The Sacred Valley: Peru, 2009

Summer is fast approaching. Teachers who are traveling abroad with students next month are checking their lists and making last minute tweaks to their travel plans at the same time they are winding down the school year. In 2009, I traveled to Peru with a colleague who was doing just that. She and her husband had recently inaugurated a short-term travel abroad program called HOST–for Hands-on Spanish Travel. The program was a cultural and linguistic immersion experience–we stayed with host families in Lima–and it was a service learning-based program, too–we worked in an orphanage that year. Today, HOST partners with high schools and colleges in the US, offering study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and in Spain. I savored every moment of that trip to Peru, but this day in the Sacred Valley was especially memorable.

sm vendorAt every turnout where the bus stopped on the journey to Pisac and at the top of the mountain we’d descend to reach the market at Pisac, as if to warm us up, to whet our appetites for buying, to prepare us for the panoply of choices available there, full-skirted women wearing brown felt hats and red wool jackets, long black braids down their backs and dancing black-eyed children with adoring, pleading, coaxing voices sold us water and water bottle holders, beaded strings for our sunglasses, chullos and whistles and musical instruments. No end to the items they offered, no end to our need for novelty, no end to our need not to disappoint…

sm Pisac TrailCemetery holes in lacy, eroded hillsides, precursors of those we had seen in the hillside in Lima… delicate yellow wildflowers holding their own in dry, vast space…terraces and granaries where Incan farmers long ago worked out the exact altitude at which to grow each of the varieties of corn and potatoes…Incan walls, stones set to withstand earthquakes and the destruction of men…steep stone steps cut into the earth, staircases of them, one after the other, meant to ease the descent—or the climb—but not for us: legs the wrong length, bodies unused to the effort, the altitude, the sun. But exhilarating nonetheless, the walk to Pisac. Accomplishment. Activity. Away from crowds and buying and selling and tasting. Shared venture.

sm 10 child with orangeA rest, a respite: a pig roast, freshly baked bread, a mother teaching her child to take stitches, another black-eyed child sucking on an orange turned inside out. A stroll through the market and frenzied buying. This time the bigger items: blankets and shawls, t-shirts, carved animals, leather pouches and silver bangles. For me: bits of cloth glued on white cardboard, woven designs in black on rust, subtle patterns…

sm 10 girl in pinkOur guide, Nilo, prepares the students for their long walk up the steps to Ollantaytambo’s fortress. I photograph a winsome little girl in pigtails dressed in filthy pink pants and winter jacket. She speaks a little English, knows enough to ask for a sol in exchange for her picture. Who is exploiting whom here? We’re both complicit. But I want the picture and I don’t need the sol. Later, I spend the rest of my soles on straps for walking sticks. A strange request, it seems to the vendor…straps but no sticks. Coming home from Rwanda with sticks, I had to lay them on top of my suitcase and shrink wrap the whole thing…or else pay $300 in excess baggage fees. No thanks. Not again. Just the straps.

sm 10 walls as shopsAnd then a walk down a cobbled lane where even the walls had become shops, a peek into one family’s store where the grandson charmed us and we looked at the sweaters and shawls hung on the walls and laid in piles on a table. A shop bare but for that table, the mother and grandmother seated cross-legged on the floor, weaving. Two granddaughters, yet to learn the skill, the boy to learn what? To market it all? Another craft? A trade? Weaving was in the bloodline, “as old as the sun,” the grandmother told Lee Ann. She bought a loosely woven sweater; I took a photograph of them all.

Boys playing in sand, covering their toes and shaking their feet loose; lace curtains at a doorway, shoes on the threshold. A Mototaxi—more than one—coming up the street from the train station at the end. We’d see the station itself the next day on our way to Machu Picchu. A decoration on top of a house—a bird’s nest of symbolic animals and flags and twigs all laced together to bring happiness and good luck to the marriage. Men coming home from work, sacks slung over their backs, their wives or sweethearts beside them and sometimes their children scampering along, too, escorts back to the town. For us, a surprise in the other direction: an oasis in Ollantaytambo: Hotel Pakaritampu, an orange adobe inn—La Casa del Amanecer—luring us in…the gardens, artful and opulent mounds of bright flowers, paved sidewalks inviting us to follow to an airy, modern, uncluttered front desk…an agradable ambiente…we should keep it in our memories forever…a destination for a weekend, an escape for the mind…

sm 10 sunsetAnd then, the sunset, the final glory of the day. White-capped Chicon Mountain in the background, jagged brown peaks like teeth snapping the sky, the sun on the landscape, brilliant orange, the fields looking almost like sand. A woman and her dog, their backs to us, traverse the field, return for the night. Two men are crouched over cloths and bundles spread on the ground. We settle in for the long, dark bus ride back to Cusco. End of the sacred day.

What you have given me…

Thank you, Lee Ann








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