I spent the last five days walking to Machu Picchu. What follows is the true story of my adventures. I've encoded the information in my usual humorous narrative style, but if you want to skip the low-information-density text and check out the thousands of words worth of information in the pictures, be my guest. Otherwise, read on!
Some background first--Machu Picchu is one of the last cities of the incas. It's one of the lost cities that you read about in storybooks, and was only discovered in the early 20th century, hidden in a mountain in the peruvian rainforest. It's peru's largest tourist attraction and will probably be one of the "new" seven wonders of the world. The incas built a 33 km trail to machu picchu, made of stone, with steps carved into the mountains themselves. Every day, almost 500 people start the 4 day walk to the city. 88 travel agencies in peru handle the intense demand for people who want to walk to the city. It is also possible to take an insansely expensive(by peru standards) train to the city at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and then take a bus from there. Machu Picchu itself consists of elaborate ruins, terraces, temples, and stone inca paths leading to more distant temples.
Naturally, I couldn't just do what everyone else was doing, plunk down a couple hundred dollars, and have a team of porters, cooks, and an english speaking guide reciting a tired script shlepp me down a trail crowded with tourists from all over the world. I'll carry my own weight, thank you very much, and I'll eat the crappy camping food that I've always eaten. Having a whole team of people carrying my stuff doesn't sit right with me. I had heard of an alternative trail that goes by the 6,000m peak of Salkantay, that also leads to Machu Picchu. I walked around Cusco for a day before I left, asking around for a guide who knew the flora and fauna of the rainforest and mountains that I would walk through. I found one who would come with me for the 5 day journey for $100, on the condition that I rent a tent for the two of us, buy all the food, rent a stove, and bring all the necessary equipment and emergency supplies and meds.
I ran around for a good day, buying food at the central market, haggling to rent camping equipment, and getting ready. I also tried to book my train back from Machu Picchu, but the station sold tickets outside, and because it was raining that day, they weren't selling tickets(remember this, my children, as it will come in handy later)
The next day, I was to meet my guide at 4:30 in the morning in the town square, and from there, we would take a bus to the trailhead at the town of Mollepata, 3 hours away. I walked down in the dark, my 60 pound pack pressing hard on my shoulders, and waited for the guide. After 15 minutes of bubkis, a taxi pulled up. A woman in the taxi who I had never seen before called out that my guide was sick, but there was another guide, and would I please get in the taxi? Figuring that a kidnapping would be more exciting than sticking around in the dark waiting, I hopped in.
We took the taxi to the bus stop, where I met my new guide, Carlos. He looked about 15, had a backpack the size of an average squirrel, and grocery bags of camping gear strewn about him. It was obvious that there was no way in hell he could cram everything at his feet into his bag. I looked at him skeptically, but then the bus pulled up, and we got in.
Carlos spoke Spanish and Quechua, with a few english words. However, my spanish was good enough that I could have a tentative conversation with him, with only a few miscommunications worthy of international war. In the bus, we spoke half an hour, exchanging plaisanteries or whatever the hell you exchange. It turned out he was 22, and was in school to be a guide for the main Inca trail, the holy grail for Peruano tour guides (you have to go to school for 3 years before you can be a licensed guide for the trial). He then pulled his hat over his eyes and fell asleep against my shoulder, while I looked out the window as the bus tentatively picked its way up and down the mountain roads.
We pulled into the town of Mollepata. Carlos jerked awake, and we walked to the town square, where we dumped our packs. "Wait here--I'm going to get a different backpack," Carlos said. I sat on a park bench and waited. After half an hour, with no sign of Carlos, I began to get uneasy. What appeared to be a meeting of the Field Workers' Union was called, and suddenly I was an awkward white boy sitting on a bench in the middle of about 50 field workers holding pitchforks, arguing about the poor working conditions, as well as how they should construct a new canal. After a while, the meeting adjourned, and a little later, carlos came back with a 100 pound rice bag with webbing sown into it as shoulder straps. "It's a typical pack," he said to me with a grin.
