As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.
Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.
One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet. If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)
Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)
Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!
Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.
Yes, I know it is a racket.
No, I don’t care.
If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.
Which I did not.
I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.
In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.
I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.
I did it.
I couldn’t not.
I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out. Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)
Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!
It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.
I’ve always loved textbooks. As a kid, at the end of each school year, I would bring home any that had been deemed old or unusable. This usually involved some dumpster diving outside the high school where my dad worked (Go Cougars!), but a few scratches from rusty metal are nothing compared to the haul I’d come up with each early June. Why else would we have been given tetanus shots if it wasn’t go provide us with the opportunity to hunt through less-than-sanitary garbage bins? With a boost from my sister, I’d rummage around in what high schoolers considered trash, but I thought of as treasure. There were nearly empty notebooks (college-ruled!), brightly colored binders in decent shape, and most importantly, old textbooks that were to be replaced in the fall. I’d toss as much of this over the edge as I could, where we’d then collect it in boxes and haul our booty back to my dad’s woodshop classroom. I think he was usually less-than-impressed with our desire to bring home garbage, so after some hardball negotiation, we would trek most of the notebooks and binders back to their blue bin-demise, but keep a few golden nuggets, like history and English textbooks.
Summer had arrived!
Now that I am lucky enough to travel all over the world (I’m just missing one continent- dang you, Antarctica, I will get to you!), I often flash back to the snapshots in those discarded history and geography textbooks. There are iconic photographs of instantly recognizable locations: The Great Wall, Angkor Wat, the Sydney Opera House, Pompeii, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are just a few that I’ve been lucky enough to stand in front of in real life. Each time it happens, when I am standing in the spot the photographer stood in decades before to capture those images, I can’t help but be moved.
Machu Picchu was no different.
I can still recall pieces of a chapter in one of those long-ago discarded high school textbooks that compared the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires. Each description had a photo alongside it, with the Inca’s section being portrayed by a crisp, clear photo of Machu Picchu, taken somewhere above the ruins. The green of the grass and moss around the gray of the stone, with a clear blue sky above was an eerie juxtaposition and one that I remember being fascinated by as a kid. What a world! Decades (yikes, decades is right) later, as I stood in nearly the same spot as that photographer did all those years ago, watching the morning clouds move across the valley, I couldn’t help but feel the power of that image. The places I daydreamed about through those textbooks are one after another becoming real life experiences.
I took a minute and soaked it all in.
Okay, I took about ten seconds and then I realized how terrifyingly close to the edge of the mountain I was, so made a hasty retreat to ponder life from a safer vantage. Machu Picchu is many things, but full of safety measures, it is not. The only place I really saw much of a barrier against falls was at a similar overlook, where a rope was loosely strung between two poles, hanging about ankle height. Yup. If you didn’t stumble and fall on your own, Machu Picchu is happy to assist, providing a wiggly tripwire to help you on your way.
Lack of safety aside, Machu Picchu is amazing. I went at the end of the main tourist season and the start of the rainy season, so it was no surprise when the morning was a wet one. Luckily, by the time I arrived at the ruins, the rain had let up and the clouds were starting to clear. Observing the entire site and up into the steep mountain ravines from that iconic overlook at the site of the ancient city, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pterodactyl swoop from behind a nearby peak or see a brontosaurs amble across the floor of the valley. The entire area had a prehistoric feel and the low hanging clouds sweeping in and out of the area just added to that eeriness. (Sweeping may seem like an odd verb for cloud movement, but it is accurate. The clouds moved through the ruins at an incredible speed. In one moment the entire valley would be sheathed in an impenetrable white and then a blink of an eye later, a break in the fog would appear, giving a perfectly clear and amazingly spectacular view of the city.)
Of course, no trip to Machu Picchu is complete without some serious llama sightings. You’d think I’d not be that into llamas at this point in my life, having had my share of llama-time growing up, but to see them wandering around the ruins, I couldn’t help but smile. And, not just wandering, but frolicking. There was some serious young llama playtime happening, with skips and hops and chasing to and fro. Again, so iconic! Llamas and Machu Picchu go together like roasted guinea pig and chicha morada. (More on that combo later.) As a true tourist, you just can’t have one without the other.
