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Motorcycle Diaries

It’s a music tune that made me discover it. It’s funny that the title of that tune means “opening” in Spanish, because it was indeed the start of a discovery that led me to investigate more about the song’s author. One thing leading to another, I went on to watch the movie for which the music was from – and that movie not only reminded me of my own experiences but made me want to give it all up and travel freely, free of every responsibility.

Apertura: it starts with repetitive notes of an electric guitar (I think) before a classic guitar steps in, mixing very well, creating a powerful retro-modern blend. The rhythm and melody quickly become reminiscent of Latin American music (and for good reason as I’ll explain), with faint flute sounds in the background. It’s when the bass guitar and the drum start playing, after about forty-five seconds, that one starts feeling something between suspense and excitement, something that starts to build up in oneself only waiting to be unleashed. But this liberation will act by surprise: the tempo appears to slow down for a moment, before the violin kicks in, releasing a gush of positivity that moves me, that somehow re-energises me. You may want to listen to it now that I have teased you about it – trust me you’ll want to play it several times, it’s addictive: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdmsHYJApLQ.

Gustavo Santaolalla is the musician behind Apertura. It turns out he also created the soundtrack of Babel, a very moving (and very good) film from 2006 by Iñárritu with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. But Apertura comes from another movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, that I had not heard about, depicting the journey of 23-year old Ernesto Guevara across South America. Guevara? Yes, the same one who will become known as the Che a few years later (as an aside, “che” is an Argentinian interjection loosely corresponding to “bro” or “mate” in English – he was apparently known to often use that interjection, and that’s how he got his nickname). The film is based on Guevara’s own diaries and is actually very good: he gradually discovers, by traveling across multiple South American countries, the life of simple people, the plight of exploited workers and the partially-renegade lepered – all of which must have shaped Guevara’s thinking. I believe the following quote illustrates well what the Che must have realised back then: “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” (the quote is credited to Marcel Proust but I did my little investigation and couldn’t find it in any of his works).

The travel aspect of the film wasn’t lost on me, evidently. His misfortune with a dying motorbike wasn’t without reminding of the manual-gear motorcycles I rented from random people in Indonesia (see http://goo.gl/xGvvTb or http://goo.gl/Ei0RHv). And of course his arrival in Cusco and visit of Machu Picchu transported me back in time, just over a year ago in fact, when I was myself in those very spots (http://goo.gl/xItH5T, http://goo.gl/HaUmj, http://goo.gl/gjnK1 – and here http://goo.gl/aJg3W for an overview of my Peruvian trip).

Apertura is echoed by another similar melody later in the film, that one being called La Partida (the departure) finishing to convince anyone that traveling is truly exhilarating. Who knows where music and travels will in fact lead me next…

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Motorcycle Diaries
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Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas

The early morning mist was covering the whole site. But I had no choice, this was the day my entrance ticket gave me access to. Rain would later further dampen my mood, before the sun would suddenly wash all the clouds away. I did not know all this as I woke up before dawn to catch the bus from Aguas Calientes, the little town at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I was apparently not the only one to wake up so early, excited and eager to visit this famous site, 2,430 metres above sea level (so no too high up for people of all ages to enjoy it, although there are some steep cobblestone steps): I even had to queue up for fifteen minutes. It wasn’t even 6 o’clock in the morning.

Of course was the early wake-up worth it. Even the mist was somewhat magical, although I was a little afraid I wouldn’t be able to capture the site in its entirety – there are after all 140 structures, whether they be temples, sanctuaries, parks, and houses. It was built around 1450, as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacutec (see what he looked like in a slightly processed photo I posted here: http://goo.gl/KV0iv). A century later, it was completely abandoned as the Spaniards conquered Latin America. Indigenous people, and a few explorers, came to encounter the site afterwards – what is mostly remembered today is Hiram Bigham’s, an American historian, “discovery” of the site on July 24th, 1911.

The fascinating aspects of Machu Picchu range from the beautiful mountainous setting surrounding the site to the well restored buildings made of polished dry-stone walls. One distinctive trait of the Inca architectural style is their technique of cutting blocks of stone that fit together tightly and so perfectly without mortar that, supposedly, not even a blade fits between the stones. With the trapezoidal and inward-tilted doors and windows, this technique protected buildings from collapsing in an earthquake (Peru is where I “felt” my first earthquakes, an awkward moment when it takes a few seconds to realise what is going on).

