May 29, 1999

...And That's My OpinionŠ

By Sandy Goldman - The Rogers Park Community Curmudgeon

Coca Tea or Reality!

Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Libertador in Cuzco, Peru, drinking coca tea, (more on that later) I was captivated by both the hotel itself and by the lobby scene unfolding before me.

The hotel is a huge complex; a fine old mansion with several courtyards dating back to the 16th century when parts of it were inhabited by the Spanish conquistador, Fernando Pizzaro. There are walls and foundations dating back to the original Inca times. The lobby is furnished in a grand style with antique paintings, iron chandeliers and Spanish colonial sofas and chairs. In addition there is a gallery of pre-Columbian ceramics discovered when the hotel was being rebuilt.

Cuzco is about 12,000 feet above sea level and the air is thin and some period of adjustment is necessary to avoid altitude sickness: thus enters mate de coca. Mate de coca or te de hierbas, a mild tasty yellowish tea made from coca leaves which helps the blood cells carry more oxygen molecules at high altitudes. Because it is a cocaine derivative it is illegal to export it from Peru. There are no adverse side effects and it does accomplish its purpose.

And so, as we sat in the lobby drinking our tea, I was fascinated by the theater unfolding all around us. It was about 5 p.m. and tour groups and individuals having visited the Inca ruins, were assembling for teatime. The symphony of sounds was startling! There was Japanese, and German; there was French and Italian; here and there the guttural tones of the Dutch and rasp of the Russians. Interspersed between them all was some English and of course, conducting this symphony was Spanish. When language failed, it was astonishing to watch people communicate with hands and fingers and gestures.

In fact, as we walked independently through the city of Cuzco, and during the tour to Machu Picchu, via train and bus, most communication was accomplished by gestures and "pieces of English" and a "bit of Spanish". Have you ever tried to bargain with gestures, "a bit of Spanish" and "pieces of English"? It works, albeit with help from a good battery operated calculator! Numbers: the universal language.

The Cuzco area is awash with the ruins of the once powerful and omnipotent Inca civilization. The two most famous ones are Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. The former is a massive step tiered fortress where the invading Spanish cavalry were decisively defeated in 1536. Around the ruins are the decisively determined vendors of goods of all descriptions and some not even describable: once again, "gestures, pieces of English and bits of Spanish" mixed with smiles, good nature and a friendly attitude: communication.

Machu Picchu was unknown until 1911 when Hiram Bingham discovered it by accident while searching for some other lost city. Believed to have been an important ceremonial center, the exact status and knowledge of the Machu Picchu ruins remains sketchy. The climb is breathtaking (literally) picturesque, exhilarating and exhausting. The guides are knowledgeable and informative.

And as in the lobby of the hotel, there is the cacophony of language, as the many guides speak to groups in their languages. And there is the genial nod of one group to the other. The unspoken understanding that here is something amazing, mysterious and historical: the lost city of the Incas. Here is the Hut of the Caretaker; the Serpent Window; the Temple of the Sun; the Sacred Plaza. Each group in passing seems not to need words as they transmit their feeling in an invisible language: communication.

The climb is long and high and difficult. Along the way there are people of all ages and all countries stopping to rest and catch their breath. Unable to speak (both for lack of breath as well as language) there is nevertheless a communication of sorts, done with smiles and gestures and a determined glance to the top, accompanied by a "harrumph" meaning "Oh, my God".

Back at the hotel lobby the room was abuzz with stories of the climb and the clatter of the teacups.

There was Japanese and German; there was French and Italian; here and there were the guttural tones of the Dutch and the rasp of Russian. Interspersed between them all was English and of course conducting it all was Spanish.

It was that way throughout the rest of our trip in South America! Dozens of different languages, but everybody on the same page. It was fun!


In the taxi going home from O'Hare, I asked the driver what was new in Rogers Park.

"Well," he said, "Dominicks is putting up the walls at Gateway, but nothin' has happened with the rest. Let me ask ya somethin'."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Who's gonna shop there?"


Too many people in Rogers Park just don't get it!! "It ain't white; it ain't black - it's just green!"

I think I want to go back to Cuzco.....!! Coca Tea or Reality!!

...And that's my opinion.

And I'm Sandy Goldman

Send me your e-mail address or those of others who would be interested and I'll add them to my rapidly growing distribution list.


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