Guinea Pig – it’s what’s for supper

A key element of travel is to experience the local cuisine – try new things!  And in this part of South America, that means Guinea Pig (“cuy”).  i’ve had them as pets, adore the little fur-balls, and struggled with the concept, but wanted to dive in and experience South America.  One of the locals pointed out that they have names for the Guinea Pigs here – “Monday, Tuesday, Saturday….”.  They are food, pure and simple. 

At a restaurant in Cuzco, i had the opportunity to taste cuy.  As i pulled a small piece of meat off the tiny, fish-like bones, i just let myself forget about the “ranch” i used to manage.  It didn’t taste bad.  Maybe a bit gamey, and strong.  Commenting that it was unlike anything i’d ever tasted, my travelmate, LP, said “It’s a rodent.  Have you ever eaten rodent before?”.  Choking down the last bit, i decided to leave the rest for the others…

If you know your Incan history, they were “conquered” by Pizarro in the mid-1500’s.  With assistance of germs, of course… The local people eventually accepted Catholicism, but not without some resistance.  Indiginous artists were employed to create artwork for the new cathedrals, and apparently liked to sneak in subliminal (and not so subliminal) messages.  To make the new religion more real to the natives, traditional Christian art would incorporate local flavor – and nowhere is this more evident than in a version of The Last Supper, found in the Cathedral in Cuzco.

Until i visited Cuzco, i had no idea that Jesus and his disciples feasted on roast guinea pig.  Who knew? 

There are other things about this version of The Last Supper that are curious as well.  Notice Judas in the lower right hand corner.  The artist chose to make him look like Francisco Pizarro, Spanish conquistador over the Incas.  He’s holding a small bag of coins in his hand under the table – and from just the right angle, it even appears that he’s pleasuring himself.*

Talk about culture clash… i wonder if ol’ Pizarro had any idea he’d be making tourists giggle 500 years later?

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* Naturally, i was the first one to notice, but once i enthusiastically pointed it out to my travel mates, they all agreed.  Maybe just to get me to shut up…

Travel trends

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu.  You can hike in via the Inca Trail – a four day journey over rugged Andean terrain, adored by trekkers worldwide as a mystical “must do” journey.  Or, if you’re a bit doughy in the middle, you can take the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente, and then hop a bus up the narrow switchbacks that bring you to the entry to the lost city.

i took the train*.

Since the 1990’s, when controversial President Alberto Fujimori used effective, yet strong-armed, tactics to stabilize the economy, build infrastructure and eradicate gang violence and terrorism within Peru, tourism has become a significant part of the Peruvian economy.  About a decade later, there are still growing pains** evident as the country adapts to a new paradigm – and welcomes the world into their happy place in the Andes.

Our guide, Luis, is a recent graduate of a university tourism program in Cuzco — and he’s delightful!  Slamming the Catholic church, Spanish imperialists and his own failed government, we are definitely getting a ‘citizens-eye view’ of modern Peruvian culture.  After six hours hiking through Machu Picchu yesterday, we boarded the train back to Ollantaytampo.  And Luis, prone to bad jokes***, told us that we were in for quite a treat!  An on board fashion show.  My seatmate and i shrugged this off, and settled in to decompress from the hike…

After the on-board services crew passed through our coach with drinks**** and snacks, we were surprised when a man in an elaborate Incan costume skittered down the aisle, holding a puppet, and twirling a leather strap over his head.  This continued, and tribal music played over the coach speakers.  The character – doing some sort of ritualistic dance – would alternately choke and stroke the llama puppet.  Never really got what the theme of the dance was, but it was impressive that he could do it in the aisle of a relatively narrow train coach.

Following polite, but confused, applause from the captive audience, he then slunk along the aisle, holding out a purse for tips.  A few coins, a few photo ops, and he disappeared. 

aren't they adorable?From the speakers began the unmistakable strains of “Dancing Queen” – and we were told that our on-board services crew would be modeling native Peruvian clothing items, which would be for sale after the fashion show.  i shit you not…. the two gorgeous coach stewards (Jorge and Maria) proceeded to mince down the aisle, wearing scarves, sweaters, shawls and other alpaca products.  A sweater worn by Jorge even had a neon green “30%” off tag on the back! 

