16 Jan

the Road to Cusco (Through the Clouds)

All month, Rose has been saying: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you’re lucky, you’ll get what you need.”

Cusco wasn’t at all what I expected – but from the beginning, neither was Peru. And in hindsight, I feel almost naive to have thought that it wouldn’t dive in so deeply, wouldn’t move in so thoroughly to try to change my life.

knocked out by cusco

I went to Cusco expecting to meditate, to meet the Q’eros, to practise my Quechua. What happened instead was a very different story – and sometimes we people can be stubborn when it comes to a change of plans, to an unprecedented development. I’ll admit I kept looking to the mountains expecting a Deus ex machina, but the Deus ex machina was happening all around me, on the ground – in the form of an ayllu, a spiritual family.

They say “travelling is all about the people you meet”. If that is the definition, then our journey really began in Lima. This is the story:

Shortly before Christmas, Rose and I met Kwinten, a lovely lovely Belgian on a travelling quest through South America. He had been travelling for a few months by then and if you’re fluent in Dutch, or just love his photographs, then follow his blog here.

We bumped into him on a beach in Lima when he asked us to watch his surfboard. We began by chatting and suddenly dove into what I can only name “the Intimiacies Shared by People On the Road”: we spoke about politics and about life; about what we hoped to achieve in this life, to learn from it; about why we had left Europe and how we had changed since. Within minutes of introducing ourselves, he shared a sweet anecdote of working with mentally challenged childen in Guatemala and how he loved it when they called him “crazy”.

We got along so well that we made plans to meet that evening for a drink and then go dancing in Barranco. But when Rose and I arrived (too late) at the designed meeting point, there was no sign of Kwinten. We discussed the options: either he had arrived on time and given up waiting for us; or he had been exhausted from all the surfing and had overslept the date; or he had never really intended on going out with us in the first place.

Either way, we felt terrible for arriving so late and decided to do something about it. We knew his name and the street his hostel was on. The only information we lacked was the actual name of the hostel. “This can only happen to us,” we agreed with a laugh and decidedly started walking up Avenida Bolognesi.

We knocked on the door of every hostel we came across and asked if our friend Kwinten was staying there – all the while trying not to look like dodgy women scouting a strange man for money or drugs. It was a ridiculous situation to be in – but to be fair, some of the responses matched us in ridiculousness:

Ritti: “Good evening. We are looking for a young man from Belgium named Kwinten. Is he staying at this hostel?”

Receptionist: “No, he isn’t.”

Ritti: “You didn’t even check the registry books… Would you be allowed to tell me if he was staying here, or does that go against your hostel policy?”

Receptionist: “No, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you if he was staying here, but I can tell you that he isn’t staying here.”

I had to smile at the logic and think: “I love this bizarre country.”

Rose and I walked on, knocked on, asked on – and three hostels later, stood facing a beautiful red building with the bright Christmas lights draped over its walls, under a sign that loudly proclaimed: HITCHHIKERS BACKPACKERS HOSTEL. We agreed: “This is it, this must be the right place.”

interior of the beautiful and now very memorable Hitchhikers Backpackers Hostel

Knocking boldly, delivering the (by now) well-rehearsed speech, only to be met by a smile from the young receptionist, who replied: “A Belgian guy, right? Yes, he’s here. I’ll get him.” We couldn’t believe our luck!

And down the stairs tumbled a disheveled and befuddled Kwinten. “I am so sorry, I overslept! I was just looking for your number in the Yellow Pages and in the internet, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I am so sorry I didn’t make it to the meeting point on time!” Then his confusion caught up with him. “But… how did you find me?!”

