Thursday, January 03, 2008


The bus ride took us about 45 minutes outside of Cusco. The road went dirt within ten minutes and was mostly switchbacks upon switchbacks and hills upon hills. On my side of the van was a sheer cliff, on the other side of the van was a sheer drop. There is no telling how far we actually went; it may have been forty miles, it may have been two. Around here, distance is meaningless, it's just 'go there' or 'don't go there'. Distance "up" is more important than distance "out".

At some point, we began to see small buildings. Not buildings like one would expect; more like shacks. Even by South American standards they looked dangerous. They appeared to be closer to carved mud than any normal building and it wasn't until I saw a mother and child sitting in front of one that I realized that they were houses.

After a couple minutes of houses and narrowing road, which was already barely the width of the bus, we ambled to a stop in the middle of a large flat dirt area, a sort of multi-use flat land that had soccer goals at both ends, an under-construction building on one side, and houses rising up from all sides, like seats in a stadium. I immediately began to search the ground for trap doors that may have chained beasts within. This was the city square. The 'Plaza Mayor.' In Cusco, the Plaza Mayor was a beautiful garden with a large fountain in the middle, surrounded by enormous Catholic cathedrals. Here it was dirt. Dirt and alpaca. Dirt, alpacas and, as we stepped out of the bus, staring eyes.

The village was Ccaccaccollo. The staring eyes were the owners of the houses that would be our homes for the next two days. Here it is, the second part of my trip. Cultural immersion.

I'm packed like someone who may need to flee the scene at any moment. My backpack, which has my camera, a jacket, a pen and paper, and some gum (for some reason) and a duffle bag that I've managed to squeeze three pair of underwear, one extra pair of pants, two shirts and two pairs of socks in. No more computer, there's barely any electricity here, I didn't even have room for my book. I brought a toothbrush, but no soap or shampoo as I knew I had just taken my last shower for the next six days.

We were divided up into three groups of two, like animals on the Ark; me with Elard (our tour leader), Emma with her mother Christine, Channelle with her dad, Maurice and marched off to different abodes throughout the village.

My mother was 43 years old, but didn't look a day over 70. Her feet had practically grown around her sandals and her gums had rejected all but about four teeth. Her name was Isadora and she had five children. The house was like a small complex, four different and separate houses, each with their own purpose and each smaller than the previous. The largest contained the dining room on the ground floor ('ground' in all possible senses of the word) and the bedroom that I would share with Elard on the second floor. The stairs and all doors were on the outsides of the buildings. The stairs and doors were the scariest and smallest things I've ever tried to use in my life. I smashed the shit out of my head on my way into my room on the second floor. The doorway was easily less than five feet tall and when I hit my head, in nearly blacked out. I'm used to hitting my head on stuff, but this was totally unexpected. It was like my mind just couldn't accept a door this small and tried to just walk through it, full bore. With blood running down the back of my neck, I sat down on the floor and tried to smile, but it came out as a pained grimace and I'm sure made a lovely impression.

Across the small dirt courtyard from the main building was the kitchen. It was made completely out of mud. I mean completely. The oven was a dried mud structure with a mud shelf to cook the food in the corner. The walls were totally blackened, like it had tried to destroy itself from the inside multiple times. A hole the size of a dinner plate above the oven acted as both a smoke vent and the only source of light in the room. Isadora sat quietly in the corner cutting potatoes. She didn't speak any Spanish, so that made communication even more difficult that normal, but she handed me a bowl of snap peas and I spent the next thirty minutes peeling them and tossing them into a rusty pot which would later have brown water thrown in to become part of our dinner.

As strange as it may sound, the whole thing was quite relaxing. It was like distilling my life down to its most simple elements; food, nature, quiet. I seemed to feel my senses opening up in a way that only happens with unfamiliar contentment. I began to hear sounds from across the courtyard; donkeys, chickens, a dog, a cat, kids shouting. I began to smell the simmering dish on the stove, flavored by years of spilled soup and meat drippings. My eyes began to adjust to the light and I could see the care that went into this kitchen, the pride that Isadora took in her life, her family. You cant see that in a picture, or smell it from a hotel room, or feel it from a tour bus.

