When Pam and I set off on April 10 to travel with Mike and Hilary in Peru for two weeks, I was looking forward to two things, both related to Mike and Hilary (for me, at that point, Peru was not more than a setting): (1) to see our son and daughter-in-law for the first time since August (though they had kept in touch via email and phone from various internet cafes south of the Equator), and (2) to indulge them with hotels that, though hardly 5-star, would be a step above their usual hostels, not to mention camping in the wild.
The second goal, I believe, we fulfilled pretty well. In our first hotel, in Pisac, we were the only guests and from opposite ends of a lovely balcony looked down on a wood oven (that produced delicious empanadas that I, for one, never became sick of) behind which was an elaborate multi-leveled castle inhabited by an indeterminate number of guinea pigs (we never figured out if these creatures were on permanent show or only being readied for the table). In addition to enjoying the Pisac hotel’s elaborate breakfasts, we found the balcony an ideal setting for an evening cocktail hour, a ceremony we happily continued throughout the trip, with bottles of Johnny Walker mysteriously becoming cheaper and cheaper as we went (Mike found the last bottle for $10). Our next hotel in Ollantaytambo was equally pleasant and there we met the wonderful Marco, at whose mother’s hotel, Le Perez in Cuzco, we were later cosseted (once Hilary figured out that the mixture of ketchup into the morning jam was a mistake, not a local tradition) with Marco driving us around to various sites. Only the rooms in Aguas Calientes were grim (Mike and Hilary’s window was blocked by a sheet of metal and we were serenaded nightly by the world’s worst drum and bugle corps), encouraging us to get early to Machu Picchu and stay late.
Our other purpose, to see Mike and Hilary, was even more successful. Despite having seen them looking happy on their blog and heard them sounding so on the phone, I worried that several months of living out of backpacks and traveling by foot and bus would have taken their toll. But not a bit of it. They both looked healthy and relaxed: Mike with his furry beard (though smaller than in some photographs) and Hilary with her tan and pretty (if non-alpaca) scarf. They were both as funny in their own special way as always and, if possible, holding hands even more often. With great generosity they allowed us to share a small piece of their great adventure. I’m not always comfortable in new and unexpected situations (to say the least), but Mike and Hilary, with tact and sweetness, made me enjoy such unexpected adventures as drinking jugos and eating corn cakes in local markets, leaving our road back to Cuzco to walk through eucalyptus woods (meeting two boys and three horses as in a Fellini movie), eating quail eggs from a street vender, and drinking and eating in a cave-like, down-market neighborhood drinking joint (with food as “extras”) in Cuzco that I crept into with fear and trembling and left in delight (but don’t ask about the bagno).
Hilary’s fluent and Mike’s serviceable Spanish (how did this happen with a Benson boy?) made us feel less like the awkward tourists that we were. They not only did the talking at restaurants and taxi stands, but, most importantly, showed us how to connect with the Peruvians we met or passed on the street (“Hola” and/or “Buenos Dias,” almost always returned) and how to be amiable but firm with those who tried to sell us trinkets, lure us into their shops, or polish our shoes. We saw Mike and Hilary make friends naturally with all they met--Peruvians and foreign travelers alike. Listening to them talking of the many friends they had made in the various countries they have visited, we saw that their trip has been more than spectacular sights and heroic treks. If Obama wanted a cost-efficient way to show America at its best and win new allies (even in Bolivia), he could no better then send Mike and Hilary on the road (though we need them here too!).
We had looked forward to being with Mike and Hilary (and that was wonderful), but I had not expected that they would also give us something more (though not better) than themselves--Peru. I knew nothing about Peru before the trip except for the names Fujimori and the Shining Path (were they still fighting and in what part of the county?) and was not even clear about the difference between Incas and Aztecs. I never would have thought of going to Peru if not for Mike and Hilary, but I’m so glad I encountered that astonishing country. It’s hard to describe it without sounding like a postcard (though there were very few of those on sale), and Mike’s pictures will do it better. I was so overloaded by impressions that I can only evoke a few. The incredible beauty of the Andes with steep, jagged sides softened by a lush green (it was the end of the rainy season), so that from sheer overlooks you could peer straight down into Pisac or Cuzco like a bird (a condor?), perhaps spotting a snow-covered peak at the end of a distant valley between mountains. The Inca ruins were a match to the grandeur of the mountains on which they were perched. The first we saw were above Pisac, which we reached by taxi after dodging rocks put across the road by the local farmers to protest the government’s plans to charge for water. Peru, ancient and modern, it became clear, was a land defined by and expressed through rock and water. When we arrived at the ruins, we saw the sweeping, extensive terracing, some stone shallows baths with (still) running water, and a fortress like-summit (one of the nice things about all the ruins we saw was that there was an absence of explanatory signs, making visitors confront the experience itself). I was much impressed by the scope of these ruins, and only when we started down to walk back to Pisac did I slowly realize that we had only seen a portion of the site: ahead was a tunnel through the rocks, storehouses on the side of the hill, and a beautiful ceremonial area (with the fitted, non-mortared, squared, polished stones that signified a temple: often the temple of the sun). Here, as at the other ruins, we tried to calculate the amount of time that must have been needed to plan these extraordinary structures (let alone the time and human muscle needed to haul, shape, and arrange the rocks). Each ruin we saw was different: the pre-Incan ruins and uncompleted structures of Ollantaytambo (the site of the only, if temporary, Incan victory over the Spanish and below which we saw a farmer plowing a field with a team of oxen--in Peru I was often reminded of what I had read about living in the Middle Ages and it made sense); above Cuzco we found a long, spooky underground cave (and altar) with a parallel zig-zag narrow corridor at Qenko and the enormous fortifications of Sacsayhuamán. For all its expense (though the "Vista Dome" train into the valley was worth it) and inconvenience of the frontier town of Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu lived up to its billing: an extraordinary collection of monuments in the fog surrounded by mountains: seen most evocatively, if breathlessly in my case, looking down from the cloud forest of Mt. Machu Picchu (whose peak, thanks to Pam, Hilary, and Mike [and his coca] I just barely made).
Before I produce an extended Peru blog of my own (rather than a guest appearance on Mike and Hilary’s), I just want to note one more surprising thing we found in Peru: its amazing people. To us they were unfailingly friendly, diligent, patient, helpful, and often funny that it was impossible not to become a fan of them and their country and to hope that they can find more ease and comfort in their daily life without losing their joy and vibrant culture. Two moments I remember out of so many are the Easter Mass in the local Quechua language at Pisac (punctuated by the playing of conch shells) and the enthusiastic 33-year-old ("the same age as Jesus") who attached himself to us at the cave-like drinking club at Cuzco along with the regular patrons, who laughed with delight when Mike made a face as he first tasted the local maize-drink chicha--he won their admiration by drinking two large glasses. Thank you Hilary and Mike. For giving us so much time, insight, and fun. We love you. We admire you. And we look forward to welcoming you back soon (not too soon, but not too much later either).