So yes, those dumpster-scavenged textbooks from days of yore were probably outdated rubbish, and heck, they were probably torn and marked up as well, but to a curious, book loving kid, those were insignificant details; all I remember is creating a mental photo album that comes to life with each new opportunity I have to travel. Now, I get the chance to stand on precarious ledges alongside those photographers from the previous century and rather than use a viewfinder to center my photographs, I snap a selfie that would make my generation proud!
Man, it has been a long time since I opened a Word document with the intention of doing a bit of traveling writing. I’m not sure where I lost this thread over the last year, as it isn’t an issue of not having anything to write about. Since I last wrote a real “travel musing” post, I’ve been to several new countries and even a new continent. As I think about where the writing bug went, there isn’t much to pin it on, other than maybe just complacency since we are back in the States for a stint. Granted, I’ve spent a good deal of time working on the “book musings” part of this site and trying to get my Card Catalog Reviews off the ground, but lately I find myself missing the longer-form writing as well. (Typing on a library catalog card forces me into a 125-word limit—it’s like an old-fashioned Tweet-limit. It works well for quickie book reviews, but not so much to explore explorations.)
I sit pondering the lack of writing over the last year, killing a bit of time in the American Airlines terminal of National Airport in Washington, DC and can’t help but be overwhelmed by the crisscross of humanity that fills this small waiting area. (It is only early November. In terms of sheer numbers, I am terrified for my flight to Idaho at Christmas.)
Airports fascinate me.
They give you a glimpse into real lives; for just a moment you pop into a life, having a small conversation in the security line or overhearing one side of a phone call or catching a glimpse of a bigger picture as someone heads away from home or is making their way back. Whenever I sit in an airport, I can’t help but build stories from these snapshots, filling in the rest of the story from the few snippets to which I am privy. These are just a few of the tales bobbing around in my head as I chill (literally- this terminal is freezing!) with my fellow passengers.
Grumpy -“I’m pre-check”-Guy
Seriously. What is up with this guy? Yes, the security lines at DCA were surprisingly long this morning, but TSA was doing a good job keeping them moving and getting people through to their gates, but the guy behind me in line was having none of it. His entitlement was painful. To anyone who would listen, he explained that he is pre-check and flying first class and even though it is not printed on his boarding pass, he should be allowed to use that line because his travel agent screwed up and he really is pre-check. Plus, his flight leaves in 45 minutes and how is he supposed to make it through the line in time to make his flight? He announced this many times (loudly) to anyone near him in line and then twice pulled aside TSA agents who were walking by (probably headed to a much needed break from the public) to complain about his missing designation. No one really cared. Needless to say, we made it through the queue to the security machines quite quickly and I figured he’d settle down now that he was definitely going to make his flight, but nope. It was not to be. He got flagged for something when he went through the full-body scanner and the agent wanted to pat him down. Rather than just getting it over with quickly, this guy decided to put up a stink about how he was pre-check and first class and of course they would pull him out of line and make his take more of his precious time to clear security. This whole rant took longer than if he had just submitted to the cursory groping and headed to his gate. Maybe he is someone super important that I just didn’t recognize and he was off to save the world somewhere or maybe his was a fan of the Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost last night. For sure his poor travel agent is going to get an earful this afternoon. The best part of listening in on this entire episode is that I too should have had pre-check (no first class for me), but for whatever reason it did not print on my boarding pass, so I too was waiting in that line. The difference is, I planned ahead and had myself at the airport with time to spare so there was no panic as I waited with my fellow travelers to be screened through to the boarding gates. I feel no need to know more of this guy’s story, as we’ve all spent time with a blowhard that is just too full of himself. (Trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s headed to a funeral or some other stressful event that has ramped up his attitude, but I get the vibe that this is just the way he moves through the world. Him first. You second.)
I rarely take a flight anymore without at least one dog being in the cabin, which I only have one issue with and that is that the pup is NEVER seated next to me. I would gladly take the seat next to the dog and happily entertain it throughout the trip, but somehow, I never have the right seat assignment. Today’s dog-lady is different in that I’ve been sitting here watching here as I type, her fluffy-blonde dog sitting on her lap as they both enjoy a bit of breakfast- together. The same breakfast. For every bite of the oatmeal-y looking mush she takes, she offers one to the dog. From the same fork. Yes, they are not only sharing a meal, but they are sharing a utensil. It is too early for this. To set the scene on this duo a bit more, I think it is important to note that the woman is rocking the “white, sorority girl” look, with skinny jeans and riding boots paired with a slightly sparkly white top and a puff-jacket that is less functional than it is fashionable. The pup, to fit in with the preppy theme, is wearing a pink sweater and is then wrapped in an animal print fuzzy blanket (I told you it was cold in this terminal!). With breakfast done, it now appears to be canine naptime. Here’s hoping that pup is 7E!
