A rainy day in Cusco, and I needed a cafe with Wi-Fi. But it is March, so the place I often go–Cross Keys–was closed, probably for a much needed vacation; this is the low part of the tourist cycle.
My friends had mentioned a relatively new place up on the Plazoleta de San Blas that they had been wanting to try, so we hiked up the narrow stone walkway of the Cuesta de San Blas as rain drops fell around us and, on the other side of the flower gardens in the center of the little plaza, a sign bid us welcome. It simply said: “The Meeting Place.”
As we moved into the dry warmth and light, a knot of people at the counter were talking in English about temperatures in Alaska. Now, I have come to Cuzco many times over decades and am not surprised to run into English. I mean every kid selling art or handicrafts, or even a good shoe shine on the main square will speak to you in English.
But, it is unusual to have an American staff running a restaurant in Cuzco. I mean, even Cross Keys, an English Pub (owned by a man from Manchester, if I heard right) is run by a local staff. They are competent and friendly. But they are Cuzqueño through and through.
My friends and I went into a back room where we could set up shop, drink something warm, and use the Wi-Fi to do some work on this page. A bearded young man with sharp yet bright eyes, named Phillip, escorted us back and handed us menus. Except for the server at the table with menus, it was like being in a funky coffee house in some university town in the States, where it seemed Phillip would feel very much at home.
As a matter of fact, he recently graduated from Northwestern Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Ok. First, conversation about Alaska showing real experience with the place involving a guy named Alex from Wasilla, and now Phillip from Nampa. This suddenly seemed like it was about to turn into some experience from an Anglo version of a Gabriel García Marquez novel. I almost expected butterflies to rise from the tables in a multicolored array and make for the door.
In my decades of coming to Cuzco, I have only run into one other student or recent student from Idaho, and he was with his professor from Albertson College who was a friend of mine. I am sure there have been many people from Idaho come through here. I just have not met them.
Phillip said he was a volunteer who had decided to come down for six months to work in the cafe for free and also do work for orphanages, after school programs, and such in the area. Ok. Volunteer. Cool idea. But, why the cafe? This is kind of a strange place to volunteer. I mean . . . a business?
Phillip said he had come down with a group of his friends to volunteer and the guy who owned the business had been Phillip’s sunday school teacher when he was a boy.
Now I was sure I could smell some faint myrrh somewhere, and I knew that flowers would soon spring from the room’s floor.
Phillip continued to say that the owner was a missionary. He had not purchased the business but had it given to him by another missionary who had run out of steam. It was mostly staffed by volunteers, but its focus was not primarily to witness, rather to serve. Yes they were Christian, but that was not on center stage. Helping other people was.
Scott Englund, a tall athletic man approaching forty, poked his head in the room about then.
“They said I should meet you.”
He sat across from us, on the low couch and told how he had been in the financial planning business in Nampa. His dream was to retire at forty. He had done well, but when a financial setback hit his business, he reprioritized his life, and decided he wanted to devote his life to service. So along with his wife and two daughters, he gave up on the American dream, or “nightmare” as Scott puts it.
Scott, his wife, and two daughters came to Peru to serve as volunteer, faith based missionaries. First they went to Arequipa to serve with another project. While trying to figure out how to organize a business in Peru to support viable mission projects, they came to Cuzco to meet one of the original founders of The Meeting Place. And, yes, the man handed over the responsibility to Scott who now had a place and a purpose.
He has been in Peru for almost three years, but in Cuzco for only eight months. Scott has charisma. As he started telling how he had changed the business plan and brought the focus on volunteering and service, you could see why he had been a success. And, it felt surely those flowers wouldn’t just grow, they would flower and produce seed.
“We want The Meeting Place to be where people can come who have been to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and maybe still have some time left in Peru. They can come here and feel comfortable because we are Americans serving American food. We know how to do it.
“We searched everywhere to find good filters to make good American-stye Coffee. Americans don’t like their coffee to be muddy. They like it clear, rich, and dark.
“I looked all over Peru for Belgian Waffle makers, and couldn’t find them, so I had to bring them from the states. Other people in Cuzco may make waffles but we are the only ones to make American-style Belgian waffles, crisp and light.
“Others claim to have authentic American food, but we actually have American volunteers working at the café . . . We know what it’s supposed to taste like. We offer real American burgers. Peruvian meat is so lean, so to make them juicy, we infuse our burgers with bacon. It makes for a great burger.
“Our food and American comfort will bring people here. But we also want those who have time to volunteer. We have a list of good organizations and we want to be a broker for volunteers.
“Though most of us are Americans, we have volunteers from other places such as Australia and Germany. Many of them are from YWAM, Youth With a Mission, but we are not primarily a religious organization. Yes we are such legally for the purposes of Peru, and we do have a congregation meet here Sunday Night for non-denominational worship (I am loving being non-denominational), but volunteers do not have to be Christian or even religious. They can be atheist. The point is to serve.”
Scott also indicated that, though profits from the business are helping him recoup his investment, The Meeting Place’s profits are going to support groups that perform important social service such as an orphanage and an after-school program for kids. Scott expects that soon all the café’s profits, and it is making a profit, will go towards helping other groups serve Cuzco’s needy. Scott and his family are supported by donations from Americans who contribute towards their missionary activities of service.
I went back for breakfast, and the waffles were good. Scott inherited his chef, Marcos, who is from Cuzco and has formal culinary training. But, they were good, American waffles with powdered sugar and syrup. Alex said if I wanted something really sweet, I could try the waffles with chocolate (Hershey’s Chocolate Sauce no less from the regulation chocolate colored squeeze bottle), or I could have it with fruit.
Later, I returned to try the hamburgers. They were enormous; had to be at least a half pound each. And, though not exactly the same as in the States–the meat simply is different and you can’t find real hamburger buns here–they were very good, with lettuce and bright red tomato slices. Alex even offered me barbecue sauce, while telling me his story of how Phil convinced him to join him and his roommates on this six month adventure in Peru. “I love it” Alex said with a big grin, though he did say he was starting to put together his network to find a job when he got home four months from now.
My friends and I left, our bellies full, and our minds spinning with the conversation. Cuzco attracts all kinds of people, and many expats settle here and start businesses, so I guess it was just a matter of time before a mission, one based in holiness theology no less, would take up a store front here.
But, Scott is right, they do offer something that is genuinely American in a building centuries old on a plaza where the lightning God used to draw faithful, across from an amazing colonial, Catholic chapel.
And, this evening my friends and I are going to meet them near La Recoleta for a good, international soccer game. Cuzqueños and Americans together.
This is Cuzco, with its own kinds of realisms and magic. Neither Gabriel García Marquez, nor Peru’s nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, have captured it in writing yet. And, the soccer, with Americans and Cuzqueños divided among the two teams, was hard fought and went on and on though dusk eventually made the ball invisible, until next week.