In all of Lima, we had found our friend again. But not only that: Kwinten introduced us to the young Belgian entrepreneuer, Gabriel Goldberg, founder of the internet advisory company Semetis. Gabriel had arrived in Peru that evening and had walked into the hostel a literal 20 minutes ago. He had only just introduced himself to Kwinten when we knocked on the hostel door. It was his first night in Peru, a country he planned to visit on his 10 day leave. Within half an hour of checking into the hostel, Gabriel found himself in a taxi with Rose, Kwinten and I – three complete strangers.

this is the most beautiful photograph of our beautiful group, so although it wasn't taken on our night out in Barranco, I simply had to choose it to show US. Left to right: Kwinten, Ritti, Gabriel, Rose

We got along immediately. Otherwise we never would have gone out together. But again the rule of Intimacy on the Road won over Shyness or Fear of Impropriety. Rose, Kwinten, Gabriel and I drank, danced and laughed in Barranco that night, and when Rose and I returned to our apartment in Magdalena, we felt we had found friends for life.

We went separate ways after that night, with a vague intention of meeting up in Cusco for New Years. Kwinten travelled along the coast with his beautiful sister Marthe, and Gabriel’s plan was to fly on to Cusco the next day. He somehow landed in Arequipa instead. “What happened?” he laughed. That’s Peru. Nothing goes according to plan – because Peru has its own. If it has plans for you, you don’t even have to walk there. Peru will slip under your feet and take you where you should be.

Rose and I arrived in Cusco four days later.

Ritti and Rose at the famous Inka Wall with the Stone of 12 Angles somewhere behind us

We made plans to go horseback riding in the morning. And at 9 in the morning on the 30th December, we walked to the meeting point for the horseback riding tour, and coincidentally standing before it, hesitating with the befuddled notion of having been up all night on a cheap Peruvian bus with the Fear of God, as it bounced along narrow Andean dirt roads… was Gabriel!

He had travelled from Arequipa to Puno, and had realised, sitting on a boat on Lake Titicaca, that all the beauty in the world meant nothing if you have no one to speak to. So he got on the next bus to Cusco to find us. Of all the places he could have been in Cusco, of all the hours, minutes or seconds of the day, he had to stand before our horseback riding office, looking as though he were waiting for someone… “Thank god there are no coincidences!”

surprise reunion in Cusco

Being a brilliantly easy-going and spontaneous guy, Gabriel hopped onto the next horse and joined our horseback riding tour…

Kwinten and his lovely sister Marthe arrived later on the evening of the 30th. We were reunited. And our circles of friends began to grow… On New Years Eve, Rose and I shared a long dinner table with the most international group of interesting people ever. On his travels, Kwinten had met Harald, a tour guide working at Paracas (see Poetry in Paracas), who had, in turn, brought people from the social project Pisco Sin Fronteras to Cusco. I found myself sitting beside German, Canadian, British, Peruvian, Belgian and Dutch people: all among the most interesting and interested people I have ever met. Marielle, Emmie, Marthe, Gabriel, Duncan, Najeeb, Kwinten, Hector, Rose, Hanna, Harald. Each and every one of them had stories that could fill novels, humour that could split sides and sincerity that could warm you for days.

Over the next few days, Rose and I would spend all our time in Cusco with these people. “6 o’clock under the Inca!” The Inca statue on the Plaza de Armas was our meeting point and from there, we tackled the magic of Cusco; a magic we all felt.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco: "6 o'clock under the Inka!"

Something deep was moving within all of us and I knew, no matter who I sat beside over dinner, no matter who I engaged in conversation with, that it would be a deep and meaningful talk. I knew that each evening would enrich me in some unknown way, and that knowledge gave me an understanding of peace that in some way, even this was happening for a reason.

How often to do you meet a crowd of over 10 people, with whom you feel so comfortable and at home, with whom you can say: “I feel like I have already known you for a thousand years”?

"Old menu to read, old friends to speak to, old wine to drink, old love to remember"

It was the forming of a beautiful connection. Marielle, who has been travelling for several months now, replied: “Yes, you meet nice people, but this group of people, the way we all connected, was unique and special, and we were very lucky to have found it.”

Everyone got along, everyone laughed. And looking back at those photographs, I can only think: we look so happy.

