Cusco

By Kristina Stocks

            The taxi wobbles over the cobblestone and nearly clips an alpaca. The last three days have been spent trying not to puke—but I don’t know if it’s altitude sickness or the near constant stream of Pisco sours that have been stuck in my hand at Loki, the city’s most recommended hostel. “A Backpacker’s Dream”, the party destination for those headed to or away from Machu Picchu, is booked full: swarms of drunk Australian men, crunchy granola types, and exhausted travelers from all over the world—Northface jackets and comfortable pants, relaxed as they lay in hammocks.

            Loki’s bar is massive, and throughout the blurry nights are chants of “LOKI LOKI LOKI, OI. OI. OI.”.

            I’m one of the youngest people here. The autonomy has quickly begun to wear off and I cringe at the memory of a sozzled Aussie touching the small of my back the night before—I’ve got a boyfriend back home, a gap-toothed bassist who has a tendency to correct the pronunciation of band names who I haven’t spoken to in weeks. I won’t be surprised or disappointed when it doesn’t work out.

            I press my face against the window of the cab as the colors of Peru whiz by- pinks, greens, yellows, blues, browns. Elegant Baroque architecture slotted against ancient stone. The oldest city in the Americas. The finely woven textiles and mountains blur together.

*

            I woke up bedraggled and still a little drunk. Water. Twelve other backpackers snore gently, and I try not to swear as I stub my toe on the solid oak of the bottom bunk. I sneak out to the shared lavatory, but the view catches my eye. Marmalade orange roofs cascade the landscape and violet blue skies collapse into jagged peaks. Viva el Peru Glorioso is carved into the hillside. Cirrostratus frame the message. Long live glorious Peru. I grab the window’s ledge. The back of my neck tickles and I have no idea how long I stand here for, until I get a tap on my shoulder. Kailey.

*

            We met the day before. She’s from BC but works in Alberta, which I think is kismet. She has a youthful face and thin eyebrows, with endearing freckles and a wicked sense of humor.

            “Let’s explore.” She says to me, after ten minutes of chatting.

            We chase one another down the steep, narrow paths. We peek inside a restaurant that has Chu (guinea pig) listed on the menu. We stop at a fruit stand. The vendor is an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl. She hands us the bananas, wider than they are long, nods her head, wide brim of her hat tipping. Kailey and I knock the bananas like swords and peel to reveal the flesh, some parts deeply bruised. I marvel at the sweet yet mealy consistency as we walk deeper into the heart of Cusco.

            We make it down the hill to the Plaza de Armas, once the “Great Inca Square”. Colonial churches dot the square, but it is the sandstone Cusco Cathedral we find ourselves in front of. I feel the petals of an elongated bell-shaped flower that dangles above us. Its orange pollen stains my fingers.

            “Did you know the Spanish built this in 1654 with the hopes of removing Incan religious beliefs?” Kailey’s nose is deep in her Lonely Planet book.  I rest my head on her shoulder. There are children in ponchos carrying carvings, tourists with fanny packs and expensive looking cameras, and Peruvian mothers with babies on their backs, wrapped in patterns of abstract geometric designs. A little girl walks up to us with a ladder of wares, one that is nearly her height.

            “Earring? Doce sol.” She smiles. She’s missing one of her front teeth. She isn’t much older than my youngest sister. I look at the silver earrings glinting in the sunlight and reach for my wallet.

            We walk through a market and touch the soft wool alpaca sweaters. We decline vendors as they approach us with trinkets. I pick up a scarf for my mom and tell Kailey a little about my family.

            “My mom is so worried. She thinks I’m going to get stolen or something. It’s kind of sweet but she drives me crazy.”

            Kailey nods, and I ask her, “What about your family? Do you want to stop anywhere for them?”

            “No. I really don’t.”

 

            I don’t press any further. 

            As the sun sets the outdoor lights flicker, and the plaza dazzles us with an orange glow. There is a dance in the square, a folkloric huayno. Kailey and I sway to the guitar, mandolins, charangos (lutes), violins, and quenas (flutes). A man invites Kailey to dance. He says it’s called wayñukuy. He vigorously stamps his feet and swings Kailey back and forth to the music.

