It's the soap that's the odd one: we found Neutrogena, unscented formula, available in Chile, in Peru, in Ecuador. In Argentina, it's nowhere to be seen - even while the original formula bars and a range of other Neutrogena products fill the shelves in the Farmacity. Now that we're on our fourth country and our third extended stay, what we've learned about global distribution of consumer goods is that plenty of the major brands we're all familiar with back in the States have penetrated these markets. But as expats everywhere seeking the comforts of home have long documented, it's impossible to predict which ones make it across which border. I
Take that Neutrogena soap in Latin America: it appears to have an oddly antagonistic relationship with Neutrogena shampoo. The latter was impossible to find anywhere for ten weeks, from the moment our initial flight landed in Lima, through Peru and Ecuador and Chile, until we arrived here. Now it's in every Farmacity in Buenos Aires even while the unscented bars have disappeared. Multiple other American shampoo brands, however, have been ubiquitous across the continent, especially Head & Shoulders in its many different formulations.
Our old standby Tom's of Maine toothpaste has been a no-show on shelves throughout, so if they're getting a marketing boost or improved retail channel access via their acquisition by Colgate-Palmolive, it's not internationally. And there's been plenty of Colgate around everywhere we've gone - that and Aquafresh seem to be the most popular American toothpaste brands, in their full range of flavors and types.
Atra razor blades, still widely available as replacement cartridges to the installed base of handle owners in the States? Forget it - in Argentina, they've already been phased out. If you're a Gillette customer you're either a Sensor Excel, Mach 3, or Fusion user.
Peanut butter had been everywhere, until Argentina.
The pervasiveness of Coke and McDonald's are well documented and railed against, although no one in any of the countries we've visited appears to be railing - they're enormously popular. But Oreos have been just as pervasive.
Those are off the top of my head, I'm sure Eileen will now remind me of some more and I'll append them here.
Stuck in an airport hotel room, too tired to make a final run around Lima after a sleepless night, we decided on our last night in Peru it was time to taste the national soft drink. The review: Looks like urine. Smells like Bazooka Joe. The taste, which is no sweeter than a regular Coke (Coca-Cola actually owns the brand now) doesn't do justice to the smell, which gives me shivery memories of my trips to the Northville General Store as a kid every time I open the cap.
We were warned, and therefore we were prepared: flights out of Cusco are inherently unpredictable because of the weather here at altitude, and the incredibly tight landing & takeoff paths through the surrounding mountains that are easily affected by the weather. So what happened this morning? Our 7:20 flight from Cusco to Lima, which would have allowed us to connect to the single daily flight from Lima to Guayaquil, was cancelled. As was every other morning flight out of here - we're now scheduled to depart at around 1:00 p.m. Which means missing the connection to our Guayaquil flight, and an unplanned stopover at the Lima Airport Ramada, so we can catch the same flight tomorrow. Fortunately we built an extra day into our schedule as a contingency against any problems with our connections.
I mentioned this the other day in the initial Machu Picchu post. The archaeologists think the Inca stonemasons' chief purpose in building this wall was sheer artistry - showing off their skill at ashlar construction simply because they could. Note the variety of sizes and shapes in the stones - no two alike:
We're both still trying to absorb what we've seen the last few days, and now that we've re-established a reliable Net connection I've also been trying to catch up on my photo sorting, uploading, and backup. I've completed a photo album of our Sacred Valley tour, which you can see in the column to the right, but it's not fleshed out fully with descriptions yet - but if you want to go poking around the web to figure out what you're looking at, we visited, in order, Moray, the nearby church at Tiobamba, and Chinchero, with a few random stops along the way to admire the views. Albums of our Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu pictures are still to come, along with some highlights here of what we saw. We're in Cusco through tomorrow morning, then off to Guayaquil, Ecuador to get ready for our Galapagos trip.
I wrote the other day about the Incas attempts, through the artistry of their stonework, to match the physical beauty surrounding them. It's not just that they worshipped the mountains they lived in; they worshipped the form of those mountains. Machu Picchu has some of the clearest examples of that in the shadow stones you see mounted on various platforms, including one of the most famous locations on the site, the Sacred Rock:
It's partially obscured by the cloud cover, but you can see how the rock is mimicking the form of the mountains behind it. Now obviously there's religious symbolism in this, since we know from the histories that the Incas found spiritual value in individual mountains and rocks. But another interpretation could be that it's the artists' showing off: "See that gorgeous vista over there? Well we can do that too!" Which is consistent with what you see elsewhere on the site - a short walk away from here is what's called "The Artisan's Wall," because no single rock in the wall is shaped the same way, and the researchers think it was built as an ostentatious display (it faces the Plaza) of their stone-shaping skills. I'll post a picture of that when I have a better Net connection.
Our one big splurge on this portion of the trip was a night in the fabulously expensive Sanctuary Lodge, located next door to the MP gate. That way we didn't have to worry about making sure to catch the last bus down at the end of the day to Aguas Caliente - a not very attractive down that is basically nothing but hotels for day trippers to the site - and we could roll out of bed and into the park today.
Is staggering beauty sacred? Then this place is one of the most sacred you'll ever visit. But it's not clear to me after we've spent the last few days travelling around the Valle Sagrado and its environs that there's anything distinctly transcendent about it. I'm inclined to agree with the author, filmmaker, and all-around skeptic Hugh Thomson that the sheer physical attractiveness of the place inspired the Incas to be aesthetes as much, if not more, than they were devotees of spiritual enlightmentment, despite modern claims to the contrary. Thomson, who spent an extended time here in the 80s as an explorer and returned again a few years ago before writing the book The White Rock, is particularly vicious toward the New Age worshippers drawn by the presence of Machu Picchu who have invaded the valley in recent years; he makes particular fun of one traveller he encountered who told him he had dropped an acid tab upon entering MP and promptly "discovered" that the site was merely a portal to the crystal city below Machu Picchu. "No one has yet taken ley-line directions from Glastonbury to Machu Picchu, but it's only because the string isn't long enough," writes Thomson.