To protect the site, entrance is now limited to 2,500 visitors per day – an experience in itself as I did not go through an agency to book my ticket (but instead reserved it online several weeks earlier, which gave me 6 hours, not a minute more, to then run to the nearest Banco de la Nacion branch and pay in cash). There’s an additional ticket – and additional restrictions (400 people per day) – to climb Huayna Picchu, one of the mountains dominating the site. I had not realised Huayna Picchu was not the smaller of the two sugarloaf mountains! And that was quite a strenuous hike... which ended right into the clouds and with an hour of heavy rain. Armed with my umbrella and wearing my Chinese (as in bought directly in Suzhou, China) plastic motorcycle rain cover on top of my jacket, I patiently waited, internally laughing as all the other visitors hurried back down the mountain, drenched and disappointed not to see anything.

I waited – and the wait was again worth it. Clouds disappeared and I could admire the site: its buildings and numerous stone steps, the mountains around, the Inca trail leading to the site, the winding road from Aguas Calientes... which I would later walk back on, ineptly trusting the guide book mentioning not more than an hour would be required (in reality ninety minutes, some of it in the dark of the night – and I’m not a slow hiker). When I’m visiting such must-see sites, I can’t help but stay as long as possible, walk around the same paths I already went on before, just to be sure I saw everything, that I didn’t miss the obvious shot – and then I would walk back to that almost same spot another time, later in the day, to capture a different light or to try taking a more original photo. Do you do that as well? And then I feel stupid, so I stop to enjoy the view, not doing anything, as I did at the end of the day, exhausted anyway – and that’s when I realised I was not the only one g(r)azing at the view, as you can see in the pictures of llamas.
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Machu Picchu, Peru
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On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet.
– Lord Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, canto III, stanza 22 (full text: http://goo.gl/t9opy)

The noise became increasingly louder. Something was going on outside the walls of the triple church-cathedral of Cusco, Peru, that I had entered a few minutes earlier. The louder it became the more impatient I was in wanting to get out. But I had paid for that relatively pricey entrance ticket, I had to see what there was to be seen inside the church. As if to tease me more, the noise had transformed into music – maybe a demonstration or an impromptu concert? I tried to reassure myself, I said to myself, “nah, it won’t last”, “by the time I get out, it will be over, let me enjoy what I’ve been coming here for”, or thinking the opposite a second later, “it will last long enough, I’ll still be able to enjoy it afterwards”.

But, of course, I couldn’t resist. I botched my visit in the church, in which pictures were anyway forbidden (my weak excuse), and hurried outside. My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the stark light. People had amassed themselves on the main square of Cusco, of course named Plaza de Armas, probably just like every town square in Peru. I wasn’t to be disappointed: men and women of all ages had dressed up colourfully for the festival of “our” Lady of the Rosary. An extremely joyful atmosphere had impregnated the city – even the priest was dancing – leading me to run up and down the line of dancers during the three hours the parade lasted. That’s also when I discovered a weakness for thigh-high boots, check the pictures :-).

PS1. Find an index of my posts on Peru right here: http://goo.gl/aJg3W.

PS2. Here’s a glimpse of the festival in a short video (not shot by me): Parade 'Virgen de Rosario', Cusco, Peru.

PS3. Lord Byron’s poem describes the travels and thoughts of a young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and partying, looks for distraction by travelling to foreign lands (mostly in southern and south-eastern Europe).
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Festival, Cusco, Peru
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3,900 pictures taken over about two weeks in Peru — that may seem like a lot but I’m an organisational freak (http://goo.gl/DPO09) so that’s manageabble... and quite enjoyable (I’m a bit of a masochist too). I posted a small selection of those pictures in a number of posts already, some of which you may not have seen. I therefore created this simple slideshow. I still have more to share about Peru, Machu Picchu and colourful Peruvian dancers not being the least, but I’m also procrastinating as I am keen to wordsmith my posts (well, at least I try...) and select the most meaningful photos. I’m also quite often on the road so I can’t wait to share more of the things that touched me – hence why I intersperse my posts with photos from different places.

Thank you for your time in viewing what I share, sometimes even adding a simple +1 or a more thoughtful comment.

PS for the “geeks” among you (I'm one too, don't worry): I created this slideshow using Google Presentations since they can now be embedded into Google+. The cool thing (yes, I get excited about little things...) is that I can continue updating the presentation and the embedded version will always reflect the latest one. The only thing that doesn’t change is the cover picture (which loads the presentation once clicked). One more thing: the links from slides to posts are made by creating a link for the entire black rectangle, not just the text selection, so it's easier to click on the links for the fat fingers out there (http://goo.gl/me6I).

