would go into the tacos and fajitas that were going to be made. We also picked up some new roses for decoration and of course massive amounts of fresh cheese blocks. It was interesting because all of the old ladies working at the stalls referred to the girls as "mama". Mama this and mama that. They just ignored the gringo standing next to her :o).

After shopping at the market, we went to the supermercado (supermarket) to buy chicken and ground beef. The girl working at the meat counter was unusually hot but I think since I was standing next to Vanessa, my game was pretty much ruined. Not to mention that I don't speak very much Spanish. Vanessa told me to talk to her while they were grinding the steak up and she disappeared into the aisles, but I was frozen and didn't just want to sit there and ask "How do you say" (point at a piece of meat) over and over again :o/ .

Earlier in the day, Vanessa's mom
had gotten her last injection following the dog bite she got while at the farm before I had arrived. To celebrate this and as a gift of my gratitude, I told her that I would take everyone out for dinner on Wednesday night. We all had to be ready for the birthday party the next day, so I figured it would be nice to have a relaxing meal and then maybe watch a pirated DVD at home. When Vanessa returned home and got ready, we called the cab and went to a superb meal in old Cusco that, no surprise, the family knew the owner of. The restaurant had an Italian name and the food was a wonderful, wonderful mixture of food from the Andes and modern, international flavors. I got a piece of Moroccan tamarind-spiced lamb on a bed of quinoa with some dried fruits and a port reduction sauce that was out of this word. It was almost too rich, but went down easy with a glass of red wine!

Yusteen, it's amazing how nice a $10 meal is in Peru :o)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 4: The Anise of Los Perros

After my first late night of the trip, I had to come to grips with the fact that I wasn't going to be able to totally stick to the pre-trip plan of limited sleep and maximizing daylight, especially when my gracious hosts weren't waking me up in the morning :o). Eventually, they woke me up at around noon on Tuesday and after preparing for the day, we caught a taxi downtown to run some errands and eat lunch.

We decided to go to Los Perros (The Dogs) for a big lunch. This place has some nice, comfy couches in the rooms and we had actually hung out here the first time in Peru as well. I think it's more of a wine bar type place with cool lampshades and dark red and blue colors, but they apparently have good food as well! The lunches they serve are just massive, although I guess you would have to classify it as worldly food rather than authentic Peruvian food. I think I did manage to order something that had sweet potatoes in it, though, so that's close enough for me! The food was actually quite terrific as well, I think I ate something like Asian-spiced chicken along with a side of potato skins covered in chives with a few dipping sauces. And, of course, an Inca Kola (the local soda that is something like Mountain Dew but with more of a bubble-gum taste, yum!) to wash it down with!

At some point on the trip (like on the previous trip), the girls had mentioned that they knew a few people that had horses and, from what I understood, they had land to ride them on as well. It's been a few years since I'd cowboy'd up on a horse, but I was totally enthralled with the idea of heading off into the sunset in the Andes on a horse. Apparently, these friends even had the infamous Peruvian Paso horses that are well known for walking with a high-step and giving the rider a really smooth ride.

But, alas, it wasn't to be. I was surprised when Vanessa stopped in a tourist shop and asked about their horseback ride prices and what not, but I wasn't going to have any of that. The last thing I wanted was to sit on an old, poorly-maintained horse in a line with 30 loud tourists following the horse in front of you. That's not horseback-riding, that's sitting on a horse! The tourist office offered solo rides with a guide for $10, but I know how these things operate and wasn't going to risk being dissatisfied. I guess it's hard to come across experiences like I had back in the old days, horseback riding with my grandpa around their ranch, in the California mountains, or for a week in Yellowstone National Park. I was pretty bummed about not being able to do this, but since the girls weren't going to ride anyway, I guess it wouldn't have been as fun anyway.

Throughout the day, we had been stopping by at friend's of the family's to invite them to the party Mili was having on Thursday night for her birthday. When we stopped by a restaurant to talk to their cousin, we also stepped into the H. Stern jewelry store where another cousin was working. I've seen these jewelry stores in other parts of the world in swanky hotels and what not, so I was surprised to find one in a secluded corner along the court surrounded by a museum of Peruvian art. The jewelry they had inside was all inspired by Incan art and I thought it was totally awesome stuff. And I had plenty of time to look at it because the cousin was talking at fifty miles an hour in Spanish to the girls for nearly an hour, so I was totally lost. When I talked to the cousin later, I found out that the jewelry store actually does quite well because tourists don't have to pay things like luxury taxes or customs on the items and apparently all of the H. Stern stores sell locally designed and manufactured items that are unique to the area, so it's not like you can just go home to NYC and buy a set of Inca statue earrings or anything like that. And they sell a LOT of merchandise there. I guess it's a pretty exclusive place to work and they make amazing money on commissions and have high standards for knowledge of the products.