Then Isadora handed me a hoe.

Fast forward about two minutes. I was shaking donkey feces from my hand after placing it squarely in the middle of a warm one while climbing around a blind-corner of dirt steps carved out of the side of the hill to the family potato patch. The garden was about the size of a small bus, and I was hoe in hand, totally destroying potato plants, all in the name of 'volunteer'. The ground was mixed with animal shit and rocks and it was an amazing feat of nature and mankind that food was actually grown here. It was actually a blessing when she left Elard and I, it took the pressure off my hoein' skills. We were supposed to be 'redrawing' the lines that the plants are planted on, whatever the hell they're called. The problem was that it appeared that the plants were arranged in a total random order. If the garden was a painting, it would most definitely be an abstract, and a bad one at that. Eventually we decided we had done enough damage to the family's garden and slinked off to the bedroom to rest and give me a chance to pick the dried blood from my hair.

Dinner was eerily quiet. I was introduced to Miriam, Isadora's 20 year-old daughter. After seventh grade, she left school to work at home with her mother. Taking care of the family is big business around here. The men are put to work as soon as possible and return for meals and sleep. This means that the women wake up, cook breakfast, clean up after breakfast and begin cooking lunch and the afternoon is basically the same. By the time dinner is over, it's usually close to 8:00 pm, which is bedtime.

This was Miriam's life for the past five years and it would be her life until she got married, at that point she will alter her routine by adding childbirth periodically. That's about it. There is no high school in the village and parents wanting to send their children to high school must be able to afford it, both for the cost of the school and the cost of having one less person around the mud kitchen. It is often unclear which price is higher.

It may sound like either a rough life or a horribly wasted life, but that's not the impression I get here. I would probably call it 'simple', extremely simple. The people spend their time preparing for whatever comes next. They don't seem to worry about the thing after that or the thing after that. They seem to be living life the way I'm trying to spend my time here, by simply being a part of the moment. Whether that is completely true or not, I may never know.

The next day was spent in the school. I sang, danced and spoke a mixture of English and Spanish for the whole day. Well most of the day, a good portion of my time was spent being embarrassed for various cultural snafus that I wont go into here.

Sometime after lunch I was sitting with a bunch of kids, hanging out, sucking on a juice box and tossing back crackers, when I started to think about the difference between Ccaccaccollo and the school in Cusco. Technically they were both considered 'volunteer' work by the people of the travel company, but in the flesh they were as different as night and day. Compared to living in North America, they would probably both seem quite similar, but after disconnecting myself for a week, the difference between the two activities is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing one.

The kids in Cusco really needed help. For them, getting help (whether it be from me or someone with some sort of qualifications) was the difference between life and death. Of freedom and jail. Of getting a good night's rest or having nightmare ridden sleep. I've had times in my life where I felt this way and the difference between the two is often as simple as following my heart or following my mind. But the truth is, the devil may not be as obvious as you may think.

The people in Ccaccaccollo are not fighting for their lives or their souls. They're just living. This is the way it's been for hundreds of years and I'm being blessed with the opportunity to see life in its most simple form and realizing that it's not life or death and that it's not a matter of constant struggle. The people here smile and laugh. They play and sing. And after I find a place to buy some beer, they're sure as hell going to drink and be merry.

Now I'm sitting on the bed of my room, leaning back, looking up at the five-foot ceilings wondering what the hell is making all the noise in the walls and writing stuff. I've been getting chased around by kids and donkeys all day, eating guinea pigs and trout at meals, drinking cold beer that has never seen a refrigerator and just enjoying myself. Miriam has asked me not to leave for unknown reasons of blind love of white guys and tomorrow I begin the final phase of my journey, which is only half finished.

I need sleep, which probably won't come very soon. I need life, which abounds between the snore and the sigh. I need to get the words straight, which cloud my mind.

You need pictures, but they are nearly as meaningless as my words because even the combination of the two is a mere toss of a bullet at a high speed train.

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