An ayllu is a spiritual family, and for a week in Cusco, an ayllu is what was formed. It wasn’t at all what I had wanted, but it was what I had needed. The intimacy of strangers on the road. Realising how much you needed that hug. Arranging to travel onwards because we have the same path in mind and we already trust each other enough to share hotel rooms. And a part of us couldn’t help but say: “None of this would have happened if we hadn’t met Kwinten on the beach at day.”

The town Cusco derives its name from the Quechua word qosqo, which means “bellybutton”. The Incas named the capital of their empire thus because they believed it to be the bellybutton, the center, of the world. Everyone I have spoken to has agreed: something about Cusco is indeed magical. Magical things seem to happen there with ease, simplicity – and joy.

And while I took to the mountains occasionally and meditated, I felt as though my daily meditation was actually in speaking to these people, in laughing with them when they told a brilliant story, or hugging them when they shared sudden intimate sorrows.

Sitting on a wall in the Plaza de San Blas, watching the sun set over the mountains that cradle the valley of Cusco, I saw one by one, the houses of Cusco light up for the night and I felt: this is the place to write Munay, up here, where you can almost touch the clouds.

A proximity to the clouds becomes very important when you’re writing a novel about people who can fly.

In Cusco, I visited all the museums I had wanted to see, I visited the shrines and ruins that I felt that called me, and performed my little meditation rituals. I was especially delighted with the Musem of Sacred Plants (and highly recommend it to everyone), because Perú has such a great history of medicinal plants and it’s especially fantastic that Peruvians are giving their shamanic and medicinal history (and present) such a worthy examination and presentation. Until a few years ago, shamanism and plant healing rituals were spoken of degradingly as “money-stealing witchcraft”; today the ayahuasca plant is acknowledged as a planta maestra (teacher plant), its healing rituals are offered by even the poshest of hotels, and the private Musem of Sacred Plants opened to honour Perú’s proud position in medicinal history.

Ritti Soncco at the Museum of Sacred Plants

magical objects used by modern shamans during healing rituals

coca leaf offering for Pachamama

And during all my wanderings and Really Deep Thoughts, a little voice kept whispering: “… but… there is more… and if you stay… I will show you… ”

with such breathtaking landscape around Cusco... how can you leave?

And so I left Cusco with the strange knowledge that I will be back. I have to go back to write Munay, but also have to go back because I wasn’t done yet. There’s more to discover, more to understand. Cusco opened its arms and I long to lie in them. If I had been born in Cusco, I could perhaps understand this connection better. All I can say is: it feels as though I was. I feel so at home here.


Ritti at Sacsayhuaman

Connected at Sacsayhuaman

visitors meditating with the rocks of Sacsayhuaman, which are believed to have healing properties

So, my dearest friends, I am now doing my utmost to prolong my stay in Perú. My return flight is in a week and I find that I can’t leave just yet. Munay chose her place of birth – I have to go back to the clouds. I promise to write more on that next time. It’s not an easy decision to come by and I still have to iron out all the details, but I will tell you all about it this week.

Soncco Travel: Travel by Heart

Thank You Very Much to our beautiful new friends for making the start of 2012 so memorable and intensely beautiful. Please stay in touch! And Thank You to Marielle, Kwinten and Rose for the use of their pictures for this post.


2 Responses to “Ayllu”

  1. friedrich glorian January 16, 2012 at 10:05 pm #


  2. purple Harem January 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    aaw! this is so magical and ethereal, it doesnt matter where you were born as you Munay and your corazon y alma are amomgst the clouds, you chose way before you were born to be once again in Peru 🙂 Thereare nosuch things as coincidences, only synchronicity and what is intended to be. The stories of travel can fill up libraries of laughter and bittersweet memories, im very happy for you to be on this journey. I wish I knew you were going to Cusco as I would have recommended to take a visit to the museum near the plaza de armas where papa Ochoa donated dozens of huacos. For years wen I was growing up he would have looters visit the house as my dad would negotiate for huacos, paracas tapestries, etc, he told me once he was doing this to save it for the Peruvians so that it wouldn’t land on foreign hands. Next time 🙂
    Hope you get to stay more days with the pachamama and have all the ceviche in the world 🙂

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