Monday, February 14, 2011

Ten Days - Sunday

Sunday morning, I awoke with the early dawn in a soft, warm, comfortable king-sized bed with wonderfully smooth sheets. Rocio’s bed and breakfast, La Casa de Mama Gloria, was like staying in the Hilton. We all eventually meandered down to breakfast, which Rocio generously cooked for us, and by 10 am, the Hastie family was ready for day three of the Boleto Touristico weekend odyssey. This time, Rocio agreed to join us as we worked our way back to Cusco by way of another set of ruins to the east.

Our initial destination from Mama Gloria’s was by foot - 200 yards to the street, which serves as an all-purpose bus stop. Just wave your hand as the bus approaches and it will stop for you, empty seats or no. We flagged down the bus to Urubamba; by the halfway point, seats become available and we got to sit (it costs more when you sit!).

In Urubamba, we disembarked and looked for a taxi. Rocio, being the strategic genius that she is, negotiated what we soon would find out was a bargain deal. The driver would take us to three historic sites, Salinas, Moray and Chinchero, and wait for us as we explored the first two. He agreed to what seemed like an astronomical price of 90 soles. I ran into the bus depot for two bottles of water – that and a few Power Bars were our only sustenance for the day trip. Little did we know we wouldn’t get home until dinner time.

The taxi driver took us first to Salinas – a site with a natural salt river that has been harnessed and redirected into hundreds of small salt ponds. The drive was long, and it ended with a very narrow winding road with blind curves and steep drops, not a favorite for the acrophobes among us. But when the hundreds of small brown squares, rimmed with rock borders came into view, it was strangely beautiful, like a vast earth-tone quilt sewn by a giantess. We drove down to the ponds and explored at close range, stepping along tiny little paths that wove between the shallow mud flat ponds. Below us on the terraced hillside was a woman in traditional dress with child and dog in tow, harvesting the salt. Rocio was able to take home a few handfuls for foot baths and massages.

The taxi driver adeptly brought us up and out of that precipitous area, honking to let any oncoming traffic know we were coming around the numerous blind corners, and slowing to save his shocks in the deep holes and small rivers we crossed along the way. We continued on to the second site – Moray. The sign to Moray read 12 kilometers, but after awhile no one in the car believed it.

We drove for another twenty minutes through beautiful green pastures and rolling hills, passing small hamlets with farmers and shepherds working on their land. At one point, we came to a small dirty place that almost seemed to be a ghost town. The rare signs of life included broken down trucks taking up half of the street, a few pedestrians hauling huge bundles wrapped in plastic tarps, and, directly in front of us on the one narrow road that led to where we wanted to go, a couple pushing their stalled vehicle up a small incline. Our driver played a slow motion game of ‘chicken’ with the poor couple who were pushing their inoperable car along the only lane. The man had to practically scold our driver to get him to back up again and go around on another block. But machismo aside, our driver successfully backed his way down the rutted alleyway and past a truck that was blocking the next street over, edging past within a hair’s breadth of both the wall on the right hand side and the truck’s mirror on the other. Further accolades to him!

Outside the walls of the little town again, the scenery opened back up to treat us to many variations on the same theme – natural beauty not unlike that found in the Pacific Northwest. February is the wet season, and everything is emerald green, except for the occasional red dirt color of bricks that make up the walls of homes and structures dropped clumsily into the loveliness of the picture. We drove on and on and finally arrived at the archeological site.

Moray is an Incan construction that uses the natural contours of a circular pit or ravine to create what looks like a hybrid between alien crop circles and Stonehenge. Retaining walls create at least 15 circular terraces. Each wall is about 10 feet tall, but the entire depth of the bowl is 150 meters from rim to bottom. The Incas used the terraces to experiment with varieties of corn, using different hybrids for the different temperatures and altitudes on each terrace in order to create crops that could bolster the Incan people in times of drought or frost.

