Parents and potatoes.
January steals up on us furtively. With no icey weather and bleak, driving rain to announce the new year, we are discombobulated, only vaguely aware that Christmas has come and gone and we have jumped in to the precipice of 2016. Ten days in Santa Cruz with Gary and Jen speeds by in a blur of firecrackers, barbecued yucca snacks and bad Spanish. Patsy and John leave first, home to England where John can once again leave the house without fear of heat exhaustion. Gary and Jen veer off next. Our last sight of them is waving through the doorway, chewing on cheese and fried aubergine sandwiches surrounded by all the family. Everyone is talking at once. Flavia shouts BYE at us and clings on to little Nael who is infuriated by his older cousin’s administrations and collapses in a ball of teary rage. We pull the door closed and a hush descends immediately. They will catch a flight the following morning and we the day after.
Our flight will drop us in La Paz for a few hours where we sit on a bench and gasp for breath. The airport sits high on a plateau at 4150 metres and all bursts of exercise are rewarded with the sudden feeling that you are being suffocated with a pillow so it is with some relief that, after a three hour wait punctuated by minor wheezing attacks, we pile on to a plane bound for Cusco.
All Latin American flights seem to be approached with a horizonally laidback approach to time keeping. How this fits in with the rest of the world’s frantic scheduling is a mystery to me but this flight is no different. The boarding time comes and goes. Jamie looks at the departure board quizzically and then raises an eyebrow at me. He has been warned, none of our flights will leave on time but I’m not sure he believed me until now. The departure time slowly arrives. Foreign passengers start to pace about a bit, Bolivians sit comfortably in their chairs and chat, never flicking an eye to their watches, they are used to this. Finally, ten minutes after the flight is meant to be soaring over the Altiplano and burrowing up in to the clouds, a sing song voice announces that our flight will begin boarding.
Despite the lackadaisical approach to prompt departures, airport staff don’t faff about with anything else. We are hurried straight on board with no sign of those long, pointless queues formed after a boarding announcement which really meant ‘we are considering boarding you if you are good’. Once everyone is pushed aboard, they close the doors quicksmart and take off leaving the trembly legged and infirm whipped off their feet and g-forced in to their seat without warning. Once we arrive at Cusco, the seatbelt signs are switched off four and a half seconds after landing and the doors are reopened more or less mid taxi. It’s rather refreshing and I burst out in to the zippy Cusco air skipping about and singing the praises of Latin America to Jamie.
He steers me gently towards the customs office only to discover a long, incredibly slow queue with one passport controller at the helm. My praise singing comes to a tragic halt and I look at Jamie and issue a small whinge. I hate to wait around, wasting life at the whim of bureaucratic nonsense. When we finally make it to the front we have watched our bags drag around the luggage conveyor just out of reach for an agonising fifty minutes. The customs official mutters something complicated and important to me under the clamouring of the waiting airport having asked if I speak Spanish. I am forced to say yes, wondering if I have just admitted to drugs trafficking or harbouring an endangered species in my rucksack. He looks at me for a moment and stamps my passport. Perhaps he’s interested in buying an Aceramarca Gracile Mouse Opossum. I make a note to show him my stock later.
And simple as that, we are back in Peru. We step out in to the altitude chilled air and bright sunshine in relief. The Santa Cruz sun is thick and weighty, full of tropical heat and jungle fever. Here the air is light and bouncy and though we must pant and gasp as we walk up minor inclines, we have much more energy.
We stayed at Hostel Goya Andina the last time we were in Cusco, not a month before and reserved rooms for ourselves and Jamie’s parents to return to so this is where we head now. Having been locked out of the hostel along with all the other guests while the kind, slightly befuddled owner forgot he owned a hostel and went out for the afternoon, I am almost certain that if he will have forgotten our reservations too. We ring the doorbell which isn’t always working and often goes unanswered when they do the daily cleaning. This time it is cautiously opened and Luis peers round looking like we might punch him. It’s ok, he always answers the door like this. When he sees we aren’t there for a fight, he greets us cheerfully and welcomes us in then looks at us expectantly. He has forgotten the reservation. I can tell.
