Below my bedroom window, impatient drivers honk their horns as they make their way along the haphazardly paved road that curves past my house; the constant drilling and hammering of city construction fill in what would otherwise be the quiet moments. From down the hall I can hear Florence and the Machine’s newest release blaring, along with Call Me Maybe, Diamonds, and Thrift Shop. America’s top 40 has followed me 3,000 miles and four planes trips later.
Milwaukee to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, Miami to Lima, Lima to Cusco.
And here I am in Cusco, Peru, for three weeks now–the days have been both short and extremely long, but in the best of ways. My thoughts are twisting in and out of Spanish, and the possibility of altitude sickness at 3,400m (11,200ft) has been remedied by the mate de coca tea I drink each morning with breakfast.
While abroad, I’ll be studying at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, and living/mostly understanding/but also often making silly grammatical mistakes with my Spanish-speaking host family; my host-mom, Nancy, is patient with me when I ask for a sandwich de jabón in the morning, but mean jamón, my host-dad, Miguel, is much more reserved but smiles in approval or offers explanations of words lost in translation. Their daughter, Gabi, has shown me around the city a bit while she is on vacation from her university in Lima, and shares the same struggles of balancing life at home and life at school. Each evening around 8pm the whole family tunes in to Roja Fama Contrafama, a sort of hyped up Peruvian version of American Idol.
Every day, I allow for some exploring time, in my new home for the next four months. A short bus ride to the city’s center lets me off just a block from the Plaza de Armas, littered with American/European hippy backpackers who walk alongside Quechua women and children, dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing bursting with color. For one Nuevo Sol, the equivalent of about $0.39 American cents, visitors to Cusco city can pose for a photo with these women and their accompanying llama/alpaca/baby sheep sidekicks. Tourists sip on grande, non-fat, extra hot, skim latte, with extra whip cream from an upstairs café beside La Compañia, an ornate cathedral built in 1576 by the Spanish conquistadors, just one of the dozens of Catholic churches in the area. Street level, young Peruvian women with shirts declaring “Girls just wanna have fun” sell trinkets and tours to nearby Machu Picchu, remnants of the Inca Empire, built over 600 years ago. Cusco is an interesting mix of cultural tradition and the encroaching tourism industry, for which approximately 80% of jobs within the city limits rely.
Here’s a little show-and-tell of how I get to school each morning in los combis, more or less a renovated 15 passenger van, turned public bus. Speeding down the main Avenida de la Cultura, this little car crams is more like twenty-five businessmen and women, students, mothers and their children. A one-way fare is 60 céntimos, or about $0.23 in American money. With a student ID, I can get that down to 40 céntimos—a pretty good deal.
I tried to find a video as packed during morning and afternoon rush hour as it almost always is, but really, there would never be enough room to hold up a camera to take that video. You also have to be conscious of your money, camera, phone at all times, because pick-pocketing happens. Riding in los combis is a little a bit of an adventure every day: the jerking start-and-stop traffic down busy streets, women with their arms full of produce from local markets or small children in tow, and the boletero calling out upcoming bus stops as fast as an auctioneer spitting out bid offers and simultaneously divvying out change back and forth with hundreds of passengers every day. Hanging out the window or sliding door, the boletero calls out: Sube! Sube! (Get on, get on!) as passengers make their way towards the bus and baja! baja! (go down! or get off!) as they exit.