            It’s getting dark and we race up the incomparably steep avenida de la raza for a drink at our hostel. I suck in the thin air and disequilibrium sets in. I plead with Kailey to slow down as I catch my breath but instead, she spins me around in a flourish and whistles an off-tune lute impression. We are laughing as the last bits of sun fade on the city. 

            We pick up a 4L of wine that by the end of the night will have stained our teeth a pinkish red, calcified by a pack of cigarettes. In Loki’s hallway we briefly chat with the troglodyte Australian crew, all muscles and tight tank tops who surely haven’t been sober since they departed Sydney’s airport.

            After we poke fun at the rhythmic party chants, the interchangeable quality that each of these men have. Boys, really.

            But I am not very different from them, more mature. I’m nineteen. I’m alone. As we lay in the hostel’s courtyard, head and feet in the grass, we pass cigarettes and accidentally ash on our chests. Kailey is twenty-five, she has a career. I find myself admiring her intelligence and ease of self.

            “I have no idea what I am doing.” I say.

            “Nobody does.”

 

            “You do.”

 

            Kailey ignores this and says, “The Inca were one of the few cultures that found their constellations in the absence of stars. See there, the dark blotches in the milky way? They would have thought those were the animals, and the milky way was a river. What does that one look like to you?” She covers one of my eyes and points to a dark space in the constellation.

            “A ferret.” I say, and we both cackle as the wine muddles our brains.

            I lightly squeeze her arm and stumble into the bar to get a couple waters. When I return, Kailey is sitting on a windowsill in a quiet corner outside the bar. One leg is extended on the ground, the other pressed against her chest. She’s crying. I sit beside her, placing the water at our feet. The sill is hard and cold.

            There are hard fluorescent lights outside the bar. Her face is swollen.

            “What’s wrong?”

            She doesn’t say anything for a long time. I watch the condensation trickle on the water glasses.

            “I feel guilty for even being here. For enjoying myself.”

            I’m about to interrupt. Offer a cliché like, “you deserve to be happy” but Kailey continues.

            “We didn’t have heat in our house. We didn’t have running water. All I can remember about being a kid is being cold all the time. My mom drank constantly after my dad died.”

            She studies the empty wine glass beside her, shakes her head.

            “I found him. I found him after he killed himself.” She pulls her knees against her chest.

            I hand her the glass of water, and stumble back.

            “I’m so sorry. That is so unfair. I’m really sorry, I – fuck.”

            At this, she sniffles and lets out a bitter laugh.

            “Yeah. Fuck.”

            “I wish I knew what to say.”  

            “Yeah. Anyway.” She stands up and chugs the glass of water.  

            “We should keep talking.”

            “Nah. Let’s get shots.”

            Before I can say anything, she is in the bar. I close my eyes and count the purple impressions left behind from looking at the fluorescent lights.

            By the time I make it inside, Kailey already has a tray of shots.

            “Courtesy of our friends over there.” She lifts her shot above her head and grins flirtatiously at the Australians in their neon shorts. One grins back and waves us over. She downs another shot and I follow suit: one, two.

            “Come on.” She pulls my hand. The Aussies slap the table and sing.

            “Here’s to Ryan, he’s true blue

            He’s a piss pot through and through

            He’s a bastard so they say

            Tried to go to heaven but he went the other way

            He went:

            Down! Down! Down! Down!

 

            Ryan burps emphatically as he slams the empty pint on the table, wipes his mouth. He grabs a beer out of his friends’ hand and plunks it in front of me.

 

            “IT’S THE CANADIANS TURN.”

 

            I tilt the beer and the hands clap the table. She’s a piss pot through and through,,,

            I dance with Sam. He’s from the Gold Coast. He’s got curly blonde hair and tells me I am just his type and I don’t stop him when he dances close and I feel the hardening in his shorts.

            The lights are too bright, and Kailey and I alternate between shots, dancing, cigarette breaks, and time outside in the grass. We’re sidled up beside one another and pass the box of wine to new friends. They disperse and again it’s her and I, the box of wine. She puts her arm around me. I want to tell her I’m happy we met, but instead we sit quietly.

            Eventually we stand, and she says, “You know, I’ve never told anyone that before.”

            We stay up until four a.m. I don’t remember crawling into bed. This is not the only detail I can’t recall.

            I’ve made Kailey a promise.

*

            Kailey bumps me with her hip.

            “You ready to go bungee jumping?” She asks.

*

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.