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Far from being as impressive as the one of Santa Catalina (http://goo.gl/iO1uT), the monastery of Santa Teresa, still in Arequipa (Peru), is a quiet place to enjoy, especially after a long day started before dawn to catch a glimpse of the Andean condors (http://goo.gl/NPOZs). The run-down, moldy walls even give the small building with its unique cloister a distinctive cachet.
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Monastery of Santa Teresa, Arequipa, Peru
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Taquile island on Lake Titicaca, Peru
Each island on Lake Titicaca seems to possess its own distinct culture (there are 40 or so islands). I had previously shared with you the surprising man-made floating islands of Los Uros (http://goo.gl/zRJVE) and the rustic frog-shaped Amantani island (http://goo.gl/fkFD6). In between lies Taquile island, a small but very hilly island which has been inhabited for thousands of years. It shares the same Mediterranean landscape as Amantani, its red and brown Inca terraces contrasting starkly against the deep blue lake. And just as equally, its steep hills, including the 500 steps from one of the docks to the main square, invite the wanderer to – slowly, since we're 3,800 metres high – enjoy the beautiful scenery.

However, whilst most other island communities speak Aymara (and sometimes Spanish), Taquile has maintained a very strong sense of group identity by speaking Quecha and marrying among their own people (not sure it's ideal to prevent consanguinity issues...). On this latter point, single men wear red and white hats while married ones wear red hats. I haven't figured out why this distinctive trait is only applicable to men and not women... do men have to be visibly marked to prevent them from "flirting" – or is it so to at least let women know what they would be getting into?!
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Taquile island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
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“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky"
– Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European (in his case, Indian) to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabindranath_Tagore)

No post-processing (besides cropping) was added to those photos taken in Arequipa, Peru. I love how clouds often fire up at sunset, especially in the last few minutes before the sun disappears.
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Sunset in Arequipa, Peru
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Star gazing on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, Peru

20% of the world today does not have access to electricity. That’s 1.4 billion people according to the World Bank (http://goo.gl/2PNTu). After a 4-hour boat ride on Lake Titicaca, this is what I experienced on the frog-shaped island of Amantani – and no running water either. I didn’t necessarily decide to sleep there for that experience alone, but also to enjoy the peacefulness and the nature of the island, somehow reminiscent of the Mediterranean shores in southern France or Italy.

The first boat stop had been the floating islands of Los Uros: they are man-made islands and they really are floating on the lake (see the corresponding post with pictures http://goo.gl/zRJVE). Let us plunge into the atmosphere (to be honest, I am not very satisfied with my piece, I wanted to write something more interesting, perhaps more funny, but I procrastinated too long over my drafts and eventually decided to just let it out). If you are not interested, that’s okay, you can still simply enjoy the pictures and the commentary added directly to them.

Our little 20-passenger public boat headed straight to Amantani, located about three hours away from Los Uros. It was a pleasant ride on the calm lake Titicaca: the sun was burning while the air remained cool, even cold at times – after all, we were at 3,800 metres above sea level. Most passengers dozed off a little, the noisy but monotonously regular humming of the boat's engine lulling each of us. The helmsman sat steadily, his gaze fixed on the horizon, a faint smile on his face expressing content, perhaps even simple happiness. We were sometimes awaken by the sudden rocking of the boat, as otherwise inexistent waves suddenly came crashing in, waves created by higher speed private boats chartered by agencies conveying tourists who were ready to pay much more (and unfortunately and maybe unconsciously at the expense of the inhabitants of the island who consequently got a lower share from the agencies than what they received directly from us).

The almost perfectly round Amantani island looked like a frog with two big eyes staring at us (see the picture in the album) as we approached the shore. Excitement started building up on the boat... until the boat suddenly stopped: we had run out of gasoline! The helmsman didn’t panic even though he reached out to his phone while calmly asking us to get off our bench. Still startled by the sudden stop, we promptly obeyed while he slowly retrieved an extra tank of gasoline stored inside the bench’s storage area. I never really knew whether that was actually planned or not, as he didn’t explain anything.

