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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What Shall We Do With Nicholas?

You know how your parents warned you never to talk to strangers?

Yeah, their words of wisdom are evergreen and we should have heeded them. Or maybe not.

For if we had, we would never have found out about an old Inca site just 20 minutes by bus from Huaraz.

But first, we had to decide what to do with Nicholas.

We had met Nicholas at one of the town squares in Huaraz, right outside the office of the trekking company whom we had signed up for the Santa Cruz trek with. The morning after returning from the trek, we headed to a restaurant called Piccolo's at the square for breakfast. Later that afternoon, after hanging our super-clean-super-fragrant laundry up to dry, we headed back to the square, where Ching and I checked out some handwoven wristbands at the craft stands. Dan was at some secret location at that time (okay, so he was in the toilet) and not with us. So, two Asian chicks walking around on their own were bound to attract some attention in the male-dominated square (yes, vendors weaving friendship bands in Peru are mostly male. Surprise!)

A lanky guy with dirty-blond hair (as in the hair wasn't a pure golden blond, not that it was dirty. Frankly, I wouldn't know) called out to us, asking where we were from. Proud as always to flaunt our homeland, we replied and continued to chat about sitting out on the Santa Cruz trek and waiting for Ching's friend, Mark, to return to Huaraz with the rest of the group. Nicholas helpfully suggested that we visit the Inca ruins at Waka Huayin, an easy 20-minute bus ride from Huaraz. No trekking required, he promised. Ching, Queen of Excitement, immediately exclaimed "Really? We should go!" Thinking that "we" meant just the 2 of us and Dan, I wholeheartedly agreed.

The next thing we knew, Nicholas replied in one smooth breath, "Sure. I only start work at 4pm tomorrow, I can bring you there."

Oh dear. How do we politely refuse his offer, given that he was the one who told us about Waka Huayin - so we obviously didn't know how to get there on our own - and we didn't want to appear rude by refusing his company. Just then, Dan reappeared. We filled him in on Waka Huayin and together, tried to suss out this Nicholas character through asking more questions:

Where and what was he working as?
Oh, he said, I'm a chef at Piccolo's.

So why wasn't he working today?
Oh, he said, it's my day off.

Where was he from and how long had he been in Huaraz? He spoke good English, we added.
Oh, he said, I'm Chilean-French. I've been here for 6 months. Before that, I worked as a chef in Australia and Bali. I just bought a piece of land here and I'm saving up to build a hotel.

We invited him to join us for dinner that night to find out more about the next day's itinerary, and also, our Chilean-French-Living-in-Huraz volunteer guide. But not before quickly consulting our guidebooks and online travel guides to confirm that Waka Huayin truly existed (Yes, it did. Phew!) En route to the restaurant, Nicholas pointed out which street snacks we should try, he asked the vendors for a bean or 2 for us to sample, he gestured to restaurants that served with good food (trust him, he's a chef!) and which pub to go to for Pisco Sours (the equivalent of our Singapore Sling.) Our host displayed very friendly behaviour throughout the evening. Over dinner, he proved his detailed knowledge of Bali and Indonesian cuisine - no reason for us to doubt him there. We figured that with the majority of tourists just using Huaraz as a base to trek the Cordillera Blanca and never actually spending time in town, Nicholas didn't get much English-speaking company to hang out with, so he was just a friendly, harmless, lonely dude stuck in this little town while trying to realise his hotel dream.

After more chatting, he announced, again in one smooth breath, "So tomorrow, I've planned for us to leave for Waka Huayin at 8am, then soak in the hot springs at Chancos (used by the ancient Incas themselves years ago!) and then lunch with an Andean family thereafter. OK?"

Whaaaaat? This was going to take many more hours than we had planned on spending with him. Plus now we had to cosy up with him in a hot pool, in our swimsuits. "Okaaaaay," we replied as our minds whirred, pondering on our next step, and to buy time, replied "we can consider doing all that after Waka Huayin."

Nicholas did not pay for his share of the dinner that night. We scurried back to our hostel room, wondering what to make of him:

Maybe he had no money and was trying to live off tourists by bringing them out for dinner and making them pay for him. Maybe it was the same for the ruins, the hot springs, the lunch - we would have to pay for his share.

Maybe he was a bad guy and has a group of accomplices waiting to rob (and rape!) us at the ruins. Ching had just watched the movie, Taken, about tourist kidnappings and was getting a bad case of jitters. And they will set up Bodega Ching Ching and Bodega Ji Lin, she wailed. (Ching had earlier asked us what the Spanish word 'bodega' meant in English, cos she saw the word in every other store name. Dan told her it meant brothel. It really means 'warehouse' or in reference to drinks, 'cellar'.)

Maybe he wasn't even a chef at Piccolo's, but a sly cheat preying on tourists.

Maybe he really was a good guy, bored with the local daily grind, and wanting some new company.

We considered not turning up the next morning, but that would have been rude. We had to honour our given word; commit to what we had promised. The next morning, we scuttled down to the square at 7am even though we were due to meet Nicholas only at 8am. We scouted around for more information:

We asked the staff at Piccolo's whether Nicholas existed.
Oh, they said, the Chilean-French chef? Yes he works here, but won't be in till 4pm today.
Good. Check.

We asked the owner of a nearby eatery whether it was safe to go to Waka Huayin without a professional tour guide.
Oh, he said, yes yes, Huaraz and the surrounding towns are very safe. Muy tranquilo.
Good. Check.

And there are hot springs at Chancos?
Oh, he said, yes yes, very safe to go to on your own too.
Good. Check.

