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Published: July 17th 2010
Nopal cactus at the Waru ruins...
It is a chance to get out of town and see the region. The antibiotics have taken effect; both sides have called a truce. With enough toilet paper in my daypack to hold me over, I am willing to make a go of it.
The Wari, whose decline started somewhere near 1000 AD, controlled what is now all off Peru before the Incas. They left behind a city on a hill about twenty miles outside of today’s Ayacucho. It is an area that covers a little less than four square miles. Its ruins are an ongoing archeological project; much has already been excavated. Machu Picchu it is not. Bare retaining walls of smaller piled stones rise as high as thirty feet. It was once the protective shell of the community. Nowadays, they share dry, undulating landscape where large flat nopal cactus flourish, like I have seen in Southern Texas. Many of the prickly plants sprout a dense peach-colored blossom. Because of the scant remains, most of which are cordoned off, a visit to Wari is more of a nature hike than anything else.
“Hey Rosalinda,” I called out, “look!” Except for a group of four Americans mindlessly following a local guide
I imagine this to be much more modest than what's in the Cusco area...
in broken English somewhere else on the grounds, we were the only other intruders. I loved the solitude and walked around with a feeling of satisfaction.
“¿Qué?” Rosalinda loves animals and will perform baby babble to a lamb, mangy stray canine, even those cute guinea pigs ready to land on a plate with a small side salad. But she cannot stand…”¡Ay, no!” And away she ran. It was a spider clinging to its web. I have to admit it wasn’t the nicest thing to point it out to her and she’d get even with me later for sure. Its length was not considerable, only a few inches. But each of its legs shared segments of a deep orange and black. It abdomen looked alien, some parts white, others pocked in yellow. Both eyes struck me as beady red seeds. I think it winked at me. I backed away. Across the fence on the other side of inaccessible excavations there had to be a half dozen of them patiently awaiting a meal. Above a renovation crew was hauling dirt away in a wheelbarrow from a sacrificial stone.
Most of the light grey and powdery ruins are now covered in rude shelters
An arachnid patiently awaiting a meal...
of corrugated metal. Some represent ceremonial purposes. Others are residences. Much is left to the imagination. It reminds me of the Anasazi remains in Southeastern Colorado, only nowhere near as well intact. Much of the Wari vestiges are secured well underneath today’s ground surface. They had no system of writing and left very few artifacts behind. The curator at the single-room museum (that also serves as the ticket booth) explained there is much more to discover and learn. The process, he says, will take several years of research.
The walk through the arid hilly land invigorates me. I often take sips from a half liter water bottle. I comment aloud to Rosalinda how dry and clear the air is. Since leaving Lima I have not seen a cloud. Ayacucho is nestled on the other side of a fat hill across the road. It seems like I can reach out and touch it. Above the city roll mostly unwelcoming, treeless foothills. Traveling them even today is a task for buses and cars, adding hours to journeys that would take a fraction of the time if only humans could go as a falcon flies. Their motives notwithstanding, give the Spaniards their fair
Wari's Sacrificial Stone
This doesn't look like a good way to go...
due: It was an unfathomable task of faith, dedication, and resources, to have come this far and take control of a territory so uncongenial and unwelcoming without any guarantee of success. Moreover, to imagine the distance and means by which that distance was traveled just to get here borders on the mindboggling. Pizarro is not looked upon favorably in Peru. He is considered the vandal of a classic empire to which many Andean Peruvians relate far more than to their Spanish roots. Staring at the mountains above Ayacucho causes much silent reflection and thought. Historical facts may very well prove the case about Pizarro’s role in the Incan downfall. Yet to conquer and take control with absolute power so far from Spain and to do so with such success is a phenomenal feat worthy of perhaps not praise, but unquestioned respect and awe.
In order to move on from Wari, Rosalinda and I crossed the street to find a few men discussing politics in a mishmash of Quechua and Spanish. I could make out very little of what they were debating. I did, however, hear every now and then the words “Obama” and “Estados Unidos” and “democracia en Perú”.
