Saturday, 19 April 2008

This morning we got up and met our next guide, Ronald. He does not look like a Ronald, or a Ronaldo, and I’m trying all sorts of mind games to try and remember his name. Our plan was to drive through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the road between Cusco and Machu Picchu, stopping for lunch at the hotel we’ll stay in for the night, and then spending the afternoon exploring some more. Clay is feeling just about 100%, and nobody else has gotten sick, so we seem to be over that hump. As we drove out of Cusco, I noticed that many houses had crosses mounted on the roof peaks. Mounted on either side of the cross were two bulls, and hanging from the arms of the cross were bottles. Ronald explained: The cross offers protection and blessings from God, the bulls represent the farmers and strength, one of the bottles hanging from the cross has holy water in it, and the other has chica beer, both near and dear to the farmer’s hearts. Sometimes the bottles are actually shaped like little beer bottles. It seemed a strange mix of a belief system, but it has apparently caught on because we saw them virtually everywhere as we traveled through the valley.

Our first stop was at a llama and alpaca place, they actually had examples of all four American camels. Llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicunas. The guanacos and vicunas are still very wild, and were kept in separate pens, but we were able to pet and feed the llamas and alpacas. We could dig our fingers into their thick coats, past the dirty, crusty parts, and into the clean, incredibly soft wool underneath. We walked from pen to pen, a man gave us big handfuls of alfalfa and the braver llamas would come and rip at the alfalfa with their gnarly yellow teeth, their under bites chomping away. Llamas have huge, humorous under bites. They look a lot like surfer dudes, peering out from under long bangs, dreads hanging long and knotty, and a certain attitude that says they really don’t give a darn what you want them to do.

At the end of the line of pens was one containing baby alpacas. Some were so tiny the kids could feed them with a bottle, and docile enough they would let us pet them. One little alpaca was so friendly it nuzzled the kids’ foreheads, giving them little kisses. These babies were so cute, we all decided we wanted one at home for our very own, all of us but Clay. I made myself take a look down at those pens holding the adult alpacas and tried to be a grown-up about it all, we certainly didn’t need a huge adult alpaca in our backyard. I felt certain I would be on poop collection duty.

We finally dragged the kids away from the babies and headed to our next destination, the small town of Pisac with its bustling market. We got some corn on the cob with the most enormous kernels I’ve ever seen. Each one was the size of my pinkie nail, Nate described them as a centimeter big. He’s going metric! We passed it around, first trying to gnaw at it, but eventually just picking the sweet kernels off and popping them into our mouths. The kids each bought themselves teddy bears made from baby alpaca wool, and we visited a local bakery with an outdoor oven. In a corner of the courtyard was a pen with three levels, guinea pigs scurried in and out of hutches. They were so cute, some of them were babies, like fur balls with feet. Ronald told us they only cooked the guinea pigs on Sundays, and he wasn’t joking. They eat them here, Ronald actually said they “taste like chicken.”

We got in the car and continued to our lunch destination and hotel for the night. On the way we passed many sticks with red plastic bags attached to one end. Some of the sticks hung out over the road, you couldn’t miss them. Ronald explained that these signified that chica beer was sold there. Chica beer is made from fermented corn, and its alcohol level is only 3%, so everyone in the family drinks it. It’s a very popular drink, most people stop in the middle of the day for a chica beer break. We have an Inca book that explained that originally chica beer was made by women chewing up corn kernels and then spitting them into warm water to sit for two weeks. While I knew this was no longer common practice, it just made the drink unappealing.

At lunch we admired the hotel, and lamented the fact we’d only spend one night there. Flowers were everywhere, and if you were very quiet you could hear a constant hum of busy bees. We ate in a pretty courtyard, and all was quiet until Nate’s glass cup broke in his mouth. He said his teeth were on the rim of it, but he wasn’t biting down hard. The glass must have had a weak spot to break like that. He spit the shards into his cup and we went to our room to rinse the blood out of his mouth, his gum was scraped but nothing serious.

After lunch we piled back into the car and drove to the tiny village of Wuilloc, in the Patacancha area, where people have lived the same way for centuries. On the way we stopped in Ollantaytambo to buy some bread for the kids we would encounter in the village. This had been a tip our transfer guide had given us back in Cusco. Ronald had some words with the old woman perched on a chair, selling her bread from under an umbrella, she was not a friendly sort of woman. But I don’t know how friendly I’d be if I was that old, and sitting by the side of the road selling bread. Clay got back in the car with fifty pieces of bread and a hundred pieces of candy.