We climbed down into the center of the bowl, which is said to emanate healing powers and a spiritual magnetism of some sort. Of course, a group of yogis were meditating in the center when we arrived, one standing with bare feet in the exact middle of the Moray forcefield, in a mud puddle. Luckily, the nice weather from Saturday had carried over and the woman standing there for what seemed like a selfishly long time - considering that there were five others in her group waiting to try out that mud puddle too - did not have to worry about frost bite.

After a relaxing rest on the grass in the healing circle, we started back up the stone outcroppings that were inlaid into each wall, serving as steps. Twenty minutes later, huffing and puffing at the top of the bowl, we looked back down to enjoy a last look at the amazing manmade pattern below us. The woman in the mud puddle was still there. Her yogi friends had given up and left her.

Our ride back down the long road and through the small ghost town met with no obstructions. Another 30 minutes of great out-the-window photography and we arrived at our third and final site of the day. Chinchero is a town with an Incan ruin right in its midst. A catholic church sits atop former Incan foundations and is surrounded by toppled Incan walls. Sundays bring many people to the market that takes place both at the main square in front of the church and below, near the main road. We browsed the wares and met the women who actually made the goods on display. Unlike the markets in Cusco and even small Pisac, these textiles were actually made by the women who sat next to them in uniforms of traditional red wool jackets and navy blue skirts atop layers of square-dancing underskirts.

We were tired and only glanced around at the Incan stones. Most of our time was spent sitting inside the small church, gazing up at its hand-painted, rough-hewn timbers. Every wall was adorned with relics and religious iconography. There were a total of 5 Jesuses within 15 feet of where we sat. Strangely, the smallest was the 2 foot tall golden statue at the main altar in the front of the church. The two to our right made a life-sized matching set, with the same Rastafarian hairdo and blue, Miss America-like pennants across their chests.

As the sun began to edge towards the horizon, we set out to find a ride back to Cusco, about 15 miles away. Rocio bargained a shared taxi ride for 2.5 soles each, but after we got in the car, the driver started arguing with another man – he said he was his brother. The discussion turned into a smallish fight, complete with head butting and threatened violence, but it was all in Quechan, so the Americans didn’t understand a word of it. I was, however completely disgusted when the second man’s wife, with a baby on her hip, demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the life of her child by standing in the road at her husband’s side, contributing to the argument. Traffic in Peru slows down for nobody. A bus, speeding past, came within inches of the woman and her child, but the argument continued unabated. This was our signal that these people were truly crazy and we would not be riding in a car driven by any of them.

We found another cab driver up the street who hesitantly agreed to take us to Cusco for 20 soles. It is unlikely he made much of a profit, considering traffic and gas, but he stopped in a nearby city soon after we started and picked up a man for 5 soles, turning our private taxi into a combi – a communal ride. The man, dressed well enough, climbed into the back with our luggage. It made Georgia and I a bit uncomfortable having him behind us where we couldn’t see what he was doing, but in the end, he was just an honest guy trying to get home.

The taxi driver dropped us at a bus station, steering clear of more convenient places where, we assumed, police might issue him a citation for not having a license. The driver, surprisingly, seemed grateful for our fare. Like our first driver from Urubamba, he shook our hands, smiling, and seemed genuinely happy to have served us. This man made 25 soles with a dirty, weak, rattling car in 45 minutes. It seemed at times that even he wasn’t sure if he would make it all the way. Our Urubamba driver made 90 soles over the course of 5 hours, was as cool as a cucumber and offered the Peruvian equivalent of a classy, comfortable ride. The two men and their livelihoods were fascinatingly different, and yet both part of the same machine that relies on tourist money to churn economic sustenance for most of the people in the Sacred Valley.

We were back in Cusco, relieved after a long, bumpy, exhaust-filled ride, and hungry, having partaken only of a bottle of water and four Power Bars since breakfast. Half a chicken each and a plate full of fries was a feast that had our concave bellies protruding from our waistbands within the hour. We headed back to the apartment, satisfied with a good day’s adventure and looking forward to a good night’s rest.

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