Life in the Sacred Valley – Week 1

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley

I promised myself that I wouldn´t be writing ridiculously long posts with minutiae about my travels, but alas, I just did.

While this is not a substitute for one on one communication, a lot of people have been asking me the same questions about Peru so I wrote a run down of some of the basics here. Sporadically visiting internet cafes isn’t all that conducive to the way I write, so admittedly it’s been somewhat difficult to sit down and get this going. I expected to be so distracted by the change of scenery in Peru that I’d have no time to reflect on the more difficult aspects of living in a foreign country. This is how I felt in Hong Kong, though my short time here has made me realize that even with all the difference between Hong Kong and New York, the two are still very similar given the easy access to modern amenities (well, at least for a privileged foreigner).

Both language and the lack of access to modern amenities have been the most frustrating, daunting part of my stay so far. Immediately upon arriving in Colombia for an overnight layover I ran smack into the language barrier. People would speak to me in Spanish and I would be at an utter loss – their blank, somewhat unfriendly looks in response only made it worse. This continued throughout my trip down to Cusco, and to some extent I began trying to avoid those situations. It definitely allowed me to gain a new perspective about immigrants who come to the US and don’t know English!! It was completely daunting and somewhat scary.

Despite that, now that I’ve been here a week, have begun Spanish classes and am studying on my own I’m becoming much more confident about my ability to communicate and learn the language. Learning Spanish while being immersed is an incredible experience – it’s so much different than sitting in a classroom day after day without the benefit of using it in every day life. It’s gratifying and exciting to see my knowledge of something with so practical a use expand daily. In addition, it’s pretty amusing that as I study Spanish my French is resurfacing… I hunt for how to say things in Spanish and come up with the French instead – I would hope that seven years of endless drilling wasn’t for naught!

As for the weather, a typical day in Urubamba seems to be a roller-coaster of temperatures. I expected to be basking in sunny warmth during my time in Peru, but that’s not really the case. The mornings are chilly though they tend to start out sunny. As the day goes on, it gets warmer and warmer and you regret the way you bundled up to go outside. Yet if you’re inside in the shade, the chill remains – there doesn’t seem to be any sort of heat or AC in the houses. About mid afternoon the clouds roll in and it rains for a bit of time, becoming chilly again. But wait!! It will probably be sunny and warm again before night falls, but will get progressively colder. Nights are cold. It’s normal for me to huddle under 5 blankets and still be freezing, but I’m also pretty sensitive to cold weather…

A typical street in Urubamba

A typical street in Urubamba

Compound chilly weather with the lack of hot water and ohhh my… the aforementioned lack of modern amenities: I have a sink full of dirty dishes from this morning’s breakfast because I can’t bring myself to suffer cold hands for the next few hours due to the icy cold water. The showers have electric showerheads that supposedly heat up the water as it goes through. Yeah, no. You might get some lukewarm water if you’re lucky but this is generally cold to me anyway. You have to throw out the toilet paper you use because the infrastructure can’t handle it – while I’m happy to have the use of toilets, I was stunned when I was first told that!

Transportation is rather sketchy, though I’m getting used to it everyday. Not sure if that´s such a good thing! On my arrival, the bus ride from Cusco to Urubamba featured a move that happens to be quite common – the driver cut into the opposite lane (seems double lines don´t matter here) to pass a slower moving vehicle and I gulped to see a truck coming at us in the other lane. There are only a few lights in Urubamba from what I’ve seen so far, directing traffic around the main square and no stop signs. Most of the streets are one way and when getting to an intersection a vehicle will honk to indicate it will be coming through. I guess it works, but I have to admit I hold my breath every time I’m in a vehicle that is speeding through an intersection. A popular way of going a short distance is to hail a moto-taxi, which is a motorcycle with a tent like seating area on the back of it. Buses are voluminous, though they are actually minivans and station wagons. The tourist vans and buses seem much more posh, so not to worry if you’re planning a trip.

Plaza de Armas and Moto Taxis

Plaza de Armas and Moto Taxis: I get amused when I see the batman symbol moto taxis.

I’m really happy and pleasantly surprised to say that the food is very good here, which is completely different from my experience in Hong Kong. There is a bakery on my block that makes wonderful croissants and Ciabatta bread (4 for 1 sole = 33 cents). I love croissants and it’s a habit to eat them wherever I can back home to see if I can find good ones (almost never). I came across a woman at the organic market today and came away with a haul of homemade: peanut butter, pecan nutella (I wouldn’t have taken a second look if not for the PECAN part.) annnnd passionfruit jam (oh passionfruit, how I love thee) for 40 soles ($12 USD).

Generally I’m really enjoying my time here. I can’t say I don’t get hit with homesickness – like when I’m trying to wash dishes in ice cold water, at a loss for something to drink because the tap water isn’t safe (You can buy bottled water but I keep saying I’m going to boil a pot so I don’t go accumulating plastic waste.), trying to figure out if the cheese I bought is still okay due to the refrigeration being so unreliable, or pecking at a Spanish keyboard in a dark internet cafe and totally cranky about it. It’s really when I’m wrestling with these new ways of living more than anything that I wish I were back in my comfort zone.

  • Jason

    You’re pecking away at a Spanish keyboard? Don’t have your computer with you? Or maybe it’s just unsafe to lug around in public – and probably no wifi.
    Have you been bold enough to ride in one of the tent-motorcycle-things? Er…mototaxi?

  • Erin O’Rourke

    I have my computer, but wifi is difficult to find here!! Lugging it around is also quite frustrating but not all that unsafe. But luckily I am borrowing a USB modem from the woman who owns the school I’m teaching at as she’s away. So I have internet at home for now.

    Admittedly it never occurred to me not to ride in the mototaxi?? As soon as I arrived in Urubamba we loaded my luggage onto the back and off we went… I’ve taken them a lot to get around!! I did hear of an instance in which the back tipped off when someone was riding in it, but it was more funny to me than scary. Mototaxis are the primary form of public transportation within Urubamba. They’re everywhere.