We started walking. My trail was about 80 km over four days. We walked for 5 hours over the mountains, high altitude sun beating down on us. As we walked, we talked back and forth in Spanish. Carlos is fairly new at the tour guide gig, this being just about a year since he started doing it. One of his rougher edges is a lack of the confidence-inspiring bedside manner of more experienced guides. Within a few minutes of walking, he had told me about two tourists who died horribly on the trek and a mule who got tangled during the night in a german lady's tent, freaked, and pulled the tent, woman and all, for about a kilometer before getting tired. I thought it was pretty funny, but I'd be curious to see how more tentative hikers react. Anyway, after a while, we pulled to a stop for lunch, and it immediately began to rain.
Funny thing about rain--it's wet. Within moments, everything was soaked. The path turned to the consistency of Just Add Water! Instant Pudding. Despite the 10 coats of waterproofing I had applied to my shoes, I felt like I was walking on muddy water balloons. And then this other thing started happening--drainage. Mountain is another word for funnel. The mountains capture all the water that falls and send all the rain for tens of square miles cascading down creases in the mountain, forming instant rivers 10 or 20 feet wide, swollen with muddy water.
I've never met anyone more fastidious at keeping his feet dry than Carlos. Every kilometer, there was about 10 streams crossing our path. Our path was only a few feet wide, but Carlos always hopped from rock to rock to cross the streams, regardless of the fact that one slip on the wet rocks would send you crashing down the 300 foot slope on the side of the trail, towards certain death. I considered just slogging across the streams, dry shoes be damned, but then I recalled the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Peruvians do," and so I hopped from rock to rock like I was born to it.
After another five hours of walking, we pulled into a cow pasture where we would spend the night. While we were looking for a suitable camping spot, the Quechua farmer who owned the pasture walked up to us with his son and told us we could sleep in his backyard. (All of this, by the was, is taking place in a constant, soaking rain). We set up camp, and then the farmer's wife, who looked all of 14 came out to us with a bowl of noodles and potatoes, which were delicious. We cooked and ate dinner, and then the farmer came out and exchanged some words in Quechua with Carlos, who turned to me and said in spanish "Come into the house. They have guinea pig"
I'd never been in one of these farmhouses before, and it was interesting, to say the least. The first thing I realized was that the farmers out here don't much believe in natural light. In fact, they don't believe in any light. A small oil lamp burned in the corner, and the wife sat stirring a pot over a small fire. The house was made of stone, with a thatched roof, and pitch black. I sat on a wooden bench and ruminated while Carlos and the farmer talked in Quechua. A cat and dogs walked around, blindly bumping into my legs intermittently. The back of the house was completely dark, and suddenly a strange noise came out of the gloom, like bubbles popping in rapid succession. "What's that," I asked Carlos. "Guinea Pig." I sat some more, enjoying the scenery, when another noise started up, like machine gun fire. "What that?" "It is also the guinea pigs. They are having sex now." I hugged my knees to my chest and prayed for the nightmare to end. After a while longer, we went out, got into our respective tents (mine leaked like a sieve) and went to bed.
It was still raining when I woke up at 6. We ate horrible breakfast bars that I'd bought in Cusco, packed, and left. The trail led through pastures, climbing steeply. I began to fall behind. I couldn't understand why. I'd been fine the previous day. But try as I might, I felt tired, barely able to stay upright. I struggled to haul myself up step by step, focusing on the trail in front of me. Carlos pulled a branch off a dead tree and gave it to me as a walking stick. I pressed my weight on it and slogged upwards.
The scenery became bleak. The rain was constant, wind chilling
us. Rocky slopes with a thin scrub spread out before us, and clouds
passed over us, obscuring our view and turning our world white. It
seemed as if the climb was endless. In the distance, I could
occasionally make out the side of Salkantay through holes in the
clouds. We could hear avalanches from Salkantay several times as we
walked. And still the climb went on. I could see skeletons of mules
on the side of the path--Carlos told me that when mules get hurt, the
guides just push them down the mountain, since there's nothing else to
do for them. The wind grew stronger, and I put on another coat.
Finally, the trail leveled off. I was surrounded by boulders, piled
with cairns, in the saddle between two mountains. Carlos dropped his
pack and I did the same, grateful for a rest. He looked at me and
said "Welcome to 4,200 meters."
I realized why I was having so much trouble--there was no air.
