Promise me something: if you are ever within 100 miles of Arequipa, Puno or Cusco, do yourself a favour and hop aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer.
Words can hardly describe how awesome this experience was.
We’d booked ourselves a luxury sleeper train from Puno to Cusco, across one of the highest railway lines in the world. The train is run by luxury company Belmond and boy do they know what they are doing. From the second we arrived to the private terminal and were greeted with sparkling wine to the sounds of a violinist to the second we stepped off the train it was magical. Upon boarding it was a pineapple cocktail in their observation carriage before being shown to our epic room, fitted out like a 5 star hotel.
A delicious 3 course lunch was served in the restaurant carriage, before we relaxed with yet more cocktails in the observatory carriage. The service was incredible – there must have been 25 highly trained staff to 11 lucky guests!
A fellow called Alvaro (“But you can call me Al”) was the onboard guide who taught us the genuinely fascinating art of Incan arithmetic using a kind of calculator, which has only recently begun to be well understood and re-taught (since the Incans didn’t keep written records, at least in ways we can understand or which weren’t destroyed by the bastard Spanish conquistadors). It’s more like a board game than maths, using a grid system and white (representing addition) and red (representing subtraction) dried beans. It’s a totally lateral, left-brain, visual and gamified way of doing arithmetic, bearing absolutely no relation to the way we think of, and visualise, arithmetic in Western culture. I think had I learnt maths in this way I probably wouldn’t have sucked at it! The numbers on the board go 1, 2, 3, 5, skipping the number 4. Mindblowingly, this is the Fibonacci sequence, and as Alvaro told us, his eyes shining with excitement, suggests the Incans had also understood this natural code and all about the golden ratio etc.
This was to be the first of several times our minds were totally blown over the next week learning more about Incan culture. You can’t help have a sense of mixed emotions: sorrow, frustration and wonderment as you begin to appreciate how much must be lost, thanks to the Spanish systematic eradication of Incan culture (which they believed to be demonic).
With the Incan calculator you arrive at a correct mathematical result but in a completely different way. You lay the beans on the grid to represent the numbers you’re adding together. The first level is single digits, the next tens, the next hundreds and so on. To make a 4 for example you place a bean in 3 and a bean in 1 along the first level of the grid. Once the beans are all laid out, then you apply the rules. No square on the grid must have two beans in it, no two columns must have adjacent beans and so on (with many ‘jumping’ rules devised to simplify/gamify the process).
To have the realisation that something as pure and empirical as Maths, where you assume there is just one way to do things, could have utterly different ways of approaching it, (indicative of an advanced civilisation that developed totally isolated from western ideology) was a brilliant scenesetter for what we were about to learn over the next few days.
We have a little video of Mitch effortlessly solving a complex addition using the game, to Alvaro’s delight.
The scenery on the journey was mind blowing and seemed from a different era. Campesinas sitting in the vast fields watching their Llamas and sheep amidst little mud brick dwellings.
In the afternoon we stopped at La Raya, the half way point between Puno and Cusco. This is a small community, at 4,300m who lay in wait for the rich aliens coming off the train ready to sell their wares with some of the most aggressive sales tactics I’ve witnessed.
The aliens brought with them two drones (Mitch and another lady on the train had one) by which two kids from the community, (one of which was a little girl, who trotted out in traditional dress and an adorable pet llama) were absolutely mesmerised.
I bought a gorgeously soft and very stylish alpaca scarf at great (relative) expense, which I felt was part of the deal. Stepping off the Orient Express I was hardly going to barter.
The train blew its deep whistle and the aliens reboarded, since it was time for cocktail hour. If we weren’t backpacking (flashpacking?) for two months we’d have brought some finery with us, as one elegant Malaysian family had done. Making do with our cleanest, least crumpled clothes, aided by my new scarf and a red lipstick I’d packed at last minute (gal’s gotta maintain some standards) we joined for canapés and pisco sours accompanied by a piano player in the Piano Bar carriage.
Dinner was sensational and I took advantage of the Oxygen tank supplied in our room since the altitude was definitely affecting me, as it had been for some days. After dinner, we retired (the only word for it) to the observation carriage where the multitalented piano player was warming up his saxaphone.
After more cocktails (we did not spend one minute without a cocktail in hand) it was reluctantly time for bed, since the morning would bring the end to the experience.
At 5am the train got moving again and sleepily, we opened the curtain, revealing a stunning sunrise over the Andes, which we admired while curled up in bed.
After breakfast, and Mitch enjoying a quick jam on his new Charango with the pianist (some Ukulele favourites; Radiohead’s Creep and Jungle Book’s “I’m the King of the Jungle”) we left the train, excruciatingly embarrassingly to an applauding receiving line of the 25 wonderful staff, when it should have been the 11 of us applauding them.
The company operates a line from Cusco – Puno / Puno – Cusco and a two night voyage from Arequipa – Cusco – Puno. If you have the chance, check it out because these talented and wonderful people deserve a thriving business!