Uh…I don’t know if you remember but we made a reservation for two rooms for this week…?
I say hopefully. His eyes widen.
He says. He has forgotten the reservation and what’s more, the cosy little hostel is full. With a small, silent and inevitable sigh I triple check that there will be space for the four of us for the coming days and though he nods and confirms fervently, I am less than convinced. Unfortunately it is the nicest, quietest and cheapest place to stay in Cusco and we know we won’t find better despite the administerial impediments. We wave him off, sadly wishing him a good evening and ensuring that we will see him tomorrow and walk down the road to discover the second best place is also full before finally ending up in a small, damp cupboard crammed with two loosely constructed beds and a bathroom that fills with water regardless of your activities.
We remain positive though. We are back in beautiful Cusco with fresh enthusiasm that had dwindled a little last time we were here. And the positivity pays off. After a night in our cramped, damp quarters, we chew down a slab of bread and some weak coffee before schlepping back up to Goya Andina. Miraculously, two cosy, slightly shabby rooms await us and we bound in to unravel the cord from our Danger Kettle and make cups of mint tea and sit in the big, soft, familiar armchair beside our bed.
We have a day left on our own here in Cusco before Suzie and David arrive and we use it to eat and buy crap. Little bowls of sliced potato and eggs blanketed in a thick, spicy peanut sauce are sold all over town for 25p. We stand watching a plaited lady sat on a low wall as she scoops a selection of potatoes from where they are nestled in a basket on her lap. With swift, practised hands she scrapes them clean of skin and flicks out the eyes then despatches them in thick, yellow coiny slices in to a small bowl. She peels the egg and I watch as the cracked pieces of shell tinkle on to a pile before she slices the naked egg in two, revealing two golden sunny yolk halves.
Spicy or not spicy?
She asks, looking up.
We pipe together and she squeezes the pale, thick sauce flecked with tiny, emerald coloured chopped herbs over the top. We eat atop a stone staircase watching people flooding towards the central market, our mouths agreeably aflame with rocoto chilli. When we we have scraped the last crumbs of potato from the bowl, we follow the crowds to the market to buy up hanks of mint which are separated from great piles of alfalfa, chamomile and muña and handed over, dropping little yellow and purple flowers shed from the bunches above. The place is clattering with the noise of several hundred knives and forks as people hunch over heaps of fried rice, ceviche and stew. Tall glasses of red and yellow jelly glitter in the low light and thirty ladies selling fresh juices wave their menus at passing trade. Heaps of blankets, gloves and hats stand like barricades in front of stall owners who peer up from their knitting as we pass.
Señorita! Señorita! Scarves! Hats! Good price! You want gloves? Good price!
The voices, sometimes disembodied, layer up over another and rise over the hum of the place. It’s as though we are walking through vocal shale, sedimentary sounds falling gently one on top of the other trapping the constant rattle of plates at the bottom.
We float down the cheese aisle admiring the moon coloured bricks of homemade quesillo and pause as our eyes catch the flash of a pile of tiny fish. Little caches of coral coloured roe sit beside a trove of glassy, amber caviar and huge wheels of bread wait in piles to be taken home and eaten. An eye watches me from behind the body of a pig, it’s belly split like a smile and a baby sleeps amongst a pile of huge wooden ladles.
That night we can’t sleep. People in the opposite room are packing up and leaving for a nocturnal flight. They are talking and laughing loudly and eventually I slip out the room to ask them to be quiet. The grinning man dismisses me with a wave of his hand and says,
and I creep back to our room fuming quietly until they noisily wheel their suitcases out and leave the hostel. Still we don’t sleep and eventually I whisper to Jamie that perhaps we are just excited about having company tomorrow. He switches on the light and we sit there blinking.
And maybe a bit nervous…
I add. It’s true, I am curiously anxious to see somebody we know again after all this time. It has been four months, no time at all in the real world but here in this time bending, horizon stretched world of travel, it feels like an eternity.
