A hairy neck in Peru
“Just over a week ago, I left the academic hub of Colorado State University in the U.S.A., to begin my dissertation research in Peru’s beautiful and mysterious Sacred Valley”, writes David Knight. “The study I am conducting is being funded by Intrepid Travel and will focus on tourism impacts and perceived poverty alleviation in several villages located between the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the renowned, runic ruins of magical Machu Picchu.
My initial plan was to blog about my experiences after spending time in each village, but I couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts and observations about my first few days in Lima and Cuzco via this pre-project post. If you have ever passed this way before, I’d very much welcome your feedback on this or future posts, knowing that our collective attempts to describe the grandeur of this region will do it far more justice than my meager musings ever could on their own!
On initial reflection, I wish to say that the combination of being six feet three inches tall (191 cm) and almost entirely bald reduces my evolutionary fitness here considerably. In the last two days, I have lost several reasonably-sized portions of my scalp to the frames of low-hanging doorways. Before you start to make connections in your mind between the ancient Inca and the scalps of foreigners, I hope you will be relieved to know that several of my friends of Inca decent here in Cuzco have found my baldness quite amusing.
In fact, there is a curious name that Quechua-speaking locals playfully give to bald folks like me: cala cunka (or, hairy neck). This is actually the name of a type of chicken endemic to the region that has a tuft of feathers about its body and neck, but none on its head. Bandying this phrase about in self-deprecating fashion has been a marvelous ice-breaker when meeting locals and project partners for the first time.
Unfortunately for you, perhaps, I must continue drawing attention to my lack of hair as I proffer some initial observations about the current weather in both Lima and Cuzco. For two days in Lima, where a cool mist enshrouds the city in a perpetual white veil throughout the winter months, my bald head was fortunately protected from the extreme exposure to which it had become accustomed in sunny Colorado.
The reprieve was short-lived, however. Flying into Cuzco about one week ago, I quickly realized that the surrounding hills and distant, snow-covered peaks would not provide any lasting shade from the warm, winter sun. At about 10,000 feet (3048 meters) above sea-level, Cuzco has a climate characterized by drastic changes in daytime and nighttime temperatures from June to August, and direct sunlight can result in a quick burn. To save me from any severe burning and from the potential ridicule I would have received by donning the gringo-esque protective headwear I brought with me, my Peruvian friend and current roommate gave me one of his hats. It fits perfectly.
Coupled with the faux Alpaca hoody I bought in the Cuzco marketplace several days ago, the hat has brought me one step closer to achieving an incredibly challenging (if not downright impossible) personal goal I have recently set for myself: becoming so immersed in the Andean way of life that I might pass for a Peruvian and be allowed to board the private train to Machu Picchu as a local. This would mean paying less than 1/5 of the price charged to foreigners. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that I have neither the look nor the lingo down well enough (yet) to pass for a Peruvian. So, when traveling from one side of Cuzco to another, I have taken to walking down the sidewalks or to squeezing into a mini-van collectivo with the locals rather than hiring a more expensive personal taxi.
The lack of oxygen on the streets (due to high elevation) and in the collectivos (due to high density of Cuzqueno locals) did result in some shortness of breath initially, but I became fully acclimated in about five days (to the elevation, anyway). I’m sure that any inconveniences caused by these alternative forms of transportation will be quickly forgotten when I have a chance to visit Machu Picchu and once I begin working with the villages in the Sacred Valley.”
Click here to read David Knight’s next installment and stay tuned for more news of his community based tourism research and observations of life in Peru.
You too can experience some of the fabulous places that David’s immersing in, with Intrepid’s tours of Peru.
Photos: David Knight; flying into Cuzco by Jane Crouch