Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cuzco Now and Then

I scoured the southern edge of Cuzco's Plaza de Armas. My travel agent, Luzma Tours, had been right there in 1994 when I'd last been to Cuzco.

It was hopeless, I knew. The agent had probably changed careers years ago or given up on what must have become high-priced rent after a while.

But I'd try to find her. I owed her a big "Thanks." I hadn't spoken to her since she'd set up my plane transfer from Puerto Maldonado to Lima, one autumn day 15 years ago.

I've been a travel novice the last time I'd been to Cuzco. I'd checked in a few days earlier for my flight from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado. I'd sat at the gate, oblivious to the Spanish-language announcements around me. When my flight left late, I thought nothing of it until I got to the gate.

"Puerto Maldonado? Your flight is up there!" The gate agent pointed at a plane in the sky. I still remember her wide eyes, her annoyed face. The gate had changed, I hadn't heard the announcement (in Spanish, which now I'd understand) and I'd missed my flight.

Sheepishly, I took a taxi to see Luzma.

"You'll have to go tomorrow. But there's no way to get back the following day and then to connect through to Lima. Unless..."

She'd made some calls and decided that I would transfer from the Puerto Maldonado to Lima flight ON THE CUZCO RUNWAY. I doubt you could even do something like that now.

A few days later, after visiting Explorers Inn, I stepped off the plane from Puerto Maldonado. I saw another plane. Uncertainly, I walked towards it. This was highly unusual. Had Luzma made it happen?

I looked towards the terminal. A short woman was waving frantically at me. Luzma! She caught my eye then gestured wildly. RUN, RUN, I could see her mouthing.

I ran to the other plane, laughing. A uniformed airline employee handed me my boarding pass at the stairs. Luzma had pulled it off and I was on my way to Lima.

She hadn't had a website or e-mail back then and we'd done our business by fax. I sent her a card when I got home to New York, but had no way of knowing if it had ever gotten there.

I still don't know.

Today, I spent my Sunday wandering the streets of Cuzco, now highly commercialized. The video arcade where I'd played pinball one hot afternoon was gone, I think replaced by a McDonald's. Govinda was still there, and my hotel where I'd laid in bed sick from the altitude and feeling my first earthquake was still there, but remodeled now into a 4-star establishment.

Cuzco is still a historic city, still the gateway for expeditions to Machu Picchu. But it's changed. The entire town, I think, has been renovated.

"Perhaps," I thought as I eyeballed the alpaca sweater prices in high-end boutiques on the main square, "I should have done my souvenir shopping back in La Paz."

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