For good measure, we took down directions to Waka Huayin and Chancos from the hotel reception and also penned a note for Mark at the trekking agency, telling him where we had gone to, who we had gone with, our expected time of return and instructed him to call the police and search for us if we did not return by 4pm.

Nicholas turned up at 8am, as promised. But while Ching and Dan went into the trekking agency to leave the note for Mark, Nicholas disappeared. For a good 5 to 10 minutes.

We saw our chance. We left without him. We tried to convince ourselves that there was no need to feel bad. After all, we waited, didn't we? After all, he had already wrangled a free meal from us the night before, right?

We made it to Waka Huayin without much problem. A local woman pointed us to the ruinas atop the hill. We enjoyed the scenic hike (well, it was definitely harder than just walking) to the viewpoint, marked by a giant crucifix.

We followed a well-marked trail with hints of ancient Inca presence - low stone walls and white path markers. Munching on leftover high-energy snacks from the trek - chocolate bars and crackers.

Here, I felt well enough to walk alongside Ching and not behind everyone else like on the Santa Cruz trek! Those grey piles of stones scattered throughout the fields were all part of the ruins.

Proof that I was feeling great: we were in the mood to take silly photos. Pretending to be rabbits. Guess whose hare-brained idea that was.

The Three Amigos. I've learnt to appreciate mountains from afar. No need to suffer for days to get nearer the mountains for this.

Ching explored the panorama and colour-select functions on her camera for the first time. And it was then, gazing over the grasslands, that we realised that the main part of the Inca ruins were...

.... BELOW us! In fact, the temple which we had come to see was a mere 65m from the bus stop! At least we had a really good view from the hills and a full 2 hours worth of uphill exercise.

Some funny stick insect with a pointy snout trying to hitch a ride downhill on our bag

Back at the foot of the hill, outside the real ruins, which we were too tired to explore by then

Cho Cho is the local name for a type of lentil. And no, that's not a good choice of name for a future kid. Cho Cho Cho does not sound too glam!

We hurried back to Huaraz for a late lunch. We had wanted to make our way to Chancos for the hot springs, which would have stretched our return to town till 6pm or so. We didn't want to invite more trouble by having a worried Mark rally the entire Huaraz police force and storm into Piccolo's kitchen to haul up Nicholas and search the hills for signs of us.

So what had happened to Nicholas?

Well, he turned up at our hostel just as we were having lunch with Mark, looking tired and terribly sunburned.

Look, he claimed, I waited for you, and walked back and forth between the square and your hostel the whole afternoon until I got sunburned. He gestured to the waitress and ordered a bottle of mineral water for himself. We looked at his painful red skin and felt like scums of the earth for distrusting him.

Oh, we claimed, we had waited for him after he disappeared. We even went to look for him. We thought he was gone for the day. Without him, we had to painstakingly (with our limited grasp of Spanish) ask for directions and find our own way there.

We all agreed that it was a case of missed meetings and misunderstandings, and that all was soothed between us.

Then he dropped another bomb:

Oh, he said, you have to pay the Andean family 75 soles for lunch. Cos I told them that you were going and they had to spend money to prepare lunch for you. You pay me, and I will pass the money to them.

What? We now had to pay US$25 to an "Andean family" whom we never saw, for food that we would never eat? Our minds whirred furiously. Finally, Ching (that clever girl!) replied, "Why don't you tell the Andean guy to deliver the food to us. We can have it for dinner." Nicholas promptly agreed and jumped out of his seat to "call the Andean guy now to tell him." Nicholas did not pay for his mineral water.

At the end of the day, we got the food - a simple meal of stir-fried meat and vegetables with white rice and a salad. Was it really cooked and delivered by the Andean family? Or did Nicholas whip up the cheap meal in Piccolo's kitchen (he's a chef after all) and laughingly pocketed our US$25? Easy money for him. I told Ching not to think too much - we would never know the real answer. Upon making the delivery, Nicholas offered to prepare an Indonesian breakfast for us at Piccolo's the next day. We never turned up for breakfast there. We avoided the square like plague. We had had enough of Mr Friendly and his cordial invitations.

Dan and I went to Piccolo's later that afternoon to say goodbye to Nicholas. We didn't want to part on bad terms.

We left Huaraz that night still not knowing what to make of Nicholas. Was he a bored foreigner whose life we happened to walk into at the square? Was he just a friendly guy looking for a few friendly faces to spend the day with? Or was he preying on tourists, sponging off them for free meals and excursions? Were his intentions good or bad? Pure or evil? Who was he really?

I guess we never will know.


forex course said...

I haven't any suggestion about this matter. Buy the way I like your post and photos. thanks for these.

WeLoveRoy said...

I still think not to trust the kindness of strangers.. As we get older and wiser in the way of the world... we realize that there is no free lunch... (USD25 to be exact!)

Yi Lin said...

Sometimes, I feel quite bad about not being friendly enough to the locals we meet. But one question leads to another n after that, it's very hard to say 'no' to any offers. When we don't feel comfy answering their questions, we hide behind our Chinese faces n pretend not to understand a word of Spanish, or even English.

Well the good thing that came out of this episode was that we had a fantastic time with the Chingster, enjoyed a nice hike n beautiful views, n got some great photos together.

popcorng said...

You got me so curious to how Nicholas actually looks like! Haha, but he does sound very suspicious..

Yi Lin said...

Hey popcorng,

I can't remember enough of him to describe him in detail, but he was generally a pleasant-looking slim, blondish, slightly scruffy guy who exuded very friendly behaviour.

But yeah, listen to mummy - don't talk to strangers, much less agree to visit deserted ruins and hot springs in the mountains with them!

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