A lake of tiles, silting up the valley floor. Sat in the Cafe Nimbus, San Blas, we're part way up the valley wall, looking over the city, and can only see the clay reds of countless tiles. There's no high rise here, and the tallest buildings are the churches, some built on the foundations of Inca temples, they alone protrude through, small islands breaking the still surface of a coral reef. This is not a city built up, but a city where the earth was scraped back to the clay. We're above the surface, and I can't yet see the vibrancy below.
My flights here were long. On the toughest leg, Heathrow to Bogota, I sat in seats far too small, sandwiched between a lady made entirely out of elbows, and a body-builder. It's nice to be able to put my arms back by my side, where they belong. The body-builder, upon embarking, had played two swift games of backgammon against the aircraft computer, lost horribly, and then watched 17 consecutive episodes of the 'Big Bang Theory', arms crossed in sullen, furious silence.
My travel buddy, Jess has been here for 7 months, teaching, and knows the place well. She's not yet done much of the tourist stuff, and my visit is a good excuse to travel further.
I'm tired, and not yet ready to meet the city face-to-face, so we grab a beer nearer the heart of this city, first floor balcony, below the tiles, above the people. A strange kind of metallic brass colour is popular with car owners here, and we decide to name it 'Burnished Turd'. The game is on to find as many in a row as possible. A 'Double Floater' is soon achieved, but a Triple proves harder. Lady traffic cops (less corruptible, apparently) are directing the flow, with green gloves and sharp whistles. Jess has a game too, 'Punch Buggy'. If you see a VW beetle, call the colour, and punch your buddy on the arm. She doesn't miss, and she doesn't take prisoners.
A wander round Cusco
Our feet take us uphill, balconies hang over intermittent pavement. Everything is stone cobbled, and worn slick with feet, paws, tyres. The light that pours over this city is an energetic stream, sparkling and breaking over tiles, on polished surfaces, faking wetness, the roads shine. On this street, shops are down dusty grey stairs to our left, sunk below us. A man is delicately repairing ancient cathode ray tubes with the care and touch of a master surgeon. This next shop makes costumes for parades. Sequined audacious attire is draped round a pair of mannequins, coloured clownfish for our reef.
Cars roam up the street, bouncing, holding on. Old cinquecentos, battered with age and service, each now made unique through a thousand trivial collisions, doors overlap and don't meet, an ever evolving tactile geometry. Here's a Beetle, I think that means something important.
"Red one!" *Smack*, oh yes, that game.
The railway descends into town through this area, threading precipitously along edges, buried in cobbles. A man with a red flag stands by a crossing. The train rolls in, relying on its horn to clear the way. Flag-man just watches it through without moving, another day's work done.
The streets are shared with animals here. There are three main types.
1) The alpaca. Each is gently led by a lady in immaculate traditional dress. Passive, fluffy, they earn their keep by posing for photos, and producing excess fluff for woolly items. When climbing stairs, their two ends operate entirely independently, a pantomime horse unable to separate after the show.
2) The dog. Asleep where the sun is warmest, feral coats of deep fur, gentle natures born of true street wisdom. Keep your head down, bother no-one, you'll be ok. The males play-fight and mark territory, the bitches, fat-nippled, barrel-round, trot keenly home to secret nests of pups. A shared city of layers.
3) The most feral animal of all, the pasty white dude with dreads. Mysterious, uncommunicative. Sometimes they juggle clubs in shaded squares, as they pause in their endless migration to where they might find themselves. Here, where the hallucinogens are rich on the ground, they overwinter, and fatten their dreadlocks for spring.
As the road falls back into town, the density increases. A dentist's shop displays a remarkable failure to understand basic psychology with a promotional board graphic with broken, abused teeth, and brutal industrial drilling equipment. Next is a disability supplies shop, wheelchairs, crutches, all at the top of a flight of difficult, distressed, angular stairs. The road broadens into San Pedro, church, square and great market. The church steps are home to those who would sleep a contented afternoon away. Old men, shapeless in undefined layers, under wide felt hats. Dogs sprawled on the lower steps. A gentle sharing of time.
