Cuzco, City of the Incas
When you first fly into Cuzco, the red rooftops of the low houses engage you in visual delight. The semi-round tiles are a dusky red, and form cock-eyed patterns. Arriving by plane to Cuzco, with the mist still gently hanging in the gray morning sky, is like landing into a fairytale city.
After living in Quito, which is 9,000 feet high, I thought my body had adjusted to high altitudes. However, one can easily forget the magnitude of the Andes Mountains. In some mining towns in Peru, the workers’ blood actually turns blue, because of the dazzling height of the Andes. During my year in Quito, my period stopped coming for months at a time. Now, after landing in Cuzco, I had another shock. The altitude was at least 11,000 feet, and the effect was staggering. After Diane and I located a hotel, the proprietor insisted that we partake of some special tea in the small restaurant next door.
“It is made from the cocoa leaves, but don’t be concerned about it being like a drug. The Incas have used this tea for centuries, to help them adjust to such extreme heights.”
Feeling quite light-headed, we took his suggestion seriously. Afterward we returned to our rooms to unpack and rest. By then Diane had heard all about my quest to find Winnie’s son in Cuzco.
“I just can’t believe this story. Ya’ll are like some messenger out of a detective novel.” Diane was from Mississippi, and her southern accent drawled attractively. “When do we go to that hotel where Winnie thought her son might be staying?”
I was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. The last two days had been intense, and I just wanted to think things through a bit. Diane was sweet but younger and more energetic than me. “I say let’s rest some, then eat. After that I’ll be ready to look for Miguel Angel.” And then I quickly fell asleep.
Cuzco or Cusco?
Cuzco is as captivating as the travel books claim. Once the ancient capital of the Incas, the city retains several Incan structures, built with irregular blocks of stones that fit so tightly together one is urged to trace the thin lines where they conjoin. Earthquakes are frequent in the Andes, and when they occur in Cuzco, it is a known fact that the buildings which still possess Inca walls miraculously stand firm while the more modern structures collapse. Upon his discovery of the marvelous city, Francisco Pizarro is known to have written to the king about how remarkable Cusco’s architecture was. Today more than 300,000 people live in the city, which is now officially spelled Cusco, not Cuzco—though both are commonly used.
What was most remarkable to me about the city, however, was the food. Back in Quito the basic cuisine consisted of either ceviche or huge plates of rice with bits of meat and vegetables tossed in. Here in Cuzco the Europeans had left their mark, with meatier dishes and bakeries that sold scrumptious tarts, croissants, and pies topped with tasty whipped cream. Diane and I happily dined at a corner restaurant after our afternoon snooze, and then decided to look up the elusive Miguel Angel.
The first place we checked was the hotel address that Winnie had given to me, which was near the centro. The attendant at the desk stared at us for a short moment, repeating Miguel Angel’s name, until suddenly his eyes lit up.
“Ahora entiendo. Miguel Angel es Guajiro! Este chavo no ha estado aquí desde hace meses. Si quieren ustedes encontrar Guajiro, pues, deben irse al zocalo. A lo mejor esta alli, tocando su churango.” The man began to chortle bizarrely.
“What did he say?” asked Diane, who didn’t understand much Spanish.
“Well, he said that Miguel Angel hadn’t been here for months, and that he goes by this Quechua name, Guajiro, which means the wind.” I began to giggle myself, reflecting on how we were trying to catch the wind in Cuzco. “And then he told us to go the zocalo, because that is where Miguel hangs out, playing his churango.”
“What’s a churango?”
“It’s a small stringed instrument, like a tenor guitar, only the back is an armadillo shell.”
“Yes, really. Let’s go, Diane. Maybe we can catch the wind playing a concert in the zocalo.”
The Mystery Begins
I had no idea what Miguel Ángel looked like, and there wasn’t anyone playing music in the zocalo that afternoon.
“Let’s go to the pena Winnie was telling you about. You know, the one with the strange name,” suggested Diane.
“Good idea. Let’s see, it was called the Kamikaze. Who would have thought in the middle of the Andes there’d be a bar with a Japanese name for World War II suicide pilots!”
After inquiring about the Kamikaze’s location, we found ourselves climbing the steps of a building that looked like it should have been standing in the middle of the jungle. The bar appeared to be made from bamboo sticks, and sat on five-foot stilts. By the time we climbed two sets of stairs and got inside, I was already tired. Towards the back of a large room, some musicians were setting the stage with their instruments.
“Hey, maybe that’s him!” I exclaimed, pointing at one of the men with long, wavy hair. “Con permiso, pero quisiera saber si usted conoce a un músico quien se llama Miguel Ángel, de Lima. Su madre le mando una carta.” I held up the envelope to show the young man Winnie’s letter with the ring inside.
“Buenas tardes,” began the young man, reminding me of how I’d forgotten my manners.
“Buenas tardes,” I returned, a bit chagrined. “Bueno..yo”
The man quickly switched to English and extended his hand. “My name is Rodrigo. Nice to meet you. Sure, I know Miguel Angel. He’s not here at the moment, but I believe if you come later, like around 11 tonight, you may find him. Sometimes he plays during intermissions.”
“My name’s Corina, and this is Diana. Thanks so much, Rodrigo. Does he play every night?”
“Well, I am not sure about that. But come! My band is called El Tribu.”
We agreed to come the next day, and thanked Rodrigo, shaking his hand once more.
“Well, at least we know he’s still in Cuzco,” commented Diane. “and it seems he’s graduated. Instead of the zocalo, he’s playing in a bar! Hey, changing the subject, that Rodrigo seemed like he was pretty interested in you, Corina.”
I had noticed the same thing. Though Rodrigo was quite attractive and notably polite, I had no intention of starting a romance in Cuzco. Diane and I walked out into the cool, Andean dusk just as the stars snuck out, dressed in crystal splendor. Inhaling the crisp, mountain air infused with smoky smells of distant fires, I thought of Winnie and her urgent words. Though the Andean night reached out with seductive arms, only one thing was clear. I had to find Miguel Angel.