59. Cusco to Arequipa
Departure morning I’m up early and walk to the cochera, where no one’s in sight to open the place. I bang on the metal gate often and loudly, to no effect. When someone finally does return and open the place, one tire on the car is dangerously low. Fortunately there’s a gas station nearby.
Packing the car, I realize that the front seat will be empty. It is empty, save for the little cylindrical black-and-white pillow Ragna rested her knee on to limit the pain from long drives. The empty seat is a melancholy blessing: it reminds me of what has ended, but I can actually keep stuff on it during the drive. I put the pillow in the back seat. Immediately that doesn’t feel right, and I return it to its rightful place. But I don’t think I’ll start talking to it, like Tom Hanks to the soccer ball.
I say my good-byes at the Q’orichaska, negotiate the outskirts of Cusco, and am gone.
Quickly I’m in very nice countryside, on a very nice morning; but I’ve a long way to drive and a lot to think about, and don’t feel motivated to stop and shoot pictures.
Then I do stop, to photograph a lake that probably isn’t worth it; but I’ve broken the ice, and as I pass through smaller and smaller towns, among people living their daily lives on a very nice morning, I stop here and there, to shoot a photograph or just watch and listen a little. Suddenly it seems a splendid morning.
At the edge of town a man is studiously reading a book, perhaps a bible. He sits in the few feet between the front wall of his house and the road. Something about his intense concentration appeals to me so much that I find a place to make a U-turn and go back. I shoot from the car. He looks up. Expressionlessly, he studies me for a moment, then goes back to his reading. He doesn’t appear proud, curious, annoyed, or embarrassed. He just doesn’t give a shit. I shoot another image or two, then pass him, make another U-turn, and continue on my way.
It’s morning in the mountains. Sometimes high hills block the bright sun. Women are taking flocks of sheep or small groups of cows to pasture. The road, with periodic large trucks and very few cars, snakes through as if it existed in some other dimension, some parallel universe. The trucks and occasional cars whizzing through have as little to do with the surrounding scene as football on television matters to a fish.
I pull off the road and sit for awhile on the rail of a bridge. It’s peaceful. I write in my notebook and stare across the river. It’s this kind of country again: modest villages giving way quickly to steep hillsides terraced for agriculture.
As I sit, a woman and her dog leave the village to head for the pasture with her animals. I watch. She passes just below me with her small group and continues on her way along the river — toward canyons that look pretty unpromising as far as vegetation, but she knows what she’s doing a good deal better than I do. I feel very much at peace, and realize I’m enjoying the drive. Again, driving enables me to stop at will; and again, although the road to Cusco is far better traveled by foreign tourists than the roads to Huancabamba or Cajamarca, small villages along the way might as well be miles from a paved road, because tour buses have no reason to stop in such places.
Perhaps it all seems particularly precious to me because I will soon be elsewhere, in a modern, post-industrial city filled with time-sheets and lattes. I will be in a city where there are no cows or sheep. Where children can grow up without ever seeing a cow or a sheep. Or perhaps it is because I felt a little melancholy and now feel, again, just wonder. “Buenos dias,” I say to the woman bicycling pass with her precious cargo. She just smiles.
Across the road some people are working in a field. A man with two oxen is plowing. Others are assisting him, or perhaps dropping seeds. I cross the road and shoot a bit. They keep on doing what they’re doing. Afterward, as I’m just about to drive off, one of the men approaches me. He rubs his fingers together to indicate money. His expression is hopeful, but not demanding. I cheerfully give him a little money. He thanks me more profusely than seems warranted, and reaches into the car to shake my hand. He has few teeth but a warm smile. I tell him I thank him. I drive off, feeling good but with a couple of regrets: I should have given him more; and, selfishly, I should have stepped down into the field for a closer and better shot of them working. I had feared intruding more than I already was, but shouldn’t have worried.
I stop in a village, possibly Checacupe, and buy bananas. The Plaza de Armas is nearly deserted. People are industriously cleaning the narrow streets leading away from it.
In the next village, or maybe just in the southern end of the same village, two men are putting the grasses on the roof of an adobe building. They watch me shoot from above, standing on a pile of logs, and invite me down closer. I drive into the village and back up to where they’re working, to shoot closer. No reason. Just feel like it. It’s tough to photograph, because the sun is so bright and the men’s faces – looking down and shaded by hats – are so dark.
When the man on the ladder climbs down, we chat casually for awhile. I answer his question about where I’m from, where I started driving today and where I’m going. I remark that we use a lot of adobe in New Mexico but don’t use the sort of roof they’re working on. A neighbor, an older man, emerges from his gate and looks curiously at us. My companion hollers to him that I’m taking pictures, and that he should pose. The man assumes a rigid hands-at-sides posture, like a kid posing for a school photograph, and I shoot one, which seems to please him.
