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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


Cusco summer 2009,

The funny thing about Cusco is that I never intended to be there. Not knowing a thing about Latin America, I still knew that it’s the tourist mecca of the region, and I wanted an authentic Peru experience. And yet, I went there as a stop for Qoyllur Rit’i, came back, and stayed. I was far from being the only one that got suck into this navel of the universe (Qosqo’s meaning in Quechoa). If anything, I was among those that left relatively quickly to go back to other worldly commitments.

Cusco, Peru, red brick tile roofs

view from my room balcony

I remember Cusco days and the friends I made there often and fondly, speaking of them with a wide smile on my face. Yet it was not at all rosy in the beginning. I cried every day during the first two weeks because I was shocked at the every-minute machismo. Men who think it’s alright to make repeated advances anywhere anytime, even when I told them “no, I don’t want to go out with you or kiss you, and i just told you that earlier this morning and haven’t changed my mind in the past couple of hours.” It was beyond frustration because sometimes I wanted to snap and lash out to let them know that I’d had more than enough and why what they were doing wasn’t acceptable, but I knew few phrases of Spanish and their English wasn’t very good. Oh, and by the way, I hated being called chinita.

I went to the few Irish bars around the central plaza de armas to look for work because the tip was reputedly good, but they didn’t have any positions. Wandering from bars to bars at the suggestion of their staff, I ended up in a dingy cavern. The boss agreed to take me almost immediately even though most of his customers were Spanish speakers and my Spanish wasn’t enough to last 30 seconds. He even asked me to come back to work that same night, which made me thoroughly uneasy, so I told him I could only start from the next night because I wanted to spend time with a friend before she had to leave. That friend was Sara; I brought her that night to the bar so that she could vouch for me. She judged that 7 Angelitos wasn’t such a seedy place after all. I found a room 15 minutes walk away in the same neighborhood, San Blas, and that’s how this barrio full of steep staircases became my home for the next few months.

Plaza de San Blas, Cusco, peru

looking up from Plaza de San Blas

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Every day before we opened, I had to walk around – usually down in Plaza de Armas because we were already quite known in San Blas – and hand leaflets to passers-by. It was up to that point the most embarrassing thing I had ever done in my life. I’d been to plenty places where everyone tried to make you take something, and that’s downright annoying. So I made a point to never insist. Still I had to smile and greet and talk to everyone, even if they looked downright hostile and I could clearly see myself reflected in their eyes as a big nuisance or worse. And I had to carry it out while parroting the few phrases in Spanish that I could barely muster: Tenemos musica en vivo todas las noches, y dos veces de happy hour. We have live music every night, and happy hours twice. Aqui tiene nuestro programa de la semana. Here is our program for the week. The skin on my face grew incredibly thick.

In Quechoa, Qoyllur Rit’i means snow star and the festival is said to originally celebrate the turning of seasons. Today the story often told about Qoyllur Rit’i is that of the miracle of Christ, a perfect example of syncretism not only in Latin America but around the world where Catholicism has so successfully appropriated local traditions and beliefs and turned them Christian. The story goes: an indigenous herder boy, lonely in the mountains where he works, once meets a mestizo (mixed) boy of his age and they quickly become good friends. The herder boy is grateful for company, and also happy because his flock keeps growing. His dad, satisfied, decides to let him to go Cusco and buy new clothes. The boy also wants buy new ones for his mestizo friend, who has been wearing the same outfit day after day. So he takes a sample from his friend’s clothes and goes around Cusco asking to buy more. None of the stores has any, and one finally informs him that it is used exclusively for the bishop. The boy’s quest gets to the ears of the bishop, who concludes that someone must have stolen the fabric from his stock. He sends out troops to the mountain to capture the mestizo boy. The troops find the boy, but the moment they charge forward, he radiates intensely to blind them and disappears. The herder boy, thinking that his friend has been harmed, becomes so stricken that he dies and is buried under a rock on that spot.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping, indigenous, church

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

Viva Cristo-Rey rock


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

lighting candles along church wall


A church was built to house the burial rock upon which was etched miraculously the image of Christ (not very credible to my faithless eyes). Pilgrims line up to pay homage, and the ground in front of the church is also the main stage that all dance groups rotate through. The procession is never ending. I am simply amazed at the strength that faith gives people to carry out such feats: whether it is to dance non-stop for days, or to carve temples out from rock mountains.

There are quite a few different groups in very unique attires performing different types of dances. Stand out the most are the Ukuku in bear costumes using their whips to keep the crowd in order. They dance with their whips too, engaged in lashing battles. My understanding is that sometimes it’s a young guy getting lashed to the point of bleeding as a form of initiation into this group of powerful mythical half-man half-bear. In front of God’s eyes, he proves his strength and worth. Other groups that have very distinctive and colorful costumes include the Ch’unchu wearing feather headdresses which embody their indigenous ancestry, and the Qhapag qolla carrying intricately embroidered boards and llama skins on their back, representing the mestizo merchants.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Ukuku, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Ukuku whip dance


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Qhapaq qulla, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qhapaq Qolla


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance   Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

I was having the best and worst time of my life. On the one hand, I’d never been to a grander festival, out in the middle of the mountains to boost. There was always more dances to watch, more stories to listen to. On the other hand, I had the most severe pain on my back; it felt like my lungs had collapsed and I could hardly breath. I couldn’t walk much, and only very slowly. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache and a sore body, and wondered if I’d make it to the next morning. Inexperienced, I thought it was because of the cold and the noise and didn’t realize much later that they were all classic signs of altitude sickness. I didn’t know we were at 4700m. Luckily, it didn’t turn much worse. It’s hard to believe but the majority of the pilgrims don’t sleep in tents but outside under tarps and plastic sheets in below freezing temperature; many of them don’t wear shoes.

