Repost: Karaoke Through The Andes: The Fun Side of Unpredictability

(Really) backstage before my "performance". Ollantaytambo, Peru
(Really) backstage before my “performance”. Ollantaytambo, Peru

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.

With the possibility of once again traveling freely around the globe glimmering on the horizon, this repost of a 2014 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 my dad’s insistence 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, trying to avoid eye contact as I made my way all the way to the back row. It was then that the guide continued her spiel in Spanish, and I suddenly 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 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, a 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. These were 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 to that point, 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 Latin 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!” Buckling to the pressure as the chants reached a crescendo, I made my way up the aisle to the sound of 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 home city—Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The crowd hushed as I 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! Nobody could make this stuff up and I was absolutely thrilled. With a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I held up the microphone.

“Start spreading the newwwwwwwws. I’m leaving todayyyyyyyy,” 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 their unabashed adulation all the way back to my seat at the rear of the bus. And as my fellow bus-mates continued singing for the remaining 1.25 hours of the trip (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 this: 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!

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Bite Size Destination Throwback: Peru 2010

Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru

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.

Destination: Peru

Year: 2010

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco, Peru

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

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

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.

Have you been to Peru? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Peru souvenir, check out the Peru Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & The Sacred Valley

For decades the forlorn majesty of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu have drawn travelers the world over. Ever since I first saw that first picture of those terraced green slopes precariously protruding out of the Andean jungle, I vowed to someday see it for myself. So I booked the flights, arranged my transport and lodging, and felt that thrill of knowing nothing was going to stop me from realizing my dream. Then, in early 2010, something did—namely water. Lots of it. Whole mountainsides full of it. So much water that the flooding and ensuing mudslides critically damaged the only infrastructure to and from that iconic outpost, with repairs due a very inconvenient month or so after I was scheduled to return home.


However, due to a bizarre combination of factors that might possibly disrupt the time/space continuum if I tried to explain it, it would have cost more for me to cancel my trip to Peru than to go. So, in order to protect the universe as we know it, I went, and in return received the mother of all consolation prizes: A memorable stay in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley completely unencumbered by that show-stealing, wanderlust-inducing prima donna up to its neck in water less than 100 miles away. Yes, the sideshow had become the main attraction and I couldn’t have been happier.

Despite my clever moniker, I need to be (kind of) serious for just one paragraph. If you intend to visit Cuzco or any other location situated over 11 thousand feet above sea level, be certain your lungs can handle it. Not five minutes after disembarking the plane, my father, whom I was traveling with, began struggling to breathe. Apparently the high altitude exacerbated a previously unknown respiratory infection, so instead of joining me in this Inca wonderland, he spent most of his time in a Peruvian clinic, sucking down giant tanks of oxygen like it was…well…air. Granted, this was an extreme and unforeseen case, but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that nugget of information along. So, if you don’t want to go the way of the conquistadores, see your doctor first before you book. That said, most people suffer little more than some mild shortness of breath and fatigue when they first arrive, which dissipates rather quickly the longer you stay.

Cuzco, once the capital of the far-flung Incan Empire and believed by them to be the center of the world, fell to Spanish invaders in the 1500’s. In turn, the new overlords denuded the city of its riches, tore down many structures and promptly built their own right on top of the existing (and much sturdier) Inca-built foundations. The result is a unique mix of architecture that blends Old World charm with even Older World engineering. Inca masonry consists of blocks of hewn stone in irregular shapes and sizes so perfectly fit together without mortar, that in many spots it would be really difficult to fit a knife blade between them. Picture in your mind a massive game of organic Tetris (cue maddeningly addicting music here) and you’ve got the idea.

At the hub of this menagerie of terra cotta and plaster is Plaza de Armas, the main square and site of the city’s famous cathedral. Branching off in all directions are narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, hole–in-the-wall restaurants, and indigenous people dressed in traditional garb standing next to the family llama, hoping for a few coins in return for the photo op. Seriously, there were so many llamas everywhere that I felt I was trapped in the end credits of Monty Python & the Holy Grail (you Anglophiles know exactly what I’m talking about).