At 4,200 meters, the air pressure is low enough that water boils much cooler. I found myself blinking often, my eyes drying out. I was high enough that my eyeballs were boiling!
Carlos maintained his proficiency at telling unsettling stories with a yarn about a husband and wife who were hiking with him on our trail when the husband slipped on a loose rock and started to topple. The wife grabbed him, and then they both tumbled down the rocky slope to the river, and both had to be helicoptered out. He topped it off with another story about a man who decided to ride one of the pack mules, got bucked off, and broke his clavicle. A quick mental calculation told me that if Carlos had led a tour group for every week of his year-long professional career, and the three accidents he witnessed were on separate trips, then I had about a 12% chance of meeting with a horrible disaster. And the odds would only go up as he told me more.
We continued walking, down now. The rain and wind picked up, and we grabbed shelter in a kind of shallow cave, where past tourists had thrown all their old plastic bottles. Carlos pulled out a lighter, made a pile of plastic bottles, wrappers, and dry hay, and started a fire. I watched from the entrance, horrified, thoughts of cancer and acrid, poisonous smoke flitting through my head while Carlos happily warmed his hands and dried his pants.
After a while, the rain slackened enough to continue. We walked down, out of the mountainous zone, and into the high rainforests of Peru. Suddenly, the scenery was vastly different. We were surrounded by lush vegetation. Orchids popped out of every corner, bromeliads perched on treed. Bamboo-like plants arched overhead, and a swollen river raged beneath us. It was suddenly hot and humid, while still pouring rain. I shed my outer layers and began to sweat. I took pictures of flowers and plants every few steps. The trail was even muddier, if that was possible, and my pants quickly became caked with mud. Briars ripped at my pack and shirt. After another several hours, we pulled into a small pueblo and set up camp, also in a backyard. Before we could cook dinner, a hard rain started up, and we retreated to the safety of our tents, in the hope that the rain would stop soon. After an hour, I resigned myself to the conclusion of bed without supper, ate a horrid breakfast bar, chewed a couple mouthfuls of powdered milk(delicious), and went to bed.
I awoke to find that the humidity was playing games with my camera, and making the backlight on the display work sporadically. EIT! Carlos and I ate breakfast with the senor whose house we were staying behind. His house was a little more open than the previous one. He boiled beans over the fire in a cast-iron pot, which swelled and split. Carlos and I split a bowl, alternating between eating and throwing beans to the floor. The floor of this house deserves some mention, by the way. It was alive, teeming with animal life. A good fifteen guinea pigs circulated the room in a kind of brownian motion, their patterns punctuated by occasional bursts of chicks, dogs, kittens, roosters, turkeys, and one parrot. Anytime one of us threw a bean to the ground, it was as if someone pulled a plug in a bathtub, as the entire floor drained to that one area in a desperate race to be first to the bean.
The third day was solidly in the rainforest. It had rained all night, and was staying on through the day for an encore. The soil had the consistency of jelly, and landslides were common. We would often wade through mud up to our thighs, where the earth above the trail had given way and covered everything with tons of loose mud. A Quechua woman and child joined us for the first seven or eight kilometers, as the trail went to another pueblo later on. After all that rain, the little creeks crossing the trail had gone and grown up into big and strong oceans of rushing water carrying mud, rocks, logs, and possibly us. Carlos stuck with his leap of faith technique for crossing the rivers, and since I'm writing this now, I guess it worked well enough.
The rainforest in peru is something incredible. Bizarre plants and beautiful flowers loomed from both sides of the path. Eagles flew overhead and perched on trees. These incredible forest are growing on the side of steep mountains with 60/70 degree slopes down for kilometers to the river below. Every now and then, I would see a scar in the hillside where a mudslide took out trees, path, vines, butterflies--everything, for hundreds of meters, leaving a reddish brown smear in their place. I glanced with a sense of foreboding at the slope above me, but then figured that the chances of me being caught in a mudslide were roughly that of me being eaten by wild pigs, and so I put it out of my mind, and we walked on. Butterflies swirled around us. From the river below, we could hear deep booming sounds, which were boulders being rolled along underwater by the force of several months' worth of rain.