By the morning, we have managed about three hours of good sleep but by half past six we are both wide awake and bouncing in anticipation. After a great, plastic jug of passionfruit juice made an elderly lady at the lovely, sparce market opposite the hostel we jump in to a tiny, battered taxi and wend our way to the airport. There, in fairly typical Peruvian style, no one is allowed to enter the arrivals lounge and there is no arrivals board so an expectant crowd have gathered to press their noses against a large, padlocked set of glass doors through which a wedge of the arrivals lounge can be viewed. The incoming flights are all delayed because of a fast approaching storm which has smeared the horizon in a thick, purply grey flecked with forks of lightning. Two frantic women in the information booth compile a long, handwritten list of new arrival times not taking in to account the uncertainty the weather affords. We check Suzie and David’s flight but the predicted arrival time has come and gone so we return to the glass doors to peer through at the low grade chaos beyond.
And hour later we are still waiting, wandering outside to check the view through the main doors now and again only to be rained on copiously and return to maintain our indoor vigil. Eventually, a new flood of slightly glazed passengers leak in to the arrivals lounge clutching suitcases and dragging rucksacks or children behind them. Then I see a flash of pale pink, a fleece jacket, the colour is unmistakeably Suzie. She turns, looking about, wondering where we are and we start to wave, big jumping, double armed waves as she turns to look down the corridor towards the glass doors. She catches sight of our gymnastics and breaks in to a huge smile and points at us. We gesture towards the main doors and dash out to meet them.
We all crash in to each other amongst a knot of blue shirted men and our hugs are serenaded by a chorus of taxi? taxi? you need taxi? which we ignore having learnt the hard way that their fares are as much as five times higher than a ride from the main road which is twenty seconds away across the carpark. We pull them with us now to hail a cab which ends up being just a man in his car who charges us a quid and watches serenely as we pile in to his tiny car. The unbroken conversation which ensues lasts the whole journey back and the rest of the evening which we spend at a small restaurant by the curling warmth of their domed pizza oven.
I order a round of pisco sours, a Peruvian cocktail made of lime juice, sugar, egg white and bitters pepped up with fiery grape liquor. The fine mineral scent of the pisco vineyards that fringe the west coast of Peru floats back to me as we wait for the drinks and I share the memory, explaining what pisco is and where it comes from. When they arrive, everyone dives in, eager to educate their taste buds. David’s eyes widen as he tastes the pale green, frothy mixture. A swirl of cinnamon on top, uncurls and is swept down with the first sip.
The decision to order another round is made rather quickly and soon we are surrounded by empty glasses and beer bottles. A large pizza arrives along with stuffed avocados and a clear, jewelly vegetable studded broth. A plate of lemony yellow, unctuous ají de gallina is finally set down in front of me and we begin to eat enthusiastically. Ají de gallina was once described to me by a friend as a chicken curry made by someone who had never tasted a curry before with olives and eggs on. This is a fair description though does the deliciousness of the dish no favours. It is made, as with many foods in Peru and Bolivia, with a base of raw peanuts which are blended with a variety of fried vegetables, chilli and turmeric until rich, creamy and yellow. This delicious duvet-like sauce is then used to tuck in a plate of shredded poached chicken and sliced potatoes then topped with a black olive and a sliced boiled egg. The whole thing is served with a portion of the delicious, slightly sticky and flavoursome rice they use here and is the culinary equivalent of an angora scarf.
