Sunday, May 30, 2010

Altitude sickness and other challenges of group travel: The Peru Diaries, Part III

By the time we flew off to Cusco, the disadvantages of group travel were clearly outweighing the advantages.

True, in the airport on way to Cusco we again experienced one of the pluses of group travel—a tour leader to get you through the airport confusion. Although we speak some Spanish, an airport is not the best place to practice.

When we arrived in Cusco, we experienced the down side. If we were traveling by ourselves, we would have immediately checked into a hotel and decompressed. For me, flying is always stressful.

But this was a tour with no rest for the weary, and off we went to see some of the archaeological sites around Cusco before descending into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The day was spectacular: dazzling sunshine, an unbelievably bright blue sky. Unfortunately, Rick was getting altitude sickness and longed to get off the bus and lie down in a comfortable bed.

Through some quirk of body chemistry, I feel euphoric at 12,000 feet. I think my constant exclamations about the incredible scenic beauty really got on Rick’s nerves.

We didn’t stagger into our hotel until 7:00pm--beautiful hotel, terrible food. Since we were in the middle of nowhere, there were no other options for dinner other than the inedible food at the hotel.

Rick was still having some problems with the altitude, so we did not climb the impressive Inca fortress at Ollataytambo. I tried not to be too envious of the other tourists climbing the steps to the top. We had the spectacular view and enjoyed visiting the sites at the foot of the fortress.

Rick and I were the least physically fit of the members of our tour group—a generally 60 something group. We both resolved to work on this when we got home. (We haven’t)

Then we wandered around the town of Ollataytambo and visited an elementary school. Our tour group specializes in arranging experiences to give tourists some sense of people’s lives. A worthy goal, but I couldn’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling of being a voyeur from a privileged world. (In a global context, we Americans are all privileged although we may not think of ourselves that way)

The children were adorable and on their best behavior for foreign tourists, but the experience was depressing. The school lacked books, basic supplies and there were 12boys and only 4 girls in the class. Although education is theoretically compulsory in Peru, we learned it is not enforced. And although schooling is free, there are ancillary costs which must be borne by parents. A family with many children may have to choose which children they can afford to send to school. No surprise-- they are more likely to send their sons.

After the school visit, the group went river rafting. Rick and I opted out. We needed a respite from the non-stop chatter of the group and we also didn’t want to risk falling into the muddy Urubamba River. We began to realize how much more difficult group travel can be outside an urban area. When you’re in city, you can easily leave the group—just get a bus or taxi and go off to do your own thing. When you’re in a rural area, you are trapped.

And not only are you stuck with the group’s itinerary for the day, but you are stuck with the group’s pace. After a very good picnic lunch, I longed for a siesta, but there was no respite. We were off to see the town of Urubamba.

We stopped at the home of one of the local residents to witness the Peruvian custom of inviting the neighbors for freshly made chicha, a drink made from fermented corn. According to our guide, the small house was typical of most Indian houses in the past. It had a dirt floor, no windows, little furniture, and was filled with animals—mostly guinea pigs. It reminded me of the 19th century crofters’ cottages I saw in an open air historical museum in Scotland.

Fortunately, most Peruvians' lives have improved and the owner of the dirt floor cottage had built a much nicer structure adjacent to the cottage. For reasons I can’t explain, I felt like less of voyeur (and less uncomfortable) at the chicha ritual than I did at the elementary school. This was one of the advantages of the tour group-–a glimpse into another world we could never have entered on our own.

Also, the tour group arranged a home hosted dinner in Urubamba which was by far the best meal provided by the group. The young couple who hosted the dinner were very hospitable; we did not feel like voyeuristic tourists but rather like welcome guests in their home. It was certainly one of the highlights of the tour. So yes, there were positive experiences, but for us not enough to compensate for the loss of freedom.

Next installment: We finally get to Machu Picchu and it exceeded even my high expectations.

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