As we set foot on the island, feeling by that time quite hungry – it was 2pm – we were silently welcomed by the women of Amantani, shorter and stouter than those of the city. Shy smiles could be perceived on their sun-tanned and wrinkled faces. To ensure a fair share of tourism revenues, hosts on the island would take turns in welcoming tourists, and we were thus each of us assigned, on the spot, to accompany one specific hostess. All happened very quietly, almost silently, as Spanish was not necessarily well mastered by the local population who mainly spoke in Aymara.

A simple vegetarian meal consisting of different sorts of potatoes – there are said to be 3,000 varieties in Peru – and a soup was served to me in my rustic room (see pictures). Everything was quiet. The bed was very welcoming for a quick nap, for a necessary stop in my busy life. It would soon be interrupted by my hostess, silently arranging her knitted production on my bed. The charm had been broken and I felt sorry for this lady, for this return to the harsh reality that some people do not have the choice but to explore multiple opportunities to make a living. Yes, it was at the expense of a more genuine connection but, after all, I was a tourist, this was a touristic place even if the number of tourists probably didn’t exceed a hundred a day on average, and I had read how poor those people are. Maybe will I take the time to call the mayor to encourage the inhabitants to get directly – and only – paid by end customers, and refuse any intermediary who apparently pay barely enough to cover the cost of meals – knowing that I paid directly 30 soles (about 11 dollars) for 2 meals, a breakfast and the night.

But the magic of the place quickly returned as my hostess offered to guide me to Pachatata, Father Earth, an Inca sanctuary located at the highest point of the island. I followed her on her toes, somewhat relieved I was forced out of my room, for I would easily have slept and missed out on the views of the tranquil, glinting blue-intense lake.

In fact, all the tourists were flowing towards the top of the island, like little marching ants, for, however close the top seemed, it still took a healthy hour and a half to hike up there. My hostess had left me in the company of another guide, a lovely and oh-so-cute six-year old elf, a little girl who had to walk an hour every day to get to school on the other side of the island. She was bustling with the energy of children of that age, sometimes running along the path before panting a bit with her tongue out, and then darting off again, when we tourists were slowly walking, feeling our hearts beat faster because of the high altitude.

Take a look at the lovely hat this little girl was wearing (see picture in the album): it was full of secret treasures, for this is how Magdalena, our little elf, was storing her nickels and a sweet or two – a gum that sometimes fell to the ground when she was munching it, but that didn’t deter her from putting it back into her mouth – it made us all laugh.

As we reached the top of the island, the Inca walls and terraces became more and more apparent and narrower (see pictures). Another hill, with Pachamama or Mother Nature at its top, echoed Pachatata in the distance. We arrived just on time for the sunset, a special moment, dominating  the entire island, far away from everything (despite catching a faint mobile signal from the shores of the lake). The bitter cold enveloped us immediately as the sun disappeared behind the distant mountains. The sudden darkness of the crystal-clear skies was soon lit by what seemed like all the stars of the universe.

It didn’t matter anymore that a mere candle light was accompanying my lonesome dinner. I was rich with new experiences, novel sights, simple smiles and if I was sad for deeper reasons of my own, I was happy to be alive.
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Amantani island, Lake Titicaca, Peru (12 photos)
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Pachacutec, the "earth-shaker"
Parachutec is somewhat of a national hero in Peru as he's the one who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into the Inca empire by gradually conquering nearby territories and civilisations, starting in 1438... an empire that would not even last a century when the Spaniards would put his descendent to death in 1533. The famous site of Machu Picchu was built as an estate for him; and his leadership skills and charisma easily allowed him to be truly identified as the son of the Sun (see my previous post http://goo.gl/CgDdL).

As you can imagine, there are numerous statues of Parachutec (or Pachacuti) in Peru. This one is located right in the middle of Plaza de Armas in Cusco, on top of a fountain. It does give the shivers when, under a certain angle, the Inca seems to come to life with a radiating aura.
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Children of the Sun
In this modern painting, the centre represents the Sun, specifically the Temple of the Sun (or Qorikancha) itself in the centre of Cusco in Peru: roads radiate like sunrays connecting other towns and religious sanctuaries, secondary roads connecting all those rays. The Sun, called Inti, actually was not the most revered deity for the Incas, even though he received the greatest number of offerings for the warmth and light he provided. The most revered god was Viracocha, the god of civilisation, the creator of all things... and is Inti's father (imagine him saying "I am your father"... hmm no, that's from another empire...).

The painting, hung in the Temple of the Sun, sparked my interested with its vivid colours covering the entire spectrum of the rainbow, and its numerous white rays. Hope you enjoy it too.
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