Few tourists can say that they visited Peru and that they missed Cusco. With more tour agencies, Internet cafés, and falafel joints than anywhere else in the country — and with close proximity to the world-famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu — Cusco is the tourist Mecca of South America. I spent a few days here before my Salkantay hike, and I'm spending one month more here, to study some Spanish.
Last Thursday was the 5th birthday of Amigos; and today was the school's birthday party extravaganza. We celebrated by going to the park this morning, and having some heated high-altitude games of fútbol (soccer) and basket (basketball). This was followed by a big, tasty lunch at a good polleria (BBQ chicken restaurant) and some really good, really chunky torta (cake). Then, the party continued at night, over more than a few alcoholic beverages, and then on the dance floor.
Jesus is the founder and the director of Amigos, and he's a very complicated guy. He has enormous talent, diligence, and ambition; yet he has many fears, doubts, and dilemnas to contend with. He genuinely wants to help and to serve the kids that he works with; yet he also indulges in the luxuries of high-class Cusco that most locals cannot enjoy. And he's technically the boss, above and in charge of everyone around him; yet the people around him are his best friends, closer than his family, and he hangs out with them and parties with them, and he treats and respects all as his equals.
Over the past week, I've put my usual travel life of uncertainty, adventure, and mobility on hold for a bit, and I'm back in a routine daily grind. It's essential that I do this, in order to spend some time studying and learning; but I sure am glad that I don't have to do it all year, like I've done every year for the past 16 years of my life! It's a good reminder of how much cooler backpacking is than working or studying.
I've now finished my first week of classes at Amigos; and while it hasn't been exactly what I expected, I've learned a lot, and I've had a good time. The teaching has been much slower than what I had at UTS last year, but it's also been much more thorough, which should help to kick some of the bad habits I've picked up in my Spanish. And what's more, I already feel like I'm a part of this small and cosy school, which is more than just a school. The name Amigos couldn't be more appropriate, because this school is above all a place where everyone is friends.
Louis is a French computer science student, who's on an overseas "work placement" of sorts (the voluntary sort) at Amigos. His main task at Amigos is to build them a new web site, which he's doing using the very cool system Ruby on Rails. He hasn't got much experience with web design or development, and he hasn't been given many resources (he has his own laptop, but no Internet at Amigos!); but he's done a good job so far. He's also a juggler, a fearless drinker, and a great part of the Amigos team.
I got home from my cooking class this evening, to learn that the father in my host family, Mario, is sick with pneumonia, and has been taken to hospital. He was admitted at about 3pm this afternoon, and Flora has been there with him the whole time. He's not in the best condition at the moment, so I can only pray for him, and hope that his health improves soon. Obviously, this is going to change the operation of the family for at least the next few days.
Delicious traditional Peruvian dish of chopped-up beef or lamb, fried potato chips, tomato, and some spices. Usually served with rice. This afternoon, Juan Carlos held a cooking class at the tiny kitchen at Amigos, and 5 of us cooked up and then ate some lomo saltado. It's really quite a simple dish, and it's very easy to make. I'll have to try cooking it up by myself sometime.
On the real city tour of Cusco today, I had my first sip of real chicha. Most places in Peru serve chicha morada, which looks (and kinda tastes) like grape juice, and which has little or no alcohol content. Real chicha, on the other hand, can only be found in chicherias, and is much stronger in alcohol content. Tastes pretty good, and at the dodgy chicherias in the slums, it's only s/0.30 for a big cup's worth. But you don't want to drink too much of it, or you'll end up like the alcoholics that hang around there all day long.
If you don't have your own private transportation (e.g. car, bicycle), there are basically three ways to get around in Cusco: taxi; combi (minibus); or on foot (in order from most to least expensive). Being the parsimonious and aware-of-the-long-road-ahead traveller that I am, I prefer to take the final option whenever possble. I like the concept and the good value of the second option as well. However, local economics, local culture, and occasional lack of time mean that I've taken taxis in Cusco far more often than I would normally.
This afternoon, Juan Carlos took a gang of us Amigos students on what he calls a "real city tour" of Cusco. The sites on the tour are all various places where the poorer, less advantaged people of Cusco live, work, and study. Definitely not your average city tour. And after completing it, it became inescapably obvious to me that the tourist-infested city centre — the only area I really knew, up until now — is definitely not the real Cusco.