It’s now been over a decade since I visited the Inca wonderland of Peru. The awesomeness of the country is evident in that fact that even though everything went wrong (Machu Picchu closed for mudslides, my dad winding up in the hospital for respiratory problems, an unexpected extended stay) it was still an incredible destination. Looking back, it’s not the bad stuff I remember, it’s the majesty of the Andes, the massive glory of the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and most of all, the warmth and friendliness of the local Peruvians I was fortunate enough to meet.
What Brought Me There
When I was a young boy, I distinctly remember seeing an image of Machu Picchu in an old book and thinking: someday I have to go here! In February of 2010 I thought I would finally get to reach that goal. But a series of mudslides damaged the train route to that remote citadel, and the government decided to close the site for a month – very inconveniently during the time I was scheduled to arrive with my dad as a week-long pre-trip to a Central American cruise. As a consolation prize, I got to spend my time in the amazing Sacred Valley, which also was the setting for one of my favorite unscripted travel moments.
What I Loved
From the moment I stepped off the plane in Cuzco, the Andes took my breath away – both figuratively and literally. The lush green mountains and terraced slopes were everything I had imagined it would be. In particular I was fascinated by the Inca ruins with their incredibly fitted stones that have kept them standing when so many less-quality buildings have been destroyed.
Most of all I loved the people. Even though I was incredibly stressed at my dad’s health situation, to a person they treated me kindly, and made me feel welcome despite the obvious fact that I was a tourist. Even on the darkest day I had there, I can still fondly think back on sitting on a terrace overlooking the main square in Cuzco, after a meal of pollo asado washed down with super-sweet Inka Cola, and feeling a measure of contentment through all that anxiety. To me, that’s a great testament to the character of the place.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
As already mentioned, Machu Picchu still remains untouched by my footsteps, and I would welcome the chance to finally get to stand atop that world famous landmark that mesmerized me as a young child and gaze about. I would also like the chance to check out the Rainbow Mountain and make my way towards the Bolivian border and Lake Titicaca.
Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. Traveling is the best vehicle I know to generate scenarios that are 100% unscripted. Some may shudder at the wanton unpredictability of various elements combining to create circumstances that border on the absurd or beyond, but not me. I find those random occasions where you find yourself in a place you’d never imagined, with people you’ve never met, doing something you ordinarily would not do, some of the most delicious morsels of a traveling experience—which often make the best stories as well.
Building on my self-proclaimed ‘travel philosophy’, this entry focuses on the unexpected fun and laughs that could be had on a journey even for those who aren’t opportunistic by nature. The key lies in 1) recognizing the opportunity when it presents itself, and 2) grabbing hold of it with both hands so that the experience doesn’t pass you by. My own favorite anecdote illustrating these two factors took place in February of 2010, high up in the Peruvian Andes. The story goes like this:
Due to some serious health troubles my father discovered only when we landed in the high-altitude city of Cuzco, my stay there in that enchanting city was understandably a bit distracted. (See my post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & the Sacred Valley for more details). Once his situation was under control, the only option available was to wait for him to recuperate sufficiently for a flight back down to sea level. At his insistence—on our last day there—I left his bedside and was rushed to a waiting bus on the outskirts of town to tour the Sacred Valley—a portion of the tour I’d had to skip earlier for obvious reasons. I remember the curious stares as I exited the taxi and boarded the waiting coach, making my way all the way to the back row. It was then that the guide continued her spiel in Spanish, and I realized that there wasn’t going to be any English on this trip. It turns out that my fellow bus-mates were mildly well-to-do tourists from a sizable sampling of South American nations, and I was the lone gringo.
If this were the U.S. and I was on a city bus in Queens, perhaps I’d feel uncomfortable being so far out of my element. But here, amidst this coalition of good-natured Latinos, the unpredictability factor first revealed itself, and instead of being an outcast, this group of strangers—even amongst themselves—went out of their way to include me in the most interactive bus ride I’d ever been on.
Starting with our stop at Chinchero, continuing on into our so-so lunch at Urubamba, vigorous walk up the ruins of Ollantaytambo, and final stop in Pisac, I found myself in the midst of a gaggle of genuinely friendly—and fun—people who disposed with the standoffishness so common in tour groups in North America & Europe. People who embraced everyone & everything with unflappable enthusiasm as part of the experience. Sufficiently disarmed, I was then primed for what happened next.
On what was going to be a two hour ride back to Cuzco, the guide got on her microphone at the front of the bus and playfully chided some tour members who were a little late returning on board with the ‘punishment’ of having to come up front and sing a song from their home country. As a lifelong New York resident, I could not conceive of a scenario in my hometown—or homeland—where such a request would fly, let alone be accepted. But then that unpredictability factor struck again. Not only did the latecomers belt out their favorite tunes, but the rest of the passengers couldn’t wait for their chance to perform, as if it were auditions for Peruvian Idol. As an added bonus, their fellow passengers were an enthusiastic audience, clapping, cheering and singing along—except for me, since I was limited to only clapping and cheering due to my ignorance of the Latino Top 40. This was fine with me. I was having a blast and at the same time managing to stay out of the spotlight—until about the 45 minute mark.
Thanks to some ‘friends’ sitting next to me, it was pointed out—quite emphatically I might add—that I had yet to perform for the group. This provoked a deafening chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” While I wouldn’t consider myself a patriot, I did feel a sense of obligation to represent my birth nation, and certainly didn’t want to do anything to undermine American diplomacy in Latin America. So as the chants reached a crescendo I made my way up the aisle to applause and a sea of smiling faces brimming with anticipation.
In my simple yet passable Spanish, I explained the obvious: I was a gringo and I didn’t know any Latin songs. As an alternative, I was going to sing a song from my city—Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The crowd hushed as a readied myself, hearing only the drone of the tires and the creak of luggage swaying in the overhead bins. Stealing a glance out of the windows at the deep green of the majestic Andes passing by, I could not help but take a mental snapshot of the absurdity of my situation—and just how much fun it was to find myself in it. I just couldn’t make this up and I was absolutely thrilled. With a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I held up the microphone.
“Start spreading the neeewwws. I’m leaving todaaayyy,” I crooned.
I should add that right from the get-go my adoring audience was swaying in unison and singing along the best they could. I continued warbling as we rounded one hairpin turn after another, and with each passing kilometer my confidence grew until I was fully ensconced in the moment, wailing out the words at the top of my lungs while my fans kept up an a capella rendering of the brass instrumentals (daht daht dah-dah-dah, daht daht dah-dah-dah). Upon my rousing conclusion—holding that last note until I couldn’t breathe in the already thin air—I shouted out in my best British Rock Star accent, “Thank you, Peru! G’night!” and basked in the unabashed adulation all the way back to my seat in the rear of the bus. And as my fellow bus-mates continued singing for the remaining 1.25 hours (including a hysterical, accent-laden rendering of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part II) I laughed inwardly, delighting at how never in a million years would I ever have thought I’d be party to such a scene and marveling at how such unscripted occasions are truly what makes life worth living.
So my advice is: While traveling—whether in your home country, a far-off land, or even the back roads of Peru—keep an eye out for the unpredicted opportunities that could possibly be that story you’ll tell for the rest of your days. It just might be the experience you never thought you were waiting for.
Do you have a story of the unexpected delights that unfold while traveling? Share them with all of us by leaving a comment!