Because of the late start, the evening was upon us before we knew it. I was pretty hungry at night since we'd only eaten lunch during the day, so we went up to a restaurant so I could get something in my system to last me for the evening. Naturally, I ordered quinoa vegetable soup, a staple for my trip. I also hadn't been feeling so hot during the day, my stomach was feeling really full even though I was hungry. I was hoping that it wasn't another episode of Montezuma's Revenge! The girls suggested that I drink some anise tea or have some anise liquor and I suddenly remembered a story from a few year's back when anise liquor had saved me.

Back then, I had eaten creamy clam chowder in SLO when visiting some friends along with my Finnish friend who was visiting. My stomach was messed up (like it always is after creamy soup or sauce) and we were supposed to drink homemade beer that night and go out on the town. I had one sip of a beer and felt really sick to my stomach like I was going to throw up, I felt really bad. My Finnish friend, who is really into the minerals and effects of natural ingredients, suggested that I take a shot of the anise-flavored Finnish vodka (Salmiaki) he had brought us. Begrudgingly, I took a swing of the stuff and then almost immediately went into the bathroom preparing to throw up. I sat prone to the porcelain god waiting for the action to start for a few minutes before I suddenly felt comfortable and my stomach pains eased and then I was perfectly fine. I was amazed! I came out of the bathroom (pale, most likely) and tried another sip of the beer and the night began!

Similar to that night four year's earlier, I drank my anise liquor after my quinoa soup and 15 minutes later I felt wonderful again! I really need to buy some of that stuff for myself! In any case, at this point we had left the restaurant and headed up to a bar/club a few buildings up where we, surprise, ran into more people that they knew. I swear, everywhere we went these girls knew the people who were the managers, owners, or just random people in the street, and half of them were related to them. After they talked to their friends (while I stared at the fish bowl counting fish), we went to check out the live band in the other room where people had been dancing and we saw an amazing couple salsa dancing better than I'd ever seen in my life. The guy was tall, dark, and wearing an Inca Kola shirt (awesome) and the girl looked like...a blonde gringa! I think they must be dance partners because she had total trust in his moves, which were amazing. I can't even describe the moves they were doing without using my hands, it was incredible. At first the girls said "oh, the dancers at Up Town are better" but by the time we left their jaws were on the ground at some of these moves.

On that note, there was no way I was stepping on the same dancefloor after their performance, so we decided to go check out Mythology, a disco that was jam-packed, hot, and humid. Not a very good transition from dinner and the salsa club, so we headed back to old-faithful Mama Africa. We chilled out there for a while by the DJ and Kira met a magician from Miami who did some pretty cool tricks with Vanessa's cigarettes - too bad he couldn't make them disappear for good! We were eventually met up there by the girls' new friends from Nebraska from the previous night who were totally lit up after drinking a few bottles of wine next door. They were very generous with buying us drinks, so I didn't mind too much, plus it was nice to hang around some men for a little why after spending the day with the girls. Later on in the night, Kira and I commenced the "water hand-off" when her corn-farming Nebraska friend bought her a bottle of water. I really wanted some of the water, so with the bottle in her hand, she would put her arms on the guys shoulders and I would take the it, take a few swigs, and put it back in her hands and then she would let go of the guy. It was pretty funny at the time because she was totally not into this guy at all!

I eventually started, stopped, started, stopped, and started dancing with a girl from Lima who was very suspicious in her actions. At one point, she ordered a drink from the bar and then looked at me when the waitress asked for the money. Vanessa and Kira had warned me that most of these Peruvian girls just wanted money and wanted guys to buy them things (I guess not that different than American girls ;o) and that's all they were after. It turned out to be totally true with this girl and her too-hot-to-not-be-dancing friends. They wanted me and some other guys to buy them wine at a store after the club and everything. Good thing I wasn't carrying much cash at that point! Me and some other guys hung out with them at their shady youth hostel after we left the disco and watched some Guns 'N Roses music videos at the maximum volume before I decided that the whole situation was way too sketchy and went home with the sun peaking above the horizon!

Yusteen, this was my latest night of the trip! I needed a break at this point...