The great market is a two-tier cathedral of corrugated metal, a forbidden palace of wiggly sheets. From tourist tat at the top, the market progresses through fruits mysterious; granadillas, aguaymantos, cherimoya, maracuyás, giant elongated pineapples, mixed melons, fat mangos, avacodos of great girth, pumpkins so large they are sold by the slice, knobbly lúcumas, and a jungle fruit that looks like a big Jerusalem artichoke but tastes of fig. Then there are cheese stalls, selling plump round pressed rounds, maker's name stamped across. Next there's a shop selling mummified alpaca fetuses for traditional ceremonies. I almost buy a few for gifts, but at four feet long, I doubt they'd fit in my suitcase.
Finally it's the meat section. The sweet cloying death smell aggressively fills the spaces in the thin air. A stench of animals dissected and reduced from totality to cuts, all in the here and now. Guts, organs, teeth, eyes, flesh, a physical flavour of digestion, vitality, decay. The butchers themselves are framed fully by their work, great stalls occupy the market centre, and outside, overspill. Ladies with just a few de-furred guinea pigs on a metal plate. A carnival of bared teeth, eyes fixed, sickly aromas and an uncertain underfoot.
Jess tells me that in the Cathedral, there's a version of the last supper painted, where one of the items on the dinner table is Guinea pig.
We're walking away further from the tourist areas, and commerce becomes both greater in volume and more desperate in scope. Small essentials are piled and hung, shop premises overflow with a thousand cheap nothings. Keys are cut, pans and shoes mended, sales smaller and smaller to vendors less and less fixed.
Suddenly we're in Calle Melera. Literally 'The street you take your dog for slaughter'. But clearly it has gentrified, as now this is a street entirely of piñata shops. And what a sight! Is there another product either so colourful, or displayed entirely hanging down from the ceiling? Stars, icons, cartoon characters, here is no end to the variety. Stunned, I blunder back into one. This earns a rebuke, and I am reminded that standard policy is 'You pop it, you pay for it'.
Knitware is king in this city. As fast as the alpacas can extrude fibres, they are consumed by the needles of the many knitting stallholders of Cusco. Balls of bright dyed wools collapse into a vortex of clicking sticks. I watch a lady, custodian of her mountain of woolens, devour a yellow ball, and astonish as a perfect yellow hat forms like a lichen on rock as if by high speed timelapse. Seconds later, and eye and a few other details are added, and it's a minion hat, to be added to the others on the pile. Guys knit here too, on their way to market, walking the roads. Seconds are not wasted.
I'm aware of a hierarchy of hats. The poorest wear the plain felt hats, unadorned, uncertain edges. Some traditional hats are on top of the head rather than over it, round, deliberate, pastel greens and browns. Better off ladies have white hats, tall, sharp edged, angled and round. 90 degree brims. The wealthy sport great waxed hats with leather bands, red, yellow, or shaped lattices with flowers inbuilt. Then I see my dream hat.
Worn by a school child, this hat is a simple felt hat, dark green, but it sweeps forward from a bluff back to a rounded, swimming front, like the prow of a tea clipper. Soft sweeps meet, and the lines are a hat of perfection, cutting the air without wake. I will find myself a hat like this.
"Brown one!" *crunch* I need to pay more attention.
We go to see Alpaca Lady. She keeps a shop of Alpaca wool clothing, down from the 12 angled stone, a perfect cut rock, guarded at all times by an Inca in full dress. "Be warned, she may pinch your bum", Jess mentions, as we enter the shop. I peruse, and buy an alpaca wool sweater for the cold nights ahead in the mountains. It's dark green, and impossibly soft. Alpaca Lady gives me a free Alpaca key ring with my jumper. Later, I feel a surprising pang of disappointment when I realise that my bum has gone unpinched.
"Green one" *Smack* Ow.