Working was the best decision I made. I discovered that I’m actually pretty good at serving people drinks and trying my best to make sure they have a good time. I made enough to cover my costs, while practically getting free Spanish lessons on the job. My boss insisted on speaking Spanish since we were in Peru after all, and his gf who worked the cashier didn’t speak any English, and everyone inside and outside the bar was curious where this foreign chinita came from and why she was working in a bar. I had a teach yourself Spanish book that I looked at in the morning to memorize a few phrases to practice that day, and carried around a pocket dictionary so people could point new words out to me. I was inundated with questions. Every day I would try to answer a couple more than the day before, then stopped, grinned, and said “well that’s all my Spanish for now.” They all  laughed and kept on firing Spanish at me.

Once or twice a week, I’d spend the afternoon baking for a small vegetarian restaurant. The range of ingredients were limited, and there was only one oven in the whole neighborhood where folks paid to bake their cuy (guinea pigs) and other local specialties. The heat distribution was uneven, made worse by the constant opening and closing of the oven door so honestly the cakes never quite came out the way I expected. But people didn’t seem to be very picky when it came to chocolate.


oven house, bakery, Cusco

my cake getting ready to join guinea pigs

public oven house, bakery, San Blas, Cusco

If I didn’t have to bake, I would walk down to Plaza de Armas after lunch and sit on the cathedral stairs to soak in the warm sun. If I had some money I would stroll to the little Cafe Dos x 3 owned by a discreet elderly man who made the best espresso and lemon tart. Some days I walked a few minutes beyond to the market and eat at the only spicy beef potato stall in the whole eateries area and then get a mixed juice on the way out. Further still is the flea market where everything was 3 soles a piece and I’d get them discounted at 2.50 soles because no Peruvians would look twice at the colorful kitschy pants and jackets that I loved. Walking home as the sun went down and the temperature dropped rapidly, I would sniff around to locate the grilled beef heart skewers anticuchos lady who always fired up a cloud of smoke and attracted a dedicated crowd. The other one that I’d be on the look out for but sometimes still missed because hers was a much quieter affair was the emoliente lady, mixing sweet herbal drinks of pollen, honey, linseed, barley, alfalfa, horsetail, cat’s claw, and half a dozen of I don’t know what. It seems like a cure all to the locals. The only thing I was sure of was that nothing tastier could warm my belly better in the cold night.

catheral, Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

emoliente, vendor, Cusco, Peru

emoliente lady

But best of all, I met an incredible bunch, lively hippie travelers/wanderers with hearts of gold that introduced me to a lifestyle that contrasted both to my conservative Vietnamese upbringing and my New England bourgeois/upper-class education.  The timing was perfect for that kind of carefree carpe diem: I was old enough to enjoy it fully, and young enough to not have to worry about any long-term consequences. We worked the nights in bars and restaurants as servers, cooks, musicians, got off our shifts and went dancing in empty after-hour clubs till dawn. On calmer nights, we would congregate in some small bar and close the door and talk stories while the guys jammed away. Or drifted to small shoddy dives to share 10-soles pitches of te macho (rum and tea). And when the night started to lose its darkness, we would trudge home, climbing up stairs after stairs although our legs were already numb from standing 10-12 hours, because we didn’t want to spend 2.5 soles for a 10 minute taxi ride. Some days too exhausted, we would rest at the cathedral, huddling up at the corner of the main gate, waiting for the first vendors to buy tamales or roasted pork if it was a Sunday to gain enough strength to make it back to our quarters. So little money, and always so much fun.

Cusco streets at night

Cusco, Peru, cheap hamburger stand

our hamburguesa mamita who sold the best burgers between 2-4am for 2 soles

Cusco, San Blas