South America Diary: Day 11

Monday, 25 April, 2011. 09:40. On the boat to Puerto Maldonado.

Big Wing We got up at 06:50 for breakfast at 07:00. The only people who showed up were us, Lyn and Gary, and Phan, almost exactly the people who didn’t stay up in the bar last night. Breakfast was again fresh fruit, followed by eggs.

During the night, Kim had fallen ill with what Ale said was a stomach infection. She had her on electrolyte replacement and said she would take her to a doctor once we get to Cusco.

After breakfast, we packed for the trip again, throwing all our damp stuff into a laundry bag until we got to Cusco. A lot of our stuff has dirt on it from yesterday’s mud, including bits of my camera gear. Clean it all off later, I guess!

We were half an hour early for the boat, so M. looked at the shop in the lodge and bought a souvenir sleeveless T-shirt with monkeys on it, while I wandered the garden, taking some photos of the lodge. I managed to get some great shots of an owl butterfly – huge! Saay said one of the biggest in the jungle, with great eye spots on the wings. He said they eat nectar, fruit juice, and even lick from carcasses of animals for the salts.

Then it was on to the boat for the 50-minute ride upriver to Puerto Maldonado. Kim appeared, looking a bit pale, and nursing a large bottle of water, which she keeps sipping from. Hope she’ll be okay.

Next stop is the markets in Puerto Maldonado, and then on to the airport for the flight to Cusco.

Aguaje fruit (Written next day.)

I didn’t write any more diary on the 25th because it was a combination of hectic and resting up not doing anything at all.

The hectic began when we got off the boat at Puerto Maldonado. A bus met us to take us to the Corto Maltes office, where some of the group stayed to repack their luggage or just rest, while Andrew, Phan, Jian, Zaina, Zeeshan, M., and I went with Saay on the bus to the local market in town. Saay gave us a tour of the market, showing us various nuts and fruits grown locally. The first stop was a juice seller, who had a pile of scaly red fruit from the tall palm trees we’d seen yesterday on our expedition near Lago Sandoval. I learnt later the tree is the moriche palm and the locals call the fruit aguaje. The scales separated when peeled off, so peeling the fruit was labour-intensive. Under the scales is a dark yellow flesh, which Saay had us try as he scraped the scales off. It was sour. Saay said the juice had female hormones in it and was good for women. It was also jokingly aid that men who drank it could change sex! He bought a plastic bag of juice and let us all try it. As juice it was sweet and nice, a little like mango.

Maracuya Next we went to a nut vendor, who had brazil nuts in all shapes and forms: plain, candied, crushed and mixed with honey, baked into biscuits, and so on. Andrew bought a bag that must have been a kilo of plain nuts, while M. bought a plastic tub containing an assortment of bite-sized pieces prepared in various ways. Further along, we saw more fruit, with Saay cutting open two different types of passionfruit (known locally as maracuyá): a larger, darker yellow one, which had the more usual tangy passionfruit flavour; and a small, paler yellow one, which had sweeter pulp.

We quickly passed a meat and fish seller, but didn’t have time to stop and look as Saay hurried us back to the bus. Somehow, Phan had managed to find time to stop and buy a bunch of necklaces made of various nuts and seeds, including the famous vegetable ivory. Although it was only twenty minutes or so, it was great to visit the market and see all the stalls. Besides produce, there were people selling all sorts of things: batteries, toys, clothes, electrical appliances, mattresses, etc. Along one outside edge of the market were small workshops, each with a workman and tools for doing various jobs like fixing shoes, locksmithing, and so on.

First plane in Back at the Corto Maltes office, we picked up our luggage and the rest of our tour group to head to Puerto Maldonado Airport. There we checked in and got boarding passes. M. and I had seats in rows 6 and 21, Lyn and Gary apparently had a problem with their seats and were making a fuss about it. We later found out they had also been given separated seats and decided to try to get adjacent ones, which they managed to get. It didn’t bother us for the 30 minute flight to Cusco though. Once checked in, I walked outside to take photos of an old propeller plane, decaying on the grass near the parking area. Ale said it was the first plane to ever land in Puerto Maldonado. Apparently it landed, but never took off again! Later I learnt it was a Russian Antonov An-2.

