During some recent overseas appearances on my World Karaoke Tour, I’ve tried to perform songs that relate, in some way, to the country in which I find myself. For example, who can forget that time I sang “Walk Like an Egyptian” in Cairo? Or my decision to include “Back in the U.S.S.R.” on my setlist in Moscow? Conversely, although more than 20 years have passed since I sang in Vienna, I still regret passing up the chance to sing “Edelweiss” in that Austrian capital. Giving a shout-out to my host country is a unique opportunity that I like to take advantage of when I’m “on tour.”
When I visited Peru in November 2013, I took a slightly different approach. Despite the richness of Peruvian culture and history, I don’t know any English-language songs (i.e., songs that I would have been exposed to in the U.S.) that are associated with Peru. So I came up with the following way to pay homage to that Spanish-speaking land: I figured it would be a nice gesture to at least learn a Spanish-language song to serenade the locals with.
Actually, there was one song with Spanish lyrics that I’d already done numerous times over the previous three or so years: “La Bamba.” But I wanted to try something fresh and different. So I sought to add at least one more tune in the Spanish tongue to my repertoire, with a view to using the new material for my debut song in the Republic of Peru.
My Peruvian itinerary encompassed multiple towns, although as you’ll see, I didn’t end up singing in all of them.
Getting Things Started in Lima
My starting point was the capital city of Lima, a bustling coastal metropolis with a population exceeding 8 million. Arriving from New York, my flight into Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport landed at about 12:30 a.m. on a Friday morning. That late arrival time precluded an immediate karaoke excursion; I checked into an airport hotel and hit the hay.
But on the following night (Friday, November 22), I moseyed on over to The Stage, a venue in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood. Miraflores abounds with high-end retail establishments and well-maintained public parks, and it was also the area in which my hotel was located.
Incidentally, among the many public parks in Miraflores is Parque John F. Kennedy, which honors the 36th U.S. President. I had the unique privilege of visiting that park on the 50th anniversary of the day on which President Kennedy was assassinated. A special series of photographs had been installed in the park to commemorate JFK’s tragic death.
The Stage was located just across the street from Parque John F. Kennedy, and was easy walking distance from my hotel. It’s always comforting to find a place to sing from which I can return to my room whenever I want to, without any worries about waiting for a taxi.
Once inside The Stage, for the particular canción en Español that would mark my Peruvian karaoke debut, I chose “A Mi Manera.” Recorded by The Gipsy Kings, it’s a Spanish adaptation of the Frank Sinatra standard, “My Way.” (There’s another version of “A Mi Manera,” recorded by Vicente Fernandez, with somewhat different lyrics but featuring the same melody.) The fact that I’ve never sung Sinatra’s original version of the song didn’t stop me. 🙂 You can watch my rendition of the Gipsy Kings cover here:
I’ll admit that there were a couple of high notes that I didn’t quite hit. This was only the second time that I’d ever performed “A Mi Manera” in public, and my relative unfamiliarity with the song probably showed. In addition I was battling a sore throat, so my vocal range was probably more restricted than usual. I bring all of this up not to make excuses, but to illustrate some of the challenges that I face when taking the H-Bomb karaoke experience on the road. I hope you still enjoy this video!
By virtue of my crooning of “A Mi Manera,” Peru became the 31st country on my World Karaoke Tour. That extended the world record that I’d set in May 2013, when Moldova became the 30th country in which I’ve sung. But my Peruvian singing adventures weren’t over!
Cusco: Derailed by the Thin Air
Health issues forced a hiatus from those singing adventures in the city of Cusco. At an elevation of approximately 11,200 feet, Cusco is on the short list of the highest-altitude cities in the world. I’d flown there directly from Lima, meaning that I was making an immediate transition from sea level to over two miles above sea level. Travellers who subject themselves to such a rapid change in altitude are vulnerable to altitude sickness, as their bodies struggle with the adjustment to thin air and the resultant lack of oxygen in their bloodstreams (hypoxia). Different people experience the effects of hypoxia differently, and take varying amounts of time to acclimate to the higher altitude. For me, the hypoxia was absolutely debilitating.
I stepped off the plane at Cusco’s airport on a Saturday afternoon. The effects of the altitude didn’t set in right away; but by that evening, I was starting to experience headaches more excruciating than any that I’d ever felt before. (I’ve been fortunate never to have suffered from migraines, but the headaches that afflicted me in Cusco were probably similar.) The headaches were often accompanied by nausea. These symptoms came and went. In addition, physical exertion (such as walking up stairs) would cause me to feel lightheaded.