I doubt that the arch dates back to the original settlement...
One carried a machete. Another had almost all his teeth. They were peasants, daily workers taking a break from the stinging sun. A lady vendor opened a basket for Rosalinda in which there were hard boiled eggs and potatoes. We were the only customers around, perhaps the only she’d have for the day. It is a rough way to scratch out a living, or maybe just an existence.
Rosalinda bought some of the eggs and potatoes. She sliced open one egg, doused it with salt and offered me one half. I downed it in two bites. “Ricardo, do you feel OK?”
I was seated next to her, only to occasionally pop up to see if a van was coming by to collect us. I did not want to be left here for the next one. “Yes, I’m fine.” I thought she was worriedly referring to yesterday’s intestinal explosions. Her hand gently caressed my face from above the eyebrows down to the back of my next. “You are getting very red. Did you remember to put on the sunscreen like I told you?”
I hadn’t considered it a priority, so I did not take the precaution. It was a foolish oversight
Nopal in Bloom
These flowers decorate the landscape around Wari...
at this altitude. Here the sun packs a much more powerful punch. Her mocha skin is not so much at risk. “Uh, no, not this time. But I feel OK.” That evening most of my crimson face emitted enough heat to warm up several of the hotel rooms. I flipped over pillows to gain the relief of the cool side if for only a short time. I was about to learn my lesson: Take the advice given to you by locals. Never dismiss them…ever.
Fifteen minutes passed and nothing. I sat on a fat log behind an Andean woman as we waited for that van for Quinua. While engrossed in her knitting, she did not speak at all. Her long braided pig tails where tied together at the tips along the lower part of her back. Above the rubble she placed a few bottles of drinks for sale that have easily reached air temperature. The chances of her selling anything are rather minimal, but I doubt that means anything to her. In a soft voice, I turned to Rosalinda, “That lady, do you think she has any idea what time it is right now?”
“None. She probably doesn’t even know
A Bit Beaten Up
The road up the hill to the main square in Quinua...
what day of the week it is.” I stand up and make my way to the side of the road. No vehicles are coming in either direction. I look at the mountains and cactus. It is silent but for the murmuring of the men engrossed in their unintelligible chat. Then it all makes sense. Why would this woman of limited means and education even need to know the hour? What is the difference between ten in the morning and one in the afternoon? Nothing at all. It has no impact on her whatsoever. To her the times of day are better expressed as day and night. Insofar as the days of the week, a Monday may as well be a Thursday. The only day of the week that would concern her is market day. I study her carefully. Minus the orange soda slightly askew on the boulder, I could be very well be surveying a person who would fit in just as well one hundred fifty years ago, perhaps even more.
The mercifully empty van collected us. A Peruvian couple on vacation joined us for the ten kilometer ride to Quinua. A few minutes in we encountered a road
A look at the belfry tower...
block by the Policía Nacional. An armed officer circled the van and then tapped on one of the windows to be opened. “Documentos, por favor,” he called out firmly. I immediately knew I was without my passport. I had purposefully left it at the hotel. Everyone else produced their ID cards. There was very little stress. The police were in search of contraband, something nefarious that would stick out and call their attention. We were four from out of town armed with no more than cell phones and a few digital cameras. I stood quietly until it was my turn. “Señor, ¿documento?”
“I do not have it on me. It’s at the hotel in Ayacucho. It’s safer there. I am sure you understand.”
He did. “¿Nacionalidad?” he inquired. I don’t exactly pass as Peruvian.
“I’m American.” For some reason, that was enough.
He smiled. “I’ll be right back.” He took the collection of laminated ID cards and went back to run a background check. Meanwhile, we stayed quiet. Two of his colleagues with automatic rifles guarded the van. No one moved, yet the atmosphere was one of calm. This, as in many Latin American nations, is a common and unfortunately
necessary occurrence. When he returned, he distributed the cards and sought me out, “Señor, have a good stay in Peru.”