The biggest person to blame for this, of course, is Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. Reading the various contemporary histories of the Incas and the Conquest, you learn that Bingham, for all the good he did in bringing Incan culture to the attention of the world, was a serial exaggerator whose greatest skill wasn't exploration or archaeology but self-publicity. (No wonder he made it all the way to the U.S. Senate.) One way Bingham sold his tale to American audiences was to sex it up with fanciful stories of the "Sacred Virgins" who assisted the Inca in his religious role and who were supposedly the main inhabitants of Machu Picchu. Totally untrue, it turns out. Much of Bingham's claptrap been thoroughly debunked by the scientic research, but that word hasn't filtered down to many of the people in the tourist industry here. Or if it has, they've recognized there's a big buck to be made off gullible gringo spirit hunters, and have forthrightly ignored it.
The Incas' version of "Art for Art's Sake" would be "Rock for Rock's Sake." You can't fully appreciate the culture's wizardry at masonry until you see firsthand, in site after site as we have over the last couple days, how much effort they put into making their buildings as beautiful as the rocks in the landscape they mined for their construction materials. It's not just the way their mortarless joints fit together so tightly; it's the way each rock in their best walls is lovingly shaped to meet the rock next to it, including the natural rocks left in place in many locations to be built around. Just look at the way these stones, particularly the lower ones fit together, for example, in a randomly selected photo from the ruins at Chinchero we visited yesterday:
Surrounded by staggering physical beauty, its as if they believed their landscape demanded that they strive to match that beauty. Now you could argue that the source of that demand was spiritual - that their gods asked for them to match the world the gods had blessed them with. But the sheer skill of the work betrays a pride of artistry. And is there anything more decadent than hauling a 10-ton rock to the perfect spot for it high on a hillside, just because you can? The image below is from the Temple Hill portion of Ollantaytambo:
These have all played in the lobby of Casa Andina-Private Collection Valle Sagrado Hotel the last three days:
What Is A Youth (Love Theme from Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet) My Heart Will Go On (Theme from Titanic) Angel of Music (Phantom of the Opera) Don't Cry for Me Argentina [There's a particular affection for Lloyd-Weber songs] Yesterday Hotel California Ob La Di, Ob La Da El Condor Pasa (of course!) The Boxer [we probably have Paul Simon to blame for most of this, thanks to the previous song] Hey Jude
View from our hotel. Somewhere south of that crest between the hills you see in the middle of the frame is Machu Picchu.
Was it the smog, the street noise, or the fact that the diarrhea made the first two that much more noticeable? Whatever the catalyst, it was the right time to leave Lima. And the contrast between where we were, and where we are, couldn't be more dramatic. Safely ensconced in our "high end" hotel (discounted nearly 50% off its rack rate) we now wake to the sounds of bird song in the pre-dawn hour and have replaced the honking of horns with the braying of burros as the soundtrack filtering through our windows at midday. If only we could get rid of the pan flute Muzak versions of Andrew Lloyd Weber songs piped into the hotel lobby and restaurant and bar when we're not in our room, this place would be perfect.
Or maybe not. The tourist economy here in the Sacred Valley between the old Inca capital of Cusco and the old Inca playground of Machu Picchu has created some jarring dichotomies if you're a tourist from the First World dropping into this rural part of the developing world. As we discussed over dinner tonight, you don't see the kind of abject poverty you do in Lima,into which huge swaths of the rural population from all over the country have decamped in the past thirty years. But it's still a bit disconcerting to be staying in a gated complex with uniformed and Kevlar-clad armed Seguridad cops guarding the hotel entrance, while just outside that gate women in traditional Peruvian dress - and their kids in Adidas track pants - are using a switch to guide their flock of sheep down the rutted dirt road.
Most of the motivation for that security apparatus, no doubt, is a legacy of the recent past of terrorist fears, the same reason the electric fences and glass shard-topped walls arose in Lima - indeed, even a few of the peasant walls here in the Valle Sagrado have gone the broken bottle route. I don't think anyone at this point is expecting the rump criminal element of the Sendero Luminoso to come charging into Urumbamba, though. Which only reinforces the notion that the men with guns are here to protect you more from the local residents than from any politically-motivated attack. From a more familiar Western tourist perspective, it feels much more like what you encounter on a visit to large chunks of the Carribbean, where poverty and the tourist economy share an often uneasy co-existence.
After a full day of rest, acclimating, and Inca's Revenge recovery yesterday, we set off today for our first taste of Incan history, hiring a driver recommended by the hotel to ferry us to several of the nearby sites. And it couldn't have been better. The sheer physical beauty of the place is staggering, in a way quite unlike any of the other high-altitude environments we've visited, including the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, and the Alps. None of those other mountain ranges, of course offer you the prospect of soaring heights so near the equator, so that even when you're at close to 13 thousand feet, as we were at the end of our journey today, you're still in a fairly temperate climate. I'll try to post some pictures tomorrow to try to explain how that changes what you see - and what else we saw on our day trip.
... a mere two hours before our one-hour long flight. We'll be staying at a hotel in the Sacred Valley for the next couple days, which promises Internet access but may or may not have wi-fi, so can't promise the posting will be consistent. We head to Machu Picchu on Wednesday.
I'm slowly updating the captions in the photos from Limo Centro on the right, so if you don't see an explanation for what you're looking at right now, it should be there shortly.