Steep street Heading to Cusco, which is at an altitude of 3,400 metres, we were all discussing the possibility of altitude sickness. Ale had given us an information sheet about it, listing symptoms and precautions, and a space to fill out to record any symptoms we have so that there is a record of progression just in case it starts to get serious and medical attention is needed. Some people were more worried than others, Olivia and Phan mostly. Olivia bought some coca candies in the airport and shared them around. I tried one and it just tasted sweet, with a bit of a herbal taste. Kim was still struggling with her illness, but put on a brave face.

The flight was routine. It’s interesting to notice that Cusco is obviously in a valley and the airport seems to be almost at the lowest point of the valley, so as the plane is flying in to land you can actually see mountains towering above the plane on both sides, maybe only a kilometre or so away. It must be a bit like doing the trench run on the Death Star. We landed, claimed our bags, and walked out to the car park, where a bus was waiting to take us to our hotel. The drive was pretty much uphill all the way, passing out of the suburbs to a higher part of the valley, where the centre of town is located. We drove through the Plaza de Armas and saw the main cathedral before heading up another hill to the Mama Sara Hotel.

Cusco plaza Ale had told us to lie down and rest for half an hour after checking in, so we did so. I was actually developing a headache and was a bit short of breath, so lay down as instructed, with no pillow so my head was low. After the rest, we went with Ale for a walking tour of Cusco. She asked if we’d like lunch first, and since it was now about 15:00 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast at 07:00, we voted for that.

Ale led us to a nice looking place called The Muse, where we perused the menu. She recommended something light to avoid heavy digestion taking blood from the brain. They had a good selection of vege dishes, but Lyn for some reason raised an objection about Ale taking us somewhere for one of our meals that was not included in the prepaid tour package. She shouted, “Where’s the choice?” and stormed out, followed by Gary, and then Ale racing after them. Presumably they talked outside, because Ale only reappeared after some time and said that Lyn and Gary wouldn’t be eating with us or doing the walking tour. We’re not sure what set Lyn off, but she had been making negative comments about how little jungle wildlife we’d seen (I’d thought it was really good, on the other hand – Monkey Island didn’t live up to its name, but otherwise we saw some really cool animals), then there was the seating trouble at the airport, and just before going to lunch they’d had to switch hotel rooms because of a problem with the safe, so perhaps it had been building up over time. Anyway, I ordered a chunky vegetable soup and M. had a toasted cheese sandwich. These were hot and good, and really hit the spot.

Chili! After paying, Ale led the remainder of us, also minus Kim sick and Laura staying at the hotel with her, on a tour of the local market. This was similar to the one in Puerto Maldonado, but with an emphasis on produce and no consumer goods. Outside was a gathering of people watching a man doing a traditional Inca dance in a costume with bare chest. Ale said it was a special ritual for Easter.

The fruit and vegetable sections of the market were cool and interesting, but then Ale led us through the meat section which was, frankly, disgusting. Firstly, the smell hits your nostrils and you just want to run away. Ale said it would probably be a bit unpleasant for us, but to avoid covering our mouths as this would be seen as a serious insult by the women selling the meat. There was no refrigeration or ice – just slabs of raw meat piled on tables with flies buzzing around. The meat wasn’t fully butchered either. There were whole heads of various animals and some more or less intact carcasses simply lying on the concrete floor. As we walked through it, the smell became almost unbearable. I had a moderate headache as well because of the altitude, and that didn’t help. And then besides meat, there was offal as well. There were enormous bowls filled with intestines, kidneys, or whatever else. A lot of it I didn’t recognise and really didn’t want to. And there was a dog there in the middle of it all, walking up and down the aisle! I really couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and thankfully we left the area reasonably quickly. Andrew later told us he used to work in food safety inspection, and he lost count of the number of violations he’d just witnessed.