We walked through the rainforest for hours, steadily descending, following the river. After a while we moved into farmlands, where coffee bushes, banana trees, and pepper trees surrounded us. We eventually walked into a village made entirely of mud. I mean it. The street was a muddy trough, torn by animal and car tracks. The houses were made of mudbrick. They had dirt floors. The fences were earth topped with cactii. It was impossible to walk in that muck-no footing at all. We slipped and slid our way through town to get to a dirt road, where we waited to catch a bus to the town of Santa Teresa. Well, not really a bus. Kinda more like a truck. One came through, and we hopped into the back. It had a floor, 3 walls, a canvas top, doors at the back that would occasionally flap open, making us dig our fingernails into the wooden floor to keep from tumbling out, and three 10 foot logs that were rolling around on the floor. It was a three hour ride, so I settled down on a sack of potatoes, only to get thrown across the truck when we hit a pothole. And another one. I eventually braced myself between one of the floor logs and the side wall, and was able to remain kinda stationary. We would stop every few minutes to pick up another person, usually with a bunch of bananas or, in one case, a bagful of cats. Meowing cats. And then we were off, the jolts of the truck slamming my back against the wall. As we passed through every village, the driver let loose with an earsplitting blast, prompting spanish shouts of "Ow! My fucking ears just broke!" from Carlos. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it.
We pulled into Santa Teresa three hours later, thoroughly bruised. I forked over my 6 soles for the 'bus' fare, which could have gone towards my hospital bills, and then we walked into town. By then, Carlos was sick of his aquaphillic tent, and I can't say I was thrilled with mine, so we went to a friend of his who had an outdoor eating area with a tin roof, and laid out our things to dry there.
Santa Teresa has a hot springs about half an hour's walk from the
town, so we headed down in search of a good soak. As we started
down the road, we were accosted by a construction crew who shouted
that a mudslide the day before knocked out the road, and we couldn't
go through. We looked around for another way to get down, and ran
into a couple town kids headed for the aguas termales.
"how can we get down there?"
"Take the road"
"the construction crew said it was off-limits"
"They say a lot of things"
We headed down once more, passing the construction crew. There was an exchange between Carlos and one of the workers, and I clearly understood the sentence, "If you want to die, go down this road." We voted in favor of death, scrambled over the mudslides, hopped over the rifts down to oblivion, and avoided the cracking parts about to take another fifty tons of dirt down the mountain. On the way down, Carlos delivered another classic: "This is a new town. Seven years ago, the old town was buried in an avalanche. Everyone living here died. We'll see the ruins tomorrow"
The Hot Springs were nice. Few
things are better than a burning hot soak after three days of walking
with a heavy pack. 'nuff said. On the way back up, Carlos told me
about some of the customs in the hinterlands of peru. One that
sticks out is a description of the end of the year festivals:
"At the end of every year, there is a big party. Anyone who has an enemy can settle it with a fistfight. Neighboring villages fight for the right to the best farmland. Three hundred people on each side battle eachother with sticks, rocks, slings, and slingshots. We don't allow guns, however."
"Do people die?"
"Yes, but it's part of the party," Carlos replied. Steer Roast pales in comparison.
The fourth, and last day of hiking started simply enough. We got up, ate, donned our packs, and started walking from the town down to the river. On the way down, I saw the ruins of the old town knocked out by the avalanche, as well as the railroad. Several railroad cars had been knocked into the river, and seven years later, I guess people figured they looked good there, and just left them.
After half an hour of walking, we arrived at the river. There, there was a steel wire going across the 50' raging river, with a wooden platform dangling from pullies underneath. There were lines of five or ten people at both sides, waiting to cross. Carlos grinned at me "oroya. Cable Car."
I climbed on, and one of the guys on the other side of the river started hauling. It was pretty fun. Three women all piled in together for the trip back, and then Carlos came over, and we went on our merry way.
