I have a habit in this blog of dwelling particularly on the many and gruelling journeys between my destinations; the hours in airports sleeping on my rucksack and the long transport delays you come to expect from Latin America. Perhaps this is because these challenging experiences place me into a heightened and particularly perceptive state where all that passes is memorable and eminently reportable. My journey from Medellin to Cusco was no exception. Rushing down to Peru in time to cross over with Rae, founder of the school I’d be spending some time visiting there, meant three flights in 24 hours and a brief sleep in notoriously dangerous, underwhelming Lima.
In fact, the usual gymnastics of flight check-in and boarding were further complicated that Sunday by my one-hour sleep and the enduring effect of the bottle of gin I’d shared just hours before in emotional farewell with my Medellin flatmates. I felt a mixture of nausea and amusement as I approached the desk at my first airport, a mood which endured through most of that first flight and a little way into my ill-advised nine-hour stop in Bogota. This gave that morning a trance-like quality I later wondered at my skill in negotiating, culminating in a sudden, crushing exhaustion and a fruitless search for places to sleep within the uncomfortable confines of an all too familiar airport.
Acquainted now with my far from capable response to new and bewildering places, I arranged a pick-up from Lima airport and a nearby hostel. I thanked myself for this repeatedly as for the first time in my life I see my name on a large sign in the welcoming arrivals crowd.
I’d like to write here about Lima and my impressions of the Peruvian capital, the people, the sights, the culture – but in my fifteen hours there, except for two brief taxi rides, I saw only the walls of my hostel and even there mainly the blank black relief of oblivious dreaming. A private ensuite room was another joyous forward-planned indulgence for my anticipated broken self, which afforded me a blissfully undisturbed 12-hour-sleep.
It’s a relief to sit myself down on that final flight the next afternoon to look awe-struck at the undulating foothills of the Andes beneath me from my seat below the wing of the plane. Rae’s familiar face waits for me at Cusco, there with Ruth to collect me, the other founder of the school. In both Spanish and English, we talk about my journey, about Rae’s visit and about Cusco, both of them sharing advice about the town, how to stay safe and avoid altitude sickness at the 3200m we now sit. On their instruction I spend most of the rest of that day lying in my large hotel room watching films and drinking copious amounts of coca tea and water – known remedies. On my one excursion to buy coca cola and snickers bars – also recommended – I feel the smallest elevation of the pavement shortening my breath and rendering me giddy, and I return quickly to the comfort of soft blankets and blue-lit diversions in the darkness.
The following day I wake relatively acclimatised and with the energy to finally appreciate the magnificence of my surroundings. Cusco sits amidst golden hills, the polished cobbled streets of its historical centre organised into several romantic squares adorned with many picturesque churches, and with a salient statue of Christ overlooking the whole from a nearby hill. It’s difficult to move for tourists, many drawn here for the nearness of Macchu Picchu, the sacred valley and the world-class hiking it affords.
But despite my enduring wonder at the beauty of where I’ve found myself, those first days are characterised by a listless sort of loneliness. Due to some small misunderstanding, I’ve been booked into a relatively expensive hotel for the first three nights, where the other guests are of a different breed to backpackers and are largely unwilling to socialise. It has the further disadvantage of not having a kitchen, meaning for my first nights in Cusco you would have found me eating alone in various restaurants, watching films in my rather luxurious room or lying in the sun on the town’s walls and benches reading my Spanish Grammar book.
Moving into a hostel, then, a few days later is some relief, and I can finally cook, a meditative activity which has become almost as necessary to me as eating. But despite obsessive research over this next choice of accommodation, Intro Hostels is a slightly strange place to stay. An old converted barn, it is a cacophony of creaking, particularly at night when someone chooses to navigate the rickety balcony surrounding the courtyard. Save for a small bar, bedrooms and bathrooms, all else is outside, including the kitchen and main social area, with little protection from the unforgiving Cusco climate.
People here seem to be more interested in talking to their phones than each other, and I spend my first night there almost as solitary as I was in my hotel. The friends I do make have a habit of disappearing the following day for their treks to Macchu Picchu, and I start to suspect it is Cusco itself that dictates this atmosphere rather than my poor accommodation choices. People here are simply in transit, warming up for days of hiking or returning from them exhausted and far from inclined to socialise. It’s a strange place to spend a whole month.
I make the decision to move hostel again. In the two days remaining to me here I organise daily private Spanish lessons to keep me occupied, and shop around for my own Macchu Picchu trek, which I will start in a few weeks when my mum and brother come out to visit. I’m extremely proud of myself for finding the trek for a tenth of the price that my mum was quoted in the UK. I also spend an evening shivering under my duvet in the courtyard, the sacrifice to be close enough to the Wi-Fi to watch Netflix.
As it works out, on my final night the hostel is at its most sociable and I make a fair few friends and even have a small night out in what turns out to be quite the party town. I make sure I’m home for 3am as that’s when lines open for Glastonbury tickets in the UK. With my temperamental internet connection, I’m probably not much help to our group of friends trying for tickets. And, after two years of going to the festival and anticipating it with an almost religious zeal, we fail to get any and sit in a horrified silence on Facebook chat, contributing occasional expletives. I retreat to my bed and sleep.
I’m not sure if it’s a hangover or the delayed effect of altitude, but the following day I’m overcome by a powerful nausea, making the move to my new hostel even more undesirable. Once there, I spend the majority of the afternoon confined to bed in my dorm. And here my decision to opt next for a ‘party’ hostel immediately backfires. I’m not a few hours into lying beneath the torpor of this unexplained sickness, when I hear the strange sound of a girl’s heavy breathing. I take out my headphones in puzzlement, and regret it immediately as soon as I register what I’m hearing. There’s a couple having sex in the bed opposite me, and they’re not being subtle. Appalled, I run from the room, this sudden movement provoking my nausea further and I’m nearly sick at the door.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad place to stay, but some extensive building work meant that the usually social areas were out of bounds, leaving just the one small bar. I was promised table football tournaments and salsa nights, but my final hostel again had a rather quiet, reclusive atmosphere, despite that first public display.
Even so, with my multiple accommodation choices and many dorm-mates, I’d met a lot of different people by this point and decided to stay put. Tiredness, sickness and loneliness evaporated, I felt quite settled in Cusco and ready to start my week of work at the school.
But I did make the quiet suggestion to my mum that maybe we should stay in yet another hostel during her visit…