Invariably the items on the cart were a overpriced, but sales occurred.  The “character” – who kept his mask on for most of the fashion show – had stayed in the front of the coach and assisted Maria and Jorge with their “costume changes”.  He was also responsible for folding the clothing items, and preparing the sales cart during the show.  Given the youth and exuberance of our “cast”, it seemed a bit like a group of high school kids putting on a show to raise money***** for their youth group!

i just can’t wait until the airlines get ahold of this concept… yet another means to stave off bankruptcy!

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* This time.  Although the climbing around within Machu Picchu was pretty challenging, and my ass was kicked after 6 hours of moderately strenuous hiking, i’d like to put the Inca Trail on my “would like to do” list.  If i had such a list.  i’d have to train for it, however, as my doughy ass – carrying a pack – would be collapsed in a quivering puddle after one day on the trail….

** A key infrastructure upgrade that seems to be on the back burner relates to plumbing and sewer management.  In Peru, if you can find a toilet with paper (not a problem in cities, and tourist areas), you are expected to put the used paper in a nearby trash can as the pipes have a pesky tendency to clog with just the slightest perturbation.  i’m pretty rugged, but am finding this practice a bit unnerving…

*** He likes to tell us that he’s lost, or our hotel burned down, or they’ve lost our luggage or reservations.  As i said, he’s an absolute delight!  Unfortunately a bit too big to put into my luggage….

**** Me likes me some Inca Cola!  Atomic yellow in color, the locals swill this stuff like water.  Tastes like Lemon Cream Soda to me…

***** Except this was all being done by the National Rail Service, Perurail.  Which – according to our cynical guide, Luis – has a monopoly on rail service, is non-responsive to the people, and could care less about improving services to enhance tourism.

Define “Impoverished”

There are 13 people in our small group exploring Peru and Ecuador for the next two weeks.  Given the moderately rugged nature of this excursion, as well as the expense, it’s no stretch to say that we’re all middle-aged yuppies with disposable income. 

Arriving in Cuzco from Lima, we hopped a van for Yucay – the heart of Incan culture in a fertile region known as the Sacred Valley.  Leaving the bustle of Cuzco, our surroundings became increasingly rural.  Homes made of red clay bricks.  Donkeys and cows tethered in front yards… Free range mutts in every doorway, or buried head-first in trash cans.  Several people commented on the poverty, the poor standard of living… windowless homes – perhaps vacant – would surprise us with a rope full of brightly colored clothing drying on the side.  Villages lacking modern convenience or creature comfort. 

After a day in the Sacred Valley, it’s clear that the people of this region are not impoverished.  After breakfast, i wandered outside following the sounds of drums.  Across from the hotel is a field – and this morning it was full of primary school students in uniform.   Maybe a hundred of them.  Some drumming, some playing Andean flutes. 

Along the sides of the field, the younger children danced to the drum beat.  In the center?  The young men danced, and performed what i later learned were traditional Incan dances.  This was gym class.  i watched for almost an hour – mesmerized.  There were coaches, or teachers, keeping order.  Small boys came out with metal hoops and the older boys dove through, executing front rolls on the grass.  The crowd pleasers were the “rugby scrum” and the tug of war.  Sheer joy.  Perfect simplicity. 

En route to Ollantaytampo to visit an Incan fortress, we stopped at a farmers market in Urubamba.  Unlike Asian markets i’ve visited, it was vibrant without being chaotic.  Vegetables – perhaps 20 different kinds of potatoes – fruits, beans, corn of all shapes, sizes and colors. 

We saw farmers working their fields with oxen pulling log plows – in one case, a small boy was riding the plow to provide weight.  Steep mountainsides, green with terraced agriculture. 

Our local guide was most proud of the farmers market.  His words “We’re not poor.  Look at all this food!  Unlike the deserts in Africa, we have resources”.  Clearly, these folks don’t really give a damn about what’s happing with this pesky global economic meltdown.  Why would they care about the price of oil?  They don’t need it to live.  No windows?  No problem – the climate is beautiful and temperate.  They make their own mud bricks – and if they need a bigger house?  They build it.  Debt?  Not an issue.  They barter for much of what they need. 

Is this poverty?  Hardly…