On the other side, we had a drink of Chicha de Quinua, a mildly fermented drink made of mashed corn boiled for days, and then let to sit. According to Carlos, there is an art to drinking it-"In the morning, it has no flavor, so it must sit for a while. The best time to drink it is in midday, when it is slightly alcoholic. If you drink it in the afternoon, it is much stronger, and four glasses will make you drunk, but then you will swell up like a balloon." I checked my watch. We continued on along a dirt road, and I got to see one of the main points of international political contention in peru right now--a bridge. Currently, the only way across the river is by cable car, but the river must be crossed to get to Machu Picchu. The only easy way to get to Machu Picchu is by train, Perurail, which ironically is owned by the Chilean government. Since Machu Picchu is possibly the biggest tourist attraction in South America, Chile cleans up quite nicely on the train tickets. If the bridge is completed, it will be possible to take a bus to Machu Picchu, and Chile will lose its monopoly on transportation, and prices will have to go down. To prevent this, Chile is using every ounce of political clout to keep the bridge from being finished. We walked on.
As we walked, I noticed another cable car exactly like the one we
just crossed on, but with a sign on it saying "DANGER!! DO NOT USE!"
Carlos piped up, "A few years ago, a german tourist was crossing the
cable car when it snapped, and she fell into the river. Dead. We had
to build another one, which was what we just crossed"
"What's the difference with the new cable car?" I ask
We walk on, and cross a spectacular waterfall that goes under the trail. And I mean under. The trail cuts across a mountain, and the river is inside the mountain, and then comes spewing out at the base, into the main river. Given the muddy color, all I could think of was that we were crossing Willy Wonka's chocolate waterfall.
We walked on, munching on oranges, and hours later, arrive at a hydroelectric plant. From there, we would take a train up to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. The walk was over.
The train ride was uneventful, and an hour later, we pulled into Aguas. Carlos spoke to a friend of his and arranged to sleep in a restaurant, and I shlepped into a hostel. Aguas Calientes (Literally, hot waters) is a bloated town, by merit of being closest to the most famous ruins in South America. Prices are sky-high, the Visa logo is more prominent than the Peruvian flag, and even now, in the off-season, tourists flock to the city in droves. We ate a modest dinner in Carlos' friend's restaurant, talked for a while watching the idiot tourists, and then went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up at 4:30, leave my pack in the room, and go to the center of town in the dark to meet Carlos. No suprise, it was raining. We began the hour and a half walk up to Machu Piccu. The walk is on an inca trail, an it's nothing but stairs. All the way up. It's just getting light when we get to the top. We talk for half an hour and then say our fond farewells--only I had a ticket to enter the ruins.
I was one of the only people in the ruins. The best way I can describe how I felt is dumbstruck. It was raining too hard to take many pictures with my handicapped camera, and there was no one within eyesight, so all I could do was look at the city. Machu Picchu is something special. Translated from Quechua, it means Old Village. The sheer scale of it is amazing. It spreads on and on, like Somerville. The houses all had thatched roofs, which are all gone now except for a few restored ones, which gives the city an exhibitionist air, as you can see into every house from the top. I silently walked into the city, and for hours, wandered lost among the ruins, just taking it in. I climbed to the top of the temple of the Sun, at the side of the city, and stared at the Hitching Post of the Sun, a plain rock with knobs that, according to the Incas, was where the Sun would tie itself every night. Then the conquitouristadors started to arrive.
I retreated to the sanctuary of the trails behind the city. There is a hard trail to the top of Huayna Picchu (Young Village), the mountain always behind Machu Picchu in every picture you've ever seen. I was the only person on the trail, and I start walking. I took an hour detour to walk to the Temple of the Moon, a ruin hidden deep in the rainforest, rarely visited compared to the main ruin, and overgrown with vegetation. Very cool.
I walked back up and continued to Huayna Picchu. I was alone on the top after a brisk walk up thousands more Inca stairs. For thirty minutes, I stood on top of the mountain, staring at the mountains around me. I had time for a few acapella renditions of "I'm sittin on top of the world" before the next tourists invaded my reverie. For a couple hours, I stayed on top of the mountain, waiting for the clouds to clear so I could get a glimpse of Machu Picchu(My camera was completely broken by then, but the view was something out of National Geographic). I passed the time by pretending to be an Australian. I've been hanging around a bunch of Australians in Cusco, so I picked up enough slang and accent to be convincing--I convinced some New Zealanders!
