Damien Hirst at Tate Museum

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Tales of Peru (Part 4)

Day 4 (Sunday, Sachseywama)

Sleepy Sunday morning. Same breakfast: eggs, bread, jam, tea, coffee, tiny bananas. The simplicity and ritual consistency of breakfast is undeniably satisfying. The same food. The same people. The same relaxed preparation for the day. I like this. I need this. A stable, calm moment in days filled with chaotic exploration.

We spend the morning shopping for last minute supplies for the trek. Toilet paper. Water. Aquapür tablets. Plastic bags. Trail mix. Sunglasses. By afternoon we return, loaded with the necessities. Nervous about having to carry it all. Are they really all necessities? We practice packing.

We decide to take a taxi up to see Saxseywama. The ruins above the city - near El Cristo Blanco. The matron of the hotel - our surrogate mother - calls us a cab. We communicate with her in broken Spanglish, but she always has our back. We feel safe there. A haven in the midst of a wild, unknown city. The cab arrives. She makes sure the driver only charges us 10 soles. A price befitting a local. Probably the only fair taxi of our whole trip. Twenty minutes up to the ruins.

We exhaust the remaining day light and our bodies walking around the ruins. They're bigger than yesterday. Grander. Much more practical, though no less impressive. The view of Cusco is amazing. We climb on rocks the Incas used as a quarry. What of our civilization will survive for 500 years? Future tourists taking guided tours of abandoned New York, remarking on the ancient craftsmanship. Speculating on the purpose of traffic lights and subway signs. "It's amazing what they accomplished with only electricity and computers - we can learn a lot from their primitive culture." We walk back to our hotel down endless stairs, through winding narrow walkways. It's a more authentic side to Cusco and I deeply enjoy it.

For dinner, we go to a local chicharría. Chicharrías, also called Picanterrias, are unlike anything we have in the US. Or at least, in big cities in the US. They're combination restaurant, bar, and living room. They're a "third place". A place that's not home or work, but that's always there for you. That feels like family. A place where everybody knows your name. Cheers! Raúl recommended this Chicharria to us, so we give it a try. We want to experience authentic Cusco. This was, bar none, the best decision of the whole trip.

Walking in, it feels like any dive bar / gastropub in the US. There's long benches where groups of people sit, talking, drinking, laughing. It's dirty and warm and familiar. And yet, it's immediately uncomfortable. No one speaks English - we want to sit and eat. How do we do that? We have two vegetarians. You don't have a menu? We don't know what to do. But everyone is so friendly. This doesn't last long. One man speaks a little English and starts to help us figure it out. He sits us down. We start making friends with the two drunk men at the table with us. They speak in broken Spanish. They help us order. Or more accurately, they order for us. We get an incredibly large stein of Chicha. Raúl warned against drinking too much of it - it's made from tap water. But we try it. It tastes like a watered-down sour beer. Different. But good. The food arrives. Rack of lamb for me and Laura. Beef for Alan and Annie - the vegetarians. It's ok, they're good sports. We start eating with our silverware but are quickly instructed by our new friends to use our hands. Get messy.

I don't think many tourists visit this place, because when we entered we caused a bit of a stir. But now that we're eating messily and drinking gingerly and talking awkwardly, we've been accepted. And it's at that moment that Raúl walks in and the evening goes from excellent to truly and deeply unforgettable. The next two hours were a montage of themselves. They were a trailer for every family pub in the world. We met Paula - the owner and den mother of the Chicharria. She is one of the sweetest, kindest, happiest souls I've ever met. They bought us beer. We learned how to toast by pouring out a drop for the Pacha Mama and then downing the shot. Oh yea, beer is served in giant bottles that they then pour into small glasses to drink from. When you finish your glass, you turn it upside down and slam it into your other hand. We drank with Raúl. We drank with our new table friends. We drank with Paula. We ate our meat to the bone. When I thought I had eaten all the meat, they showed me how to crack open the ribs and get the remaining bits. To suck out the bone marrow. It was delicious and earthy and satisfying like no meal I've had since childhood. Raúl, drunk and happy, gave us life advice I'll forever cherish. "My friends, money is easy. It comes and goes. It's not hard to get. What's hard is true friendship. True love. Chicharria's are love. They are the real Cusco. And at the heart of every Chicharria is someone like Paula. She is the best. My friends, do not worry yourselves with money. I won't remember your money. But I'll always remember and cherish your friendship. That is what life is about." And then Raúl serenaded us with his pipe flute.

We said our goodbyes and stumbled, tipsy, back to the hostel.

Sleep. For tomorrow begins our grandest adventure.

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Andrew Carman