Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cusco, the navel of the world

This tale begins amid the confusion of a "paro," a strike going on in Cusco over the threatened privatization of Machu Picchu by the Peruvian government to Chilean investors. I was on a bus from Arequipa to Cusco, that was supposed to arrive at 6am. Rather, I awoke around 6am to an empty bus. I asked the driver what was going on, and he mentioned there was the strike going on outside. I would have to walk into town. I got off the bus, and started talking to another gringo named Nir. Nir was from Israel, and we decided to head off into town. Some 6 hours later, we finally arrived to Cusco, where I begin my latest tale.

Like Jerusalem, Cusco was believed by the Incans to be the navel of the world. These days, it is the center of Peruvian tourism, and is inundated with foreigners. So much so, that walking through the main square, I saw numerous Israeli flags flying along side the others. There were signs in Hebrew offering internet services like skype, and promoting packages. Nir and I even found a bagel shop, and a pretty good Mediterranean restaurant that had surprisingly decent shwarma in a laffa (Iraqi pita), with stellar harif (hot sauce). Even the Peruvians I spoke with, who are well accustomed to hot foods, found the harif to be spicy.

As Shabbat was coming in, I began wondering what I would do for the sabbath. As I was walking back to my hostel to get ready for the sabbath, I bumped into a fellow foreigner who was trying to get rid of a hawker. As we were chatting, I found out that Virginia from New York was also Jewish and looking for a place to go for shabbat. Her hotel had told her there were no synagogues, but with such an Israeli presence, I found that hard to believe. We ducked into an internet cafe, checked on the Chabad website, and sure enough- found a Beit Chabad.

After changing into Shabbat attire, I trekked through the city to find the Beit Chabad. I was lost, searching for the Beit Chabad, until I spied a hanging banner of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Yet to my shock, the Beit Chabad was closed. I had the good fortune of arriving just as Gabino de Cuza. Gabino works with the rabbi as an assistant in the kitchen, and he explained to me that the rabbi was away on vacation during a period when most Israelis are either in Bolivia or Brazil.

The amiable assistant to the Beit Chabad sat down with me to discuss the institutions that Beit Chabad Cusco possessed. Gabino mentioned that the Beit Chabad had been around for 3 years. He mentioned that they have a kosher restaurant. The restaurant receives its kosher meat from Buenos Aires, while the Beit Chabad also owns a farm to raise and slaughter kosher chicken. There is also a place to stay near the shul for Shabbat. When the synagogue is open, they receive between 80-100 people on a weekly basis for the sabbath. Meanwhile, Gabi beamed when he mentioned there were between 400-500 guests for passover. Mostly the visitors to the Beit Chabad are from Israel, but Gabino mentioned that they receive a number of Americans, Australians and Russians to the synagogue.

As I previously mentioned, the synagogue was unfortunately closed when I arrived, so I wasn't able to do a full "Tales" piece. I also boycotted writing anything about the community in Lima, stemming from some ill-received feelings of rejected hospitality that came my way from a Liman Jew. If anyone would like to see more about the Peruvian Jewish community, click here for some history.

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