On the last night, the Ukuku leaders from each community climb Apu Sinakara – one of the sacred mountains worshipped as gods – in darkness to reach the summit at first light, where they chop off a block of ice to bring back to their people. Its pure water dispels all troubles and sickness, preparing the community for a new cycle of life. However, some groups now summit without carrying any ice back. Climate change and the ever growing numbers of pilgrims mean that the ice is not as abundant now as it once was.

Here it is believed that if you walk and pay homage to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i three times, preferably in a row, your wish will be granted. I made a wish then, and still have two more times to complete.

Cusco June 2009,

Got off the worst bus ride of my life! I’d lived in India, where I regularly took over cramped buses that lasted 18 to 20 hours, but nothing compared to this Lima-Cusco ride although I had a big soft seat all to myself right on the first row of the nicest bus. First row, that might have been the origin of my misery. Paulo, my host in Lima, insisted booking it for me so that I could have the best view. The view was too much as the bus climbed up the mountains, turning sharply every 30 seconds. I ended up getting the worst motion sickness and kept throwing up. Or tried to. There was actually nothing for me to throw up because I was so sick I couldn’t eat. It sounded like I was puking my gut out through my mouth. 22 hours and 3600m later, the ordeal ended.

As sick and disoriented as I was, I hurriedly left to look for Sara, another Peruvian CSer that I had contacted through the site’s message board when I learned that she was going to an indigenous festival that sounded really cool. We only had a couple of days in Cusco before the main festival started. Sara and I quickly warmed up to each other. She’s a well-traveled environmental scientist and conservationist and I stayed under her wing for the following week. I was clueless and didn’t know a word of Spanish. I simply followed Sara around as she brought me to meetings where she learned about which route to take and who to ask for, all the while making sure that I was diligently chewing coca leaves when I wasn’t drinking mate (coca fusion tea) to fight altitude sickness and bring back my appetite.

We spent a day getting gears – mostly for me, as I didn’t have a sleeping bag nor warm clothes – and more coca leaves for the trail and as gift for the group we’d be staying with, before boarding the bus that took us to the last village where the trail begins. Normally a small settlement of a couple of dozen roofs, Mahuayani had ballooned up with a bustling tent market to accommodate travelers providing basic shelters, simple eateries, and some foosball tables for entertainment. Sarah managed to negotiate with the guard at the primary school there to let us sleep in one of the classrooms for 5 soles so we’d have more warmth and less noise than camping outside.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, festival

our “camp site”


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Mahuayani, market

Mahuayani market


The next morning we started out to walk the last 9kms to the festival site at the valley of Sinakara. It was only then that I realized our trail isn’t the only one. There are hundreds of paths crisscrossing over the mountains, bringing communities from far-away pueblitos that take on this pilgrimage every year, sometimes walking 10, 15 days instead of a mere 9kms like us. And in fact, there are communities that come all the way from northern Peru, Bolivia, and even Ecuador. I had no idea that it would be this big. The children shouted and ran around us. There was drumming and singing to lift our spirits and our feet.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Mahuayani, festival, walking, hiking

looking down Mahuayani


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, festival goers, indigenous people, hiking

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, trails to Sinakara valley, festival, Mahuayani

Despite all the signs, nothing prepared me for the sight of the valley when I first laid eyes on it. It was completely filled with tarps and tents and thousands next to thousands of people. We went around looking for the delegation we were to join and inadvertently crossed into a forbidden territory. Normally soft-spoken indigenous women got up immediately to chase us out. Turned out that each community has their slots that they have always come back to for hundreds of years, divided by lines of small black stones. And if you’re a stranger, you’re not welcome to their homes. We finally found our group, a community from outside Cusco but couldn’t actually camp with them. They let us hang out in their area and eat with them from time to time but we would have to pitch our tent in the outskirts, together with other “homeless” tourists, which we had no problem with.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, campers, tents

Sinakara valley


Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, campers, tents

Unlike the majority of festivals in Peru where drinking is rampant and indispensable, booze is prohibited at Qoyllur Rit’i. If anyone is caught drunk here, the ukukus – security enforcers in bear costumes – will whip out their lashes to teach a lesson. That said, I brought a bottle of cañazo at the advice of Sara’s friend in Cusco – bootleg country liquor made from sugarcane – to help me fall asleep in case it got too cold at night. Indeed I couldn’t sleep, not because of the cold, but the noise. Dancing and drumming and singing continued through the night. Seems like the villages had their dancers in rotation so that their worshiping never stop. The earth trembled under my body and vibrated my eardrums from all the feet trampling. I finally took a few sips of cañazo and passed out shortly after, only to woke up in the middle of the night, still to the incessant celebration outside, to find that my throat was dry from the alcohol. I reached for my bottle of water, but it was frozen solid. Defeated, I closed my eyes and drifted in and out of sleep till the next morning.