She’s young and flying solo and apparently has decided to carry her entire closet as a carry-on. (I can’t complain about this a whole lot, as I have done the same thing, not so much to avoid the baggage fees, although those are obnoxious, but to avoid having to wait at the carousal for my bag at my destination. I love just gliding out of the airport upon arrival.) But, on top of having a rather bulky collection of items surrounding her, this fellow traveler needs to go get the requisite airport photos of planes coming and going, tarmac workers loading baggage, and a selfie, because it didn’t happen if there isn’t photographic proof. The problem is, it is impossible to juggle your entire wardrobe AND take a good, high-angle selfie, so she’s asked a random stranger sitting near her to watch her bags. I always find this an interesting exchange, as the stranger never seems totally comfortable with the request, and yet it seems like most agree. I always wonder how this scenario plays out if something happens with the bags. Would the stranger be invested enough to do something if someone else came along, claiming to know the young lady and riffle in or take the bags? I can’t really picture what happens if anything other than nothing happens. Of course, this is unlikely, and today was no exception. Selfies were taken and posted to Instagram (I’m assuming) and the carry-on bags remained safe and sound for their onward journey.
This poor man was probably at work before I rolled out of bed this morning, and for that he gets a certain amount of lenience from the start. Working with travelers all day long is probably a tough gig and I’m sure he’s not rolling in the big bucks for it. On top of this, I think his soul may have been irrevocably crushed by humanity. A small regional jet was loading from the same area of the terminal as my flight to Miami, but earlier, so I was able to observe the entire process, including the frustration as people refused to wait for their boarding group before trying to load on the plane. I’m not fully familiar with American Airlines boarding procedures as I tend to end up on United flights, but they seem to have a slew of boarding groups, going all the way up to nine (!). Apparently, those people in eight and nine were worried about finding places to stow their carry-on luggage because they kept trying to sneak into earlier groups. (To be fair, maybe it was as unintentional mistake by multiple people, but it all added up to a mini-fit by the gate attendant.) After a few of these sneakers, the guy came on the PA system and made a slightly snarky announcement about all the seats going to the same location and the plane would not leave with people still on the jetway, so just get in your actual group and be patient. It was quite grumpy for 8AM, but I get it. Just follow the damn protocol, people.
Flights with babies- they are unavoidable. Doing the Foreign Service thing, we have many friends whose young kids have stamp-filled passports and they get their wings at just six weeks old. Babies fly. And babies tend to not like flying. It hurts their ears, they are physically confined, there’s a whole lot of loud ambient noise, and it doesn’t help that they tend to be with stressed out parents. This little one was up early and I am sure off of her routine, and she was unhappy about it. The wails started in the terminal waiting area and continued down the jetway and held steady, in the seat directly behind me. Yup. I’m not sure how that works, but it always seems like there is a little one within kicking radius of my seatback. This one, luckily, was too little for kicking, but also too little for consoling. She finally fell asleep as we waited on the tarmac for takeoff, only to be awoken by the roar of the engines as we accelerated down the runway. Flying can be no fun and probably less so when you don’t understand anything going on around you, so I try to have a whole lot of patience with these babies and even more compassion for their adult-travelling companions. It is enough work to get myself from city to city, country to country, without tending to a totally dependent seatmate.
As I continue my people watching in Miami this afternoon, there is a whole new crowd of people to ponder about, including the woman who I estimate could have been a contemporary of the builders of Machu Picchu, wearing a beautiful (I am guessing) traditional Peruvian outfit (adorned with llamas!) that I’m just dying to know more about. There’s a story that needs told.
At this point, a truly introspective traveler is forced to ask, what story would someone imagine about me? Yoga pants, hoodie, Chuck Taylors, Jansport backpack. Add them all together and they create the foundation of what narrative? And how close would that story be to the truth?