After a while, I headed back down. By then, it was 10 or 11, and Machu Picchu was awash with tourists. My personal hell. I walked another hour down to Machu Picchu, and went to go buy my train ticket back (remember at the beginning when I said to remember that I couldn't get my train ticket because the ticket booth was rained out? Remember that now!). The guy at the ticket booth told me that there were no more backpacker ($30) tickets available. I told him that I made reservations a week ago, and he started laughing. Reservations don't really do anything down here. The only tickets left were $50 tickets for a fancier section, otherwise I had to wait in this tourist-ridden hellhole for two more days. I only had enough cash for the cheap ones, so I asked if he took a card. No luck. In fact, there are no ATM machines in Aguas Calientes, ridiculous, considering how many tourists are there. I walked the streets, talking to tourists about to buy dinner, trying to convince them to let me pay with my card, and then they pay me back in cash. No luck. Eventually, I met this really nice Dutch couple at a restaurant, and after talking to the waiter, he agreed to put aside the check for any table that paid in cash, and I could pay for it with my card and take the cash, minus a comission, of course. Finally, a table paid in cash, I covered it, took the cash, and was about to go buy my ticket when Carlos showed up again. It seemed Carlos couldn't get a return ticket either, and needed to borrow twenty soles. I gave it to him, ran around to get enough cash again to get my ticket, and then booked it to the counter. The train was due to leave in half an hour. I waited for ages for the guy to fill out my ticket, then sprinted back across town to get my pack from them hostel, ran back, and jumped on the train a minute before it left. And thus endeth my journey to Machu Picchu.
I dumped my pack on the train in the luggage area, and found my seat. I was sitting next to a 30ish peaked-looking blonde. I had scarcely sat down when I was confronted by a horrible ghoul of a man. Let's call him Bill. On the train, he had a fat beer belly, tiny blue bathing shorts, a tucked in T shirt (who tucks their t-shirt into their shorts?) and a week's growth of beard. He was sitting in front of me, turned around, and loudly said to me "You speak-a English?"
The word 'speak-a' is utter shite when said by anyone who speaks
english, and Bill was every bit the stereotypical American tourist.
But he continued: "You know, English? You habla?."
I gave him my best clueless look and said "Si. Claro, senor"
"This wom--mujer here," he said, motioning to the blonde girl next to me, "Lisa, is very pretty. Very bonita, no?"
I grin cluelessly, nodding frantically, the same act that gets me free dinners at MIT when I pretend to be the stereotypical foreigner from Serlozia.
The asshole continues, "Lisa, is no married. She no have..." In an attempt to bridge the divide between our distant cultures, he points emphatically at his wedding ring. "Lisa has only thirty years. Very viej...jovena, no?
Lisa piped up, "Twenty seven, Bill. If you're going to talk about me, get it right."
I noticed that Bill was with a group of about fifteen other ugly, grinning, fat americans. I turned to Lisa and asked "Esta Borracho? (Is he drunk)," guessing correctly that she spoke no spanish. One of the other Americans translated for the poor foreigner, "He's asking if you're drunk, Bill."
Bill is momentarily taken aback, but then comes back in force. "No, I'm not drunk. But Lisa is pretty, no? Maybe you be Lisa's boyfriend."
The woman sitting next to Bill turns to me, "Where are you from?"
I happened to be wearing a fleece that said Colombia on it, so I said "Colombia"
This I could do. Picking my vowels and consonants out of a hat, I say, "Tejolayba"
The consensus in the car is that they've never heard about it. I grin apologetically and say "Is very...poc.small"
They murmur simpathetically, and then say, "We're (motioning in a circle) from Aspen"
I look at them and say enthusiastically, "Yes, Yes! I learn all of America in my schooling. Aspen is of Colovio, no?"
They all chime in to correct me, all smiles. I can't believe they're stupid enough to buy this, but I figure, go for broke, and say, "I hope one day to live in the America"
The conversation goes on. This was actually the first english I'd heard or spoken in five days. I tell them that I've been living in Cusco for five months, making sweaters for money. Never once do they wonder how my character could afford this ticket, which is something like 3 month's salary, on average. They all work in the same place, and they're here on vacation(duh). Then Bill, who is obviously the ringleader, orders (I shit you not) all of the beers the train has. Fortunately, it's only about 20, so it only works out to one (ish) per person in his loutish douchegroup.