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco
Llocals with their llama, Cuzco

Llamas aside, there are also a few museums and churches of note, but my favorite experience by far was just wandering the backstreets (not too far back—the neighborhoods can get kind of gritty), perusing the alpaca-centric handicrafts, and enjoying a grilled meat dinner (at times alpaca-centric as well) to be washed down with a pisco sour (the national drink) or a bottle of hyper-sweet Inca Kola, which I highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered what liquefied bubble gum would taste like.

Once you’ve satisfied your taste for colonial Spanish culture, it’s time to venture outside the city limits to see those Inca ruins that bring so many people here in the first place. At this point I must stress the necessity of having already purchased a Cuzco Visitor’s Ticket, which grants entrance to most attractions both in the city and in outlying regions. If not, you may find yourself stuck outside with the llamas. Most visitors opt for conveniently packaged tours that take in the numerous ruins on the outskirts of town, which can be arranged ahead of time or by one of the many travel agencies in town which rival the llamas in terms of sheer numbers. Since I was divvying my time between sightseeing and my father’s bedside, I can also vouch for the simplicity of just negotiating a price with a local cab driver, which will likely not be as informative, but certainly more flexible to your schedule.

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru
Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

The largest attraction just outside of town, is by far the imposing ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, perched on a bluff overlooking the city. Pronounced as the English term sexy woman, though with no apparent correlation, this cluster of monolithic stones and grassy ramparts made me wonder how any army might have gained mastery of it while being defended. It also made me wonder what I was thinking in telling my wife later on that I went to see Sacsayhuaman (sexy woman) today. And since her appreciation of the subtleties of Quechua terminology are tragically limited, I emptied my pockets of coins and took a great picture of an adorable baby llama just for her as sort of a peace offering.

Not much farther down the road are the ruins of Qenko, Puca Pucara, and Tambo Machay. Here there are great examples of traditional trapezoidal-shaped doorways and windows, an ancient altar, and just a great Inca vibe. In fact, most of the aforementioned ruins just begged the questions: Where is Indiana Jones? Where are they hiding that giant rolling boulder? And what’s with all these llamas? Now that you’ve whetted your appetite for all things Inca, it’s time to venture out into the heartland—the Sacred Valley.

Leaving the congestion of Cuzco behind, a favorite stop is Pisac, known for its colorful market and terraced hillsides above the town. Once again shopping opportunities abound, and yes, you can take a picture with a llama here as well. Following the meandering (and as was the case during my visit) swollen banks of the Urubamba River past the small, touristy town that bears the same name, visitors arrive at what could easily be the main attraction if it weren’t for that ‘other’ set of ruins that people come to see—the living Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru
Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Nestled at the base of the verdant valley, the terraced layers reach precipitously upward, forming an amphitheater with stunning views of the village below. Approaching the top of the fortress—once a strategic military post—there is an impressive set of granite monoliths forming a wall that both attests to the endurance of Inca craftsmanship, and leaves one silently pondering just how many llamas were necessary to haul them up there.

Back on the valley floor, there are preserved examples of stone irrigation and other structures that give a glimpse into the past, so long as you can envision the town without souvenir stalls. Still, standing there and looking around at the remaining buildings clinging to the mountainsides and absorbing the authenticity and sense of history, it was completely possible for me to say “Machu who?”

I know quite well that Cuzco and the Sacred Valley will always play second fiddle to the diva out in the hills, and honestly, I’d welcome the chance to return and compare them for myself. But to all potential travelers to the area, I say make some room for exploring the stage, not just its biggest star, and your trip to Peru will have been worth the effort. If not, you can take comfort in knowing that somewhere, very close, there will be a llama waiting just for you.