Quinua is the Andean village of yore we want the Peruvians to present to us. It passes as the Ayacuchan version of perfect, not so unlike that faultless hamlet in Vermont that served as the setting for Newhart or the aesthetic innocence of Twin Peaks. Quinua welcomes tourists to browse. They come by the vanloads, not in motor coaches. Word has gotten around that cleanliness can go a long way in keeping the folks coming day after day. They bask in a cracked and faded elegance of whitewashed homes, tiled roofs, and shops selling ceramic goods particular to this bumpy and winding region of Peru. Quinua is artistic, colonial, and peaceful. Most of all Quinua is safe. There are no worries here. I do not look over my shoulder. Lima is several worlds away. The principal attraction in Quinua is breaking free from the dozen or so other visitors and ducking left down one street and then following wherever your interest takes you.
Women haul their infants and toddlers around in colorful blankets thrown over their shoulders. We
For adults as well as children...
are interlopers for a short time. The ladies smile at us, accepting our temporary presence. Some even greet us. The older children consider us a small nuisance around which to run while chasing a soccer ball down the cobblestone street. Otherwise, even they pay us no attention.
It is early afternoon and school has let out. The unformed middle school students gather by each side of the road according to gender. The boys buy ice cream. The girls gossip. One boy spots an object of his affection and call out a “piropo” to her, a kind of flirtatious way to let her know of his interest. The boys ogle the girls almost aggressively. The girls, decked out in a white blouse and blue plaid skirts, do their best to ignore them, yet in a small village nature will eventually take its course. All the education and proper uniforms have not impeded mothers as young as sixteen from carrying their children around town. If these children’s aspirations and futures do not take them beyond Quinua, perhaps as far as Ayacucho, the same result awaits them.
As Rosalinda and I talk to the two Policía Nacional officers assigned to Quinua, she puts
Down a Gravel Path
Farm house in Quinua...
her hand on my neck. “Estás quemado.” You’re burned pretty bad.
I dismiss her, but know she’s right. I took no precautions to protect myself.
Finely painted and detailed “iglesitas” are mounted are mounted at the apex of the roofs on most of the homes in Quinua. The ceramic little churches represented a family’s conversion to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish conquest. They are multi-leveled and adorned with clocks, bells, and human figurines. In essence, the “iglesitas” are the hummels of Peru. Nowadays they are the primary souvenir visitors pick before getting into the van back to Ayacucho.
In the main square Rosalinda climbs the belfry steps and manages to pry open the iron gate. “¡Ricardo!” she calls out smiling. I turn around to see her tugging at the rope to ring the large oval bells.
“I wouldn’t pull too hard on that if I were you!” I warn her. The reverberations could do a great deal of damage to her ears. The smile does not leave her face and she takes a battery of photos from the view afforded to her. Rosalinda continues to revel in the discovery of her own country.
The keystone that brings the
Two boys headed home in Quinua...
arch together above the main entrance to the church is made of two angels grasping the Spanish crown. In one of the corners of the square on a soiled and brittle wall reads a sign painted in black block letters “PROHIBITED TO URINATE IN THIS PLACE”. The base where the street meets the foundation has rotted away. Two boys quickly pass us on their way home from school. They are younger than the budding adolescents we saw earlier. Their backpacks are modern with bungee cords and separate compartments. They are in uniform, a white top with blue slacks. At the end of the road, they will enter one of two homes, both made of adobe and I have yet to see an electrical line running to any of the exterior walls. A young girl and her mother firmly smack the rump ends of cattle that need to be herded to a different field. The mother in an ivory sweater yells at the cows in Quechua, the girl wearing more fashionable jeans, in Spanish. The path leads beyond a set of mud homes. I film the scene and neither mother nor daughter pays me or Rosalinda any attention. It is as
Small cermaic church fugures adorn the roofs, a sign of Catholic conversion during the era of Spanish conquest...
if we’re not even there. Life for them in Quinua changes very little on account of our presence. They carry on as usual.
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