Peru Day 4

Our room is tastefully decorated with original arts and crafts but my sleep is disturbed by the onslaught of a cold. From earlier travels I recognize the combination: thrilling stimulation accompanied by intense discomfort and fatigue. Quarts of coffee and coca tea in the morning provide some relief.

It’s raining as the bus follows the river further downstream, parallel to the railroad to Machu Picchu, past a recent road washout, an earthern building site, and kids playing during school holidays.

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The ancient agricultural methods of cultivating potatoes and and corn on terraces and the fertile valley floor remain in use.

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We arrive at Ollantaytambo, a city conquered and rebuilt by the first Inka Emperor Pachakuti in the mid 15th century and maintained as a private preserve by his family until serving as a hideout for Manco Inka during his rebellion a hundred years later. Beyond it the Valley gets narrower and drops more steeply toward the Amazon basin.

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Alvaro leads us through a stone portal into the courtyard of a private residence.

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Ducks and ducklings peck at the doorway of the stone dwelling we crowd into.  A wood fire burns in the clay stove providing welcome heat. Bunches of corn hang from the ceiling. An altar decked with blackened ancestral skulls and fresh flowers rises above a stone shelf packed with unearthed artifacts–figurines, masks, mortars and pestles and polished phalli.

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In one corner a cute flock of guinea pigs chirp and feed on grass, fattening themselves for an upcoming dinner by their owners.

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Alvaro explains that one lumpy sphere represents the earth dotted with Apus.

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We leave the house and proceed through town along perfectly aligned walls and streets grooved with gutters conducting water down from the high mountains toward the gate of a temple complex.

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A blind harpist in bright garb serenades the entrants. [click image to play movie]

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Our guide leads us to a low-walled enclosure at the base of the mountain spur that guards the valley and demonstrates the method of using coca, the reverenced herb enjoyed by Andean natives for millennia.  First three dried leaves are grasped in the hand, blown upon and thanked.

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Then a bunch of leaves is vigorously chewed mixed with a bit of catalyst—the charred residue of cooked quinoa.  The resulting wad is held in one cheek and periodically switched to the other. Most people in the group are willing to try it, but the crumbly texture and astringent taste are not to everyone’s liking.

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It affords no drug high but I do feel the predicted effects—a reduction in the breathlessness caused by the 8000 foot altitude, increased stamina during ascent of the steep terraces, and slight euphoria.

In addition to tourists, the site is crowded with groups of students, more evidence of the pride Peruvians share in their ancient heritage along with the country’s modern economic expansion.

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Facing us across the valley, another vertical rock face shows mysterious formations that Alvaro explains are Inka granaries and warehouses, easily defensible and set in a microclimate that’s drier and cooler than the valley below.

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A stern visage sculpted from the rock represents Wiracochan, the emissary of the creator god, Wiracocha. On the winter solstice the rising sun illuminates it directly and sharpens the profile.

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The higher we climb, the finer the stonework—the joints tighter, the rock faces smoother, the angles more uniform.

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At the top of the ridge, overlooking the valley upstream and down, a set of monoliths of uncertain religious function display faint bas reliefs, one recognizable as the Andean cross.

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An unfinished cut of the facet of one stone shows the use of some kind of saw.

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The wind and rain at the top temple get stronger and Alvaro prays intensely for the better weather he promised for our visit to Machu Picchu. He once aspired to be a shaman but learned that the calling is an endowment available only to those who inherit it.

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The way down is along narrow paths cut from the vertical rock rather than stepped down in terraces.

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The bus returns to Urumbamba, where we’re welcomed into another private home, this one quite modern and, like most Peruvian domiciles, in a continuing condition of construction and expansion.  OAT has arranged for us to visit a family, share in their food preparation and meal, and bring them little gifts from the U.S.  The Dad is away at work, but here are Grandma, the person in charge, her daughter, and the daughter’s three daughters–two grade-six twins, and a younger child suffering from severe developmental disabilities yet fully integrated into domestic life.

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In the large dining room used for family gatherings, a side table displays varieties of local foods that, I’ve discovered, many Peruvians exhibit for their aesthetic beauty as well as practical value.

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Some group members help to cook, dredging and sautéing the chile rellenos. One slaughters the guinea pig with an instantaneous twist of the neck. Grandma cleans the carcass before cooking it on a wood stove. It’s presented in the traditional manner.  Jan says it tastes like a cross between chicken and rabbit, but I decline to partake.

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The meal is of exceptional variety and quality, enriched with fresh local ingredients and friendly cross-cultural communication.

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Slideshow of these and more full-size photos

Link to Day 5

 

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