When we arrived, we parked the car on a dirt road and an older girl and two small boys followed us across a rickety bridge that spanned a rushing creek, and up a dirt path. The girl wore a funny flat hat, like a colorful paper plate tied with a beaded ribbon, and in her hands she held a wooden spindle with wool on it, that she was pulling into a ball of yarn. We entered a large grassy area where many women began to arrive, coming from all directions and settling onto the grass, where they took their colorful cloths off their backs and laid out pretty embroidered table runners and scarves on the ground. It looked like a field of psychedelic wildflowers. Their hands were all busy, like butterflies, each one of them held a wooden spindle of alpaca wool and a ball of yarn rested at their side. These wooden spindles spun like tops as they fed the yarn through their fingers, making it thinner and winding it into balls. A few women were crocheting, and Alayna looked at them longingly, wishing she had brought her crochet hook and yarn so they could give her some pointers.

Children began arriving, lots of them, skipping and chattering. Ronald helped get them in a line and our kids began handing out the bread and candy. The children were beautiful, some wore bright ponchos, their eyes were bright and shining. Many had wind burned cheeks, dark and scabby, from living at such a high elevation, and being outside most of their lives. We handed out every single bit of candy and bread, one sneaky little boy, maybe three years old, got back in line, his pockets bulging with candy and bread crumbs on his lips. We gave him another piece, the little booger. Many of the girls, some just eight or nine years old, had siblings tied on their backs. When one baby started to cry, a young girl popped right up and took him from her mother to comfort him, while the mother continued to make her ball of yarn. Everyone was busy. We bought a pretty table runner, consigning ourselves to the fact that we’d make one more shipment before we get home.

We left, taking pictures of the rickety bridge as we passed back over. There were spaces between several of the planks, and some of the boards weren’t entirely attached. I looked back from the car, and saw a young boy, maybe four years old, all by himself, hopping across the bridge like a mountain goat. The children here have a lot of freedom, and a lot of responsibility. They can run and play when they are very young, in an environment that is so big I’d worry they’d get lost or hurt. When they are older, they must work, but they have lots of comrades to while away the time as they spin and embroider pretty things to sell to tourists who might come by.

We saw no men during our visit, Ronald explained they were all at the market in town getting supplies, many of them must walk the long distance to Ollantaytambo, unless they get lucky and a truck comes their way. It is the only mode of transportation to their small village, the trucks are big, lumbering things with tall sides, and the passengers stand up in the back, hanging out with random livestock and supplies purchased by passengers, transporting them home again. We asked Ronald how to say “goodbye” in Quechan, the ancient Incan language that these people speak, and rolled down the window to shout “toopanancheeshkama” as we bid farewell. We got quite a few grins at our pronunciation, talk about long goodbye’s, I’ve never seen such a long word used to say “bye”.

We gave a photographer a lift back to town as we headed back to Ollantaytambo, his job was to photograph the local people and places for tourism brochures. He opened up his laptop and we admired the beautiful pictures he’d taken. He was there when our kids were handing out bread and candy, who knows, maybe our kids will be on a brochure someday. Alayna thought his job was really cool, she said she wants to be a photographer someday, traveling around the world, of course with a friend by her side to write the words for the brochures. She is not a solitary type of girl.

In the town, we visited the Incan ruins of an old temple. These were our first real Incan ruins, and we admired the way they fit stones together so precisely, using no mortar and no iron tools. They only did this kind of stone work for special structures, like temples. The rock walls they built for their farming terraces were not as fine, lots of small stones just piled in walls, but they were still strong enough to last all this time. It was interesting, unlike the Egyptians, who cut each stone the same size, when the Incans built their temples and palaces they just took rocks of all sorts of shapes and sizes and shaped them until they fit together, like a jig saw puzzle. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken, and the patience involved. The kids enjoyed finding places they could climb on, and niches they could fit in. The niches once held golden idols or mummies, mummies were once found all over the place, they were the guardians of what went on in everyday life. Most rooms had several niches in them, it would be a strange way to live, always having the remains of your ancestors watching over your shoulder.

It was a long, busy day, and we returned to the hotel tired and hungry. The kids found their favorite hiding place in the gardens, when we went to dinner they hid and didn’t appear until Clay and I were entering the restaurant. After eating, we all settled in to our comfy beds, wishing we could stay at our pretty hotel just a little longer . . .