In an attempt to stop feeling like shit, I followed much of the typical advice to combat altitude sickness, such as drinking copious amounts of water and coca tea. I also took acetaminophen pills that I’d obtained at a nearby pharmacy. But despite such measures, the symptoms kept recurring. Even lying down on my bed didn’t help; when I did so the headaches seemed to intensify, perhaps as a result of the blood rushing to my head.
I mentioned that my first night in Cusco was a Saturday. While I’d intended to find karaoke that night (and I’d looked forward to being able to say that I’d sung “at altitude”), my physical discomfort put the kibosh on those plans. I still had a fun evening hanging out with an American expat, Lainie, her teenaged son Miro, and a few couchsurfers that they were hosting. But I didn’t feel up to going out to a bar, drinking alcohol, and singing (or staying out late into the night, as a karaoke excursion inevitably entails).
On my second evening in Cusco, a Sunday, my symptoms temporarily abated. Although I wasn’t feeling fully recovered, karaoke became a theoretical option. My timing could have been better, though, because it was a Sunday night and all of the karaoke bars in Cusco that I was able to find turned out to be closed on Sundays. It may have been just as well, because my headaches returned later that night.
The following day I was proceeding to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu; and so Cusco wasn’t destined to get added to the list of cities on my World Karaoke Tour. The good news: despite my bout of altitude sickness, I managed enough of an appetite during my time in Cusco to try a local delicacy known as cuy, which is another name for roast guinea pig. 🙂
Incidentally, for transit from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, I took a private car service to the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, and then took a train from Ollantaytambo the rest of the way. I had other options for the first leg of that journey, from Cusco to Ollantaytambo; motorcoaches run that route regularly and are quite inexpensive. Originally I’d intended to take one of those buses. However, because I was still suffering from the effects of the altitude sickness, I opted for the greater comfort of a private car.
Singing in Machupicchu
Late in the afternoon on Monday, my train pulled into Aguas Calientes. That town is also known as Machupicchu (rendered as one word) or Machu Picchu Pueblo, but to avoid confusion with the nearby Incan site, I’ll refer to it here as Aguas Calientes. Regardless of what you choose to call it, the town is tiny, consisting mainly of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets that are lined with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. I lodged in one of the town’s hotels. Incidentally, Aguas Calientes is found at an altitude of “only” about 6,200 feet, and the fact that it’s some 5,000 feet lower in elevation than Cusco makes a huge difference. By the time I disembarked from the train, I was completely over the altitude sickness that had plagued me in Cusco.
What brought me to Aguas Calientes was, of course, the chance to tour the breathtaking arachaeological site that’s a short motorcoach ride away from the town. The remains of the 15th century city of Machu Picchu, unearthed by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, didn’t disappoint.
(By the way, those ruins are somewhat higher in altitude than Aguas Calientes — sitting at roughly 8,000 feet — but my headaches didn’t return during my day-trip to Machu Picchu). Aguas Calientes boasts no real sightseeing attractions of its own; it was just a place to stay. But unexpectedly, I did find a karaoke venue in the town! That unlikely establishment bore the name of “Kusi Kusi Karaoke Pub.”
Kusi Kusi wasn’t exactly hopping on the night that I straggled in. In fact, the door was locked, and I had to track down the proprietor to let me in. It was a Monday night, and he explained that Mondays tend to be slow. But there’s a difference between “slow” and “the guy has to grab a key to let in any patrons who wander by.” 🙂
Once inside, I didn’t feel compelled to perform in Spanish, since there was no audience to win over. So I reverted to making a selection from the English-language material in my repertoire. I sang “Honesty” by Billy Joel. It was actually hard to find specific English-language songs in Kusi Kusi, as the songbook had no semblance of alphabetical order and I had to flip through pages that listed random song titles by the likes of “The Backtrees Boys.” 🙂 Here you can watch me singing “Honesty” in Kusi Kusi:
Kusi Kusi’s owner (or manager, or whatever he was) served as the videographer by default, due to the lack of any other available human beings to fill that role. I like the way he panned around the bar with the camera, so that viewers of the video can readily see that the place was totally empty. 🙂
Overall, my karaoke experiences in Peru were very up and down. When all was said and done, however, the country count for my singing tour was up to 31. I hoped to make Panama number 32 when I flew there for a weekend on my way back to New York from Peru. Okay, spoiler: Panama did become the 32nd country. 🙂 To read about my thoroughly enjoyable karaoke experience in Panama City, click here.