Peru is a place I never thought I would see. Or as some might say, it wasn’t on my “list.” However in 2007 I had the chance to go to Peru with EF Tours. I figured it was my chance to go to South America, so I might as well go. How many people can say they’ve been to Peru? What is there to see there? I was about to find out. After landing in Lima and spending one day there, I couldn’t wait for our flight to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capitol. Rising at 3am to catch our flight and yawning our way to the airport was just the beginning. Our one-hour flight across the Andes provided shades of brown, purple and blue and deep canyons stretching below. By 7:30 we were on the ground and now at an altitude of approximately 10,000 feet. The temperature felt like 25-30 degrees and caused me to shiver and wrap my jacket tighter around me. What a change for June! I had to remember, I was now below the Equator, where the seasons are opposite.
After a short bus ride to our hotel, we were greeted with warm cups of coca tea. Coca tea helps travelers adjust to the high altitude. It already seemed like half a day had passed since 3 a.m., but looking at my watch I discovered it was only 8:30. Our tour guide, gave us the “411” how to not get altitude sickness. Drink plenty of water, rest, don’t over exert yourself, eat light meals and if you feel sick…get oxygen immediately. We soon learned that oxygen tanks were readily available in almost every hotel and restaurant in town.
Venturing out, and meeting the people was an eye opening experience. Mountains of blue, gold and purple provided the backdrop to many of the ruins, including, Sacsaywaman and Ollantaytambo. Native people showing off their handcrafted goods greeted us at each stop. Their dark complexion served as a contrast to the reds, oranges and yellows they were wearing. Some led a llama or an alpaca, wanting us to take their picture. Children, who chatted away in Spanish, played alongside their parents. I immediately noticed one thing about all the natives we encountered. They were all smiling. Not just normal everyday smiles, but huge teeth showing smiles that lit up their faces. Of course, snapping their picture and then handing them a tip of 1 Sole (about 33 cents) seemed to make them smile even more. Surely a measly 33 cents wasn’t making them smile that much.
Driving through some of the remote villages we saw what seemed like shacks, scattered about the countryside, some clumped together to form a small village. Bright colored hand woven clothes hung on makeshift clotheslines sometimes stretching between two houses. Did they even have electricity? Running water? I couldn’t help but wonder. At each stop, children wanting to sell us postcards, finger puppets and other souvenirs bombarded our bus. Some tourists may have found this annoying, but I found it enjoyable to interact with these adorable, energetic kids. Walking through the markets, I noticed it again…everyone was smiling. What made these people so happy? They appeared to have next to nothing, and be living out in the middle of nowhere, depending on wealthy tourists to come and buy their goods. What could be so good about that?
After a day of shopping and sightseeing, I pulled out my iPod and settled in for the bus ride back to Cusco. Gazing out the bus window, I noticed several children running and playing in front of a house with a dirt yard. Thin curtains blew in and out of the windows of this house that appeared smaller than my hotel room. Chris Tomlin’s “I Stand Amazed” played on my iPod. I might have been the only one awake on the bus, but couldn’t resist the urge to sing softly to myself, careful not to wake my seatmate. The lyrics “How Marvelous, How wonderful….” played as I gazed at the scene unfolding before me. Clear blue sky for as far as I could see, crisp clean cool air and colorful mountains provided the backdrop to the children who seemed to not have a care in the world. What is there to NOT be happy about?
That night we were given the chance to try “Cuy” or guinea pig, for dinner. I passed. The vegetarian pasta was fine with me. The next night we were served grilled alpaca. I passed on that too. Peruvians may have some eating habits I did not agree with. However, I had learned that day that it doesn’t matter what possessions you do or don’t have, happiness is available to all who embrace it.