After dinner we heave ourselves back up the hill, pausing to wait for Suzie and David who are less accustomed to the altitude here and then tumble in to a long, exhausted sleep. When morning comes, we are back up by seven, eager to hustle our excited new arrivals out in to the city and share the meandering cobbled streets and ancient, crumbling doorways with them. They are thrilled to be here, a place they never thought they would get to and we take them on an impressive circuit that rises right up the crazed eyed Jesus statue high on the hill and overlooking the city. He looks pretty gentle from a distance, milky white and benevolently gazing down over the Inca capital. However, once we have hauled ourselves, gasping for breath, up the twenty six thousand steps that squeeze their way through the vertiginous San Blas neighbourhood, we get a closer look. Standing at the foot of the huge plinth upon which Cristo Blanco stands and gazing up in to his face we are given the distinct impression we are being hypnotised. His wide, pale eyes stare back at us with distinct swirling patterns cut in to them. No doubt it is just an illusion caused by the deep cuts needed to fashion a recognisable face from a lump of featureless concrete viewed mainly from afar but the effect is disconcerting nonetheless. We edge away quickly and walk down to Saqsawayman, an Inca ruin which also overlooks Cusco but without the mind games.
The huge boulders that make up the perimeter wall are beautifully faceted, perfectly cut so that they fit together without the need for mortar. The masons who cut these stones were master craftsmen whose work has barely weathered in the thousand odd years since they were cut. I run my hands along the sharp, black edges feeling the warmth of the sun humming back out. I think of the masons chipping away at the huge slab of stone in front of me. I picture them standing before the great chunks of rock until they understood the shapes within then hammering and levering pieces away until finally they had they piece my hands rest on today.
Unfortunately, the Peruvian tourist board has noticed similar reactions to ours in everyone else and has jacked up the entry prices to extraordinary heights. The price for four of us will cost nearly sixty quid in a country where you can sit down to a three course lunch for two quid with very little difficulty. Since we have already spent a long time fetishising the outer wall, we decide we’d rather spend the money on thirty lunches or sixty pairs of woolly socks in the market so we trundle off, descending the stairs and sinking back in to the city to immerse ourselves in a rainstorm and a prolonged hunt for alpaca jumpers.
The following day begins at five thirty when the light is still a milky blue and the doziness in my head makes it difficult to proceed with basic activities. We have with us a heap of outrageously expensive paperwork which will permit us in to Machu Picchu. The government have seen to it that entrance prices and train tickets paid for by foreigners would fund the entire country if its stretched out a bit at the edges. Anything else they make on coffee exports and quiet drug deals with the US are no doubt pocketed and spent on lavish mansions and private islands.
Wallets empty and heads full of vanishing dreams we hail a taxi in the dimly lit streets and are taken on alarmingly long journey to Cusco train station which turns out to be half an hour outside the city no doubt so the riff raff can’t scrabble aboard and bother the tourists. For it was not built with citizens in mind. This train has light panpipe music wafted in to the breezy carriages, nibbles served halfway, comfortable seats and prices we, with our comfortable middle class English lives, have gulped at. We wind through sweeping olive green valleys following a russet coloured river and through villages whose inhabitants will never board the train that trundles daily through their back gardens.
Uncomfortable elitism aside, the journey is fantastic. There are windows in the ceiling through which snowy mountain tops appear and eucalyptus trees which trail their dusky green branches across the glass. The landscape slowly evolves in colour until the soaring, steep sided mountains become a bright, juicy green and the eucalyptus is swapped for creepers, avocado trees, bamboo and ferns. Inca ruins tumble gracefully down the hillsides, a little baleful in their disintegration but still stately and imposing. We chew thoughtfully on our nut and raisin mix, occasionally delighting in a crunchy fried broadbean and shading our eyes from the high beam sunshine. Patches of illuminated grass high on the mountainsides glow ethereally and the rock faces become streaked with black, drenched in bromeliads and clinging mosses. We have descended a thousand metres from the sparsely beautiful heights at which Cusco sits and are trundling towards the dividing line between the Andes and the Amazon. Here, life wriggles abundantly, llamas and alpacas rub shoulders with lizards, snakes, spectacled bears, a myriad of frogs, hummingbirds, butterflies and Peru’s national bird, the absurdly named ‘cock of the rock’.
