Monday, August 10, 2009
Having just finished a biography of JFK Jr., I can't say I understood why I was voluntarily boarding a 20 ton steel projectile on a 4000 mile ride through a dark abyss. But the danger wasn't without its sense of glamour. International spies travel at night, I told myself. Granted, with our overstuffed backpacks, waterproof hiking boots, and full array of Goretex accessories, we bore more resemblance to extras in an EMS photoshoot than characters in a James Bond film. I assured myself that that was precisely the point. The less we looked like real spies, the more real we were.
Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of night travel is also the most obvious- nobody else does it! We breezed through airport security with pre-9/11 efficiency. This left us plenty of time to gawk at the Port Authority armed guards standing ominously at our gate. We secretly hoped we'd bear witness to the dramatic arrest of a Colombian drug lord; as it turns out, this level of preparedness is standard procedure for planes arriving from Bogota.
We flew to Bogota on Avianca, Colombia's national airline. One might describe it as Spirit Air with the Latin flair of Spanish safety videos. With my 6'2 frame and mild claustrophobia, every millimeter of legroom counts. Unfortunately Avianca does not rank among the world's roomier airlines, but despite the parsimonious floor plan, we landed safely around 6am.
As a self-identified climate nerd, I was taken aback by Bogota. In my ignorance, I had lumped all of Central and South America into one massive banana republic, filled with sweltering jungle heat and insufferable humidity. At sea level, Bogota might have fulfilled that expectation, but at 8,000 feet, a blast of 50 degree morning air immediately roused our senses. When we first arrived, the landscape was shrouded in a thick fog. As morning progressed, the sun unveiled a green mountain landscape described by Eyal as no less than a temperate paradise.
In Bogota, we transferred to Peru's national airline, Lan, for our second flight to Lima. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the usual suspects of cultural diplomacy: McDonald's, Dunkin Doughnuts, Papa John's, and the like. However, we needn't take this as cold, impersonal capitalism robbing the earth of its diversity; these franchises certainly had a local twist. All employees were wearing face masks, apparently to protect themselves against the swine flu epidemic whose epicenter had recently shifted from Mexico to Peru. Perhaps the only thing more puzzling than the ubiquity of this accessory was the widespread belief that it would actually do something. It's not that Eyal and I didn't give it some consideration, but we ultimately decided that anything worthy of the McDonald's seal would be chemically sufficient to smite anything mother nature threw our way, viruses included.
Fortunately, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and our descent into Cusco revealed a vast sea of adobe. With its red-brown hue, the city appeared to grow organically from the earth beneath it. The region's climate is dry, with sun-drenched, grassy hills reminiscent of California. The landscape is kaleidoscopic- a wheat field yellow by day, and a fiery sandstone red at sunset.
Like Florence or Athens, Cusco thrives on its former greatness. As the crown jewel of the Inca Empire and a key colonial center, Cusco is richly layered in history, literally. The destruction-savvy conquistadors tempered their carnage to preserve the masterful Inca stone masonry, which forms the foundations of many buildings in the central historic district.
To our surprise, we saw rainbow flags nearly everywhere we went. Not even Christopher Street or the Castro could compare. Had they known we were coming? Not quite...the rainbow flag is also a symbol of Inca identity. From local Christianity, I knew the Incas were masters of double-entendre, incorporating traditional symbols seamlessly into the western canon (for example, there's a famous painting of the Last Supper featuring roast guinea pig). Yet something told me this overlap was more coincidental than contrived.
Our next two treks took us into the foothills of Villanuraju. Beginning each trek first entailed a 1-2 hour taxi ride (depending on the speed of the driver) up serpentine dirt roads that wind up the valley foot by foot.
The roads made me wonder if Peru had had its own recovery and reinvestment act. When driving up hills, there was a clear need for a gradual, winding ascent. However this pattern went on regardless of gradient- continuing uninterrupted as we entered plateaus. Perhaps once upon a time the cattle roamed this path and there was little need to change it. Perhaps Peruvians love to drive and seek to maximize the distance of each journey. Or, perhaps with the reinvestment act I imagined, more road = more recovery.
Or, perhaps the builders of these roads felt the same as Eyal and I - that with scenery this stunning, one should do everything possible to prolong the experience. The roads started through terraced wheat fields tended by women in traditional Andean garb. Beyond these rural farming communities, we ascended into a steppe region that was largely uninhabited, save a stray cow or two. From there, the Cordillera Blanca rose majestically before us. Narrow passes offered us peaks of the glacial universe awaiting us at higher altitudes.