I notice the man sitting across the isle from me with his wife is not part of the group, but he's been listening to our exchange. He and his wife look about fifty, and they both look disgusted with the assholes. I lean over and say to him in Spanish, "I'm not actually from Colombia. I live in Boston and speak perfect English. This guy started fucking with me and I want to get back at him." He starts cracking up, and then translates into english for his wife, who cracks up too. Then I get an idea.
I tug on Bill's sleeve and say, "You want buy sweater?"
"Sure, pal. Show me what you got."
"One moment, pleezings..." (As an avid reader of my diary, you might remember that one of the first things I bought in Peru was a sweater that a street vendor told me was alpaca, but was actually acrylic. I was embarrassed to find out that I'd been had, at the time) I had brought this sweater on the trip, and it was in the bottom of my backpack, smelly and wet. The armpit had ripped a couple weeks back, and I sewed it up with garish yellow thread. I ran back, grinning for real this time, rummaged through my backpack, and dug out the sweater.
Bill made a show of inspecting it. I assured him that it was made of Vicunas, knowing they never heard of it. "I like it," he said. "How much!"
"Vi...twinty soles" (exactly what I paid for it).
The exchange was done. I sold the asshole my smelly, fake sweater. I told the guy next to me everything in spanish, and he cracked up again.
The train ride went on. One of the brilliant women in the group made loud barnyard noises to amuse the others, drowning out any other conversations in the entire car. I made tentative spinglish conversation with the people around me, building up my character. I realized, as I watched the other douches in the group "accidentally" groping the stewardess and winking at some of the girls in the car ahead of us, that selling them my ratty sweater was not enough to punish them for their sins of ignorance, stupidity, assholishness, and behaving like idiot americans in other countries. I realized that, given that they were riding in first class and had just hiked the Inca trail with TWENTY-ONE!!!! porters, that they were probably loaded. They might, just might, be able to attone for their sins with infusions of cash to the poorer denizens of Cusco. I began to set my trap.
After some more dialog with Bill, I told them that if they liked the sweater I sold them, I had many more in Cusco that I could sell them. I could bring the girlfriend of my friend, who had lots of sweaters, to their hotel, and they could buy what they wanted. I was instantly surrounded by these idiots, each one describing exactly what kind of sweater he or she wanted, and could I bring one like that, par favar? I made a date to meet them at their hotel (the hotel libertador) at 10, and then we parted ways. As we were leaving, Bill gave me his card. Turns out he's president of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce! One of his flunkies chimed in, "Bill is a very important man. He may be governor one day." I kissed the card and put it in my pocket.
I called my parents, and then went wandering around the streets in the artisan barrio of Cusco until I found a woman who made sweaters and who was having a crap night selling them. I told her to meet me at 9:15, bring all the sweaters she had, and I would take her to a group of idiotic americans I met, and she could name her price, since they didn't know shit.
In the meantime, I took the liberty of looking up the hotel they were staying at. It was the most expensive hotel in Cusco, possibly in Peru, at $500 a night, per room. And they had 10 rooms! I don't know hotels like that in the states!
At 9:15, I went to meet the woman. She had told her entire family, and they all came out with all the sweaters that they had made (they all made sweaters by hand). We all trouped down to the hotel, which was incredibly fancy, possibly the ritziest hotel I had ever been in. The family waited outside, and I went in, noting the snotty glance the doorman gave the family. I tracked down "Meezter Bill," and convinced him to bring the family inside. They all came in, and for a while, stared around them at what must have been one of the fanciest places they'd been in their lives. I enjoyed the pissed look on the doorman and concierge's face, but Bill insisted loudly that we all were his guests, so the hotel couldn't do anything. The family started laying out their sweaters, which were actually really nice, and the entire American group clomped down and started buying left and right. The family kept going to the front desk to make change for the hundred sole bills that the Americans were paying with, which pissed off the receptionist. It couldn't have worked out better if I'd planned it(oh, wait...). I stayed around and translated in halting English. All in all, I think the family made about $200 that night, which is normally a couple of week's work in Cusco. Not bad. The husband and wife were thrilled. After everyone left, the woman gave me a chullpa(one of the peruvian hats) which was nice, and her cell number, and told me if I ever met any other americans, to give her a call. I went to bed that night with a smile on my face.