As we pull in to the station at Aguas Calientes, a tiny town trembling under the weight of a trillion hotels and gift shops, the balmy heat drifts upon us. The bustling collection of hastily built hostelries sits in a crook at the base of a towering flock of mountains. Despite solely existing for the benefit of the endless streams of visitors, it is a friendly, pleasant little town. We follow Jamie through the souvenir market and down a set of stairs. He leads the way as if he knows the place already despite having only briefly seen the place over ten years ago on his way to catch the train. We hop over the train tracks that run up the street, automatically checking for cars of which there are none in a town with no road in or out. The little hotel we are staying at is just across the road and we are shown in to our rooms immediately. Suzie and David drop their bags on their bed and rush to the window. In front is a beautiful, vertical mountainside, zebra striped with minerals and twinkling with thousands of green and red plants clinging to the rock face. Below us is the river, chocolate brown, wide and swift. It gushes past us, splashing on the rock face and filling our ears with the sound of a hundred audiences clapping in the distance.
Suzie and David can’t get enough of the exotic, verdant view and we have to pull them away from the window promising better things to come. And indeed, there are. We follow the train track over a crystal clear, gurling river that flows down through the town and meets the wider, chocolate river beneath the hotel. The two waters meet in roiling, wavering wall which divides a gorgeous, slurping green from Cadbury brown. I stand and stare at the bubble of clear water eddying round before it is muddied then swept downstream.
They are waiting for me and I turn and run over the tracks to catch up. We wander up to a small, wooden kiosk to buy bus tickets to reach Machu Picchu and are asked for an enormous amount. The last time I came here I dragged myself from bed at four in the morning and stepped out shivering in to a rain drenched, pitch black morning to confront a climb up seven hundred steps to the entranceway. I have suggested I will do the same on this visit but faced with a fifteen minute drive or the type of self punishment practised by those of better moral character than myself these days, I choose the former.
I say to the flinty eyed woman behind the counter and she has to wrench the pile of notes from my fist before handing over the tickets. She points down the road a little and tells us to queue beside a woman in a white shirt. I nod and turn, studying the shreds of paper in my hand. I am disappointed to note that the tickets are not fashioned from 24 carat gold but perhaps the bus seats will be thrones and we will be given sceptres as we board. With that thought, I perk up a little and trot to the front of the queue expectantly. There’s no red carpet yet, but I’m sure they’ll roll it right out.
Eggs and Potatoes in Ocopa Sauce
Eight smallish potatoes, jersey royals boiled in their skins might work best here but whatever the tastiest variety you can find is
Four eggs boiled
Huacatay herb or Peruvian black mint is rather hard to find in the UK so try a combination of basil, mint and coriander. For this you want two good handfuls of the mixed leaves
Raw peanuts (use roasted in a pinch but give them a wash to remove some of the salt)- 200g
2 cream crackers
Rocoto chilli if you can find it or use the some nice, hot but mouth warming (rather than burning) variety. You will want a few, I suggest adding slowly to the mix until you get the heat you want.
Fresh white cheese, try cottage cheese or queso fresco….Philadelphia if nothing else. You can also try making queso fresco…recipe coming soon…200g
Cloves of garlic – 2
White onion- large 1
Evaporated milk- 400ml
Fry the diced garlic gently in a pan using peanut oil or sunflower oil for ten to fifteen minutes until translucent. Add the crushed garlic (crushed with a quick bash under a flattened knife blade) and fry for a further five minutes. Tip in the peanuts and gently fry for five minutes. Do not burn them, they are full of fat and burn fast. Tip or crumble in the cheese and crushed crackers and some of the chopped chilli. If you are very old school and have too much time on your hands, use a pestle and mortar to grind. If you are anyone else, pour in to a blended along with half the evaporated milk. Blend until smooth. Taste. Add salt, more milk and more chilli to taste. Finally when you have the right levels, put the herbs in and blend until the sauce is flecked with little spots of green. Taste. Is it good? Good.
Boil the potatoes in their skins until a knife goes in to them easily along with the eggs. Peel all when cooked a little and slice eggs in two and potatoes in to discs. Arrange on a plate and spoon a thick layer of sauce over the top. Serve with wedges of lime (in my opinion) and a Pisco Sour. Recipe forthcoming if I sober up.