Easter Bread Woman Further along, we came to much nicer areas, where there was bread and other baked goods. Ale bought a loaf of the traditional Cusco style Easter bread, a round dome about 40 centimetres across and ten centimetres thick in the middle, with a pale yellow colour and a light and slightly sweet interior. We each tried a piece and Andrew finished the rest off.

Next was an area with women selling cocoa and coffee. They had bags of coffee beans and ground coffee that must have been over a kilo each. A woman was selling chocolate in loose pieces or wrapped bars that had been made in a factory. We bought a bar of “bitter” eating chocolate. Olivia wanted to buy the cooking chocolate, saying she liked dark chocolate, but Ale said it was bitter and only for cooking. I had to step in and tell Olivia that it was going to have no sugar and be like 99% cocoa, which she said she’d tried once. With this knowledge she switched to a more suitable choice for eating.

Iglesia de San Pedro, Cusco The market done, it was starting to get dark. Ale led us through some streets back to the main square, which was gorgeous in the fading light with its Spanish colonial architecture. Ale left us there, saying to meet at hotel reception at 20:00 for dinner. M. and I walked up the slope the few hundred metres to the hotel, slowly, with me getting more short of breath as we went. We finally made it, and I collapsed on to the bed with a splitting headache and panting heavily. I rested motionless for about half an hour, until the symptoms slowly faded, the headache reducing to a dull one and my breathing returning to normal. While I rested, M. had a shower and declared herself to feel much better after washing off the grime of the day of travel.

At 20:00 we assembled in the lobby. I told Ale about my headache and she confirmed I had altitude sickness. She said to have a light dinner and drink lots of water and let her know if it got any worse.

Cusco night The dinner group consisted of me and M., Andrew, Zaina and Zeeshan, Phan and Jian, plus Ale. She asked us which of three options we’d like: a nice, expensive restaurant, a moderately priced restaurant with food not as fancy, or a “rustic” place with simple food. Everyone opted for the last one, so Ale led us to Nuna Raymi, where they had some traditional Peruvian dishes, plus other things with different influences. I had the Trucha dos Imperios – trout in a sauce of lemon and chili, with some broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. It was very good. M. wasn’t very hungry after the late lunch, so just ordered an appetiser of chips, which was a bowl of thinly sliced and crisp-fried chips made from four different types of potatoes. What a dinner!

Before the food arrived, Phan felt nauseous and had to run to the toilet to throw up. While this was happening, Ale’s phone rang. It was Lyn calling because Gary had become very sick. Ale paid for her meal in case she didn’t come back, but told us she’d try to be back in half an hour. When Phan emerged from the toilet, Jian suggested she go back to the hotel with Ale, but Phan stubbornly said she’d stay, she didn’t want to inconvenience Ale. Then we explained that Ale was just leaving anyway to attend to Gary, and Phan agreed to go with her. When Phan’s chicken soup arrived, Jian told the waiter “take away”, and the waiter nodded and… took it away. I asked i maybe the waiter thought he meant “take this away from the table” rather than “pack this to be taken away”. Jian leaped up and raced after the waiter to confirm the meaning. That left just five of us at the table – all of the Australians in the group. We commented on how tough we were, being the survivors. Jian returned to our conversation and we pointed out that logically he would be the next one knocked out. I said it was like an Agatha Christie novel as members of our tour group were being eliminated one by one. Ale didn’t return, so we had her meal packed to go too, and M. took it back to the hotel for her.

We caught taxis back, not wanting to exert ourselves by walking up the hill. The glass hotel doors were covered with an old heavy wooden night door, which we had to get a hotel employee to open a cubby door in for us. Still feeling not 100%, I didn’t write any diary or have a shower, electing to fall into bed. Cusco is a very nice town, with quite a few tourists around, and the facilities to cater for them, with plenty of hotels and restaurants, but also a lot of local charm and colour.

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