Finally I leave. The neighbor assumes the same stiff posture as I drive slowly past, so I photograph him again and wish him a good day.
At the turnoff for a town called Combapata, I pass an intersection busy with local folks leaving or arriving, and a sign promising a “circuit of four lakes” just six kilometers away. It sounds good, so I make a U-turn and drive into town. Within a few blocks I’m on the Plaza de Armas, which is almost empty on the near side but has shooting galleries and foosball and other indicia of a market on the left side. A lot of people are doing something on the far side of the plaza, so I park the car for a few pictures.
The Plaza is full of local women in spiffy local garb. Clearly something more than a market is happening. There are a great many women with bags of local produce on show in front of them, but almost no one is actually buying anything, or even walking around looking. Many of the women are dressed particularly finely. Some other people seem to be wandering around with papers and forms. There are few men present, and no teenagers wandering around. Many of the women have small children with them. A row of chairs and a loud-speaker blasting music, with a banner on the wall behind, suggest that something more formal is going to happen soon. A Peruvian woman is rushing around photographing the local women. When I ask her what she’s photographing, she says she’s with a program of some sort to which all these women belong, or which helps them. Something to do with development, a cooperative. The banner mentions a “Programa Nacional de Apoyo Directo a los más Pobres.”
Whatever it all means, it’s a visual paradise.
Many of the women laugh when I shoot pictures. A few turn their heads away or put a hand up in front of their faces. Others stare at me, mostly with smiles. One sticks her tongue out, then laughs hysterically, tells those around her what she’s just done, then poses good-naturedly. A couple of others, seeing me trying to shoot pictures of their kids, entice the kids back in front of me or gently turn a kid’s face in my direction. None asks for a propina.
On the way to the car I stop at a booth and shoot a gun instead of the camera, winning a couple of packages of cookies that look as if they might have been in Combapata since Atahualpa’s time. Lunch.
I go to the car, and pull around to head out of the square toward the lakes, but now the music suggests that dancing is imminent. I stop the car again and wade back into the middle of things – just as, indeed, dancing begins.
I shoot until there’s a break in the dancing, then leave.
I drive slowly through town toward the circuit of the lakes. For awhile I’m traveling along railroad tracks. Eventually the road climbs out of town and, after a couple of switchbacks, there’s a nice view back toward Combapata. From there the road continues climbing, then suddenly brings me to a view down toward a pastoral lake.
The first lake. Serene and silent. I do meet a young couple, walking toward the village. There is no car parked nearby, so they are strolling. They’re Peruvian; but they too are visitors who find this place very peaceful.
This is beautiful country. It isn’t the most dramatic I’ve seen, but it’s especially peaceful. The lakes aren’t the cobalt blue of the lakes in the Cordillera Blanca, reached ultimately through rock cliffs and surrounded by unrealistically pure white peaks, but more a lake surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, a tremendously inviting place to live. Not a person in sight, just cows grazing down by the shore and flamingo loitering about in the shallow water.
I park the car at the edge of the road and walk toward the water, negotiating a couple of rock walls on the way. Then I find I have to leap over a small stream to reach the field that ends at the water where the flamingos are. I’m concerned that the sudden motion will spook them, but it doesn’t. I advance slowly, but they’re alert. They suddenly fly up, a profusion of red and white, but they curve in unison and fly down over the lake, passing right in front of the village I was hoping to have in the background.
Another group of flamingos floats near the shore just 60 or 80 meters away, so I I work my way toward the birds, but this time they swim away slowly as a group. I reach the water’s edge, my feet making deep indentations in the soft earth, and watch them swim out into the middle of the lake.
These flamingos are visiting with a flock of sheep. Nobody seems in any hurry about anything, so long as the two-footed intruder keeps his distance.
Alternately driving and stopping the car to walk around a bit, I don’t see another person except a shepherdess.
She gets to sit all day in this splendid place, watching the pink and white flamingos and other birds on the blue lake, with golden fields and hills surrounding her. Does she take her surroundings for granted, and concentrate on her knitting or dream of Cusco or Lima or Paris? She certainly looks contented, but who knows?
This group of birds neither flies nor swims away, but begins walking along the shore away from me. They’re walking faster than I’d supposed they could, and it’s clear that if I start moving faster they’ll just fly away, so I leave them in peace.
I drive on, but stop to say hello to a second shepherdess. I ask if I may photograph her. She nods, and says, “Plata.” It means silver, literally; but the context suggests that in this part of the country they say “plata” instead of “dinero” or “propina.”
I haven’t forgotten that I’ve a long way to drive. I’m concerned about the time but deeply drawn to this peaceful and tranquil countryside. I consider driving back to Combapata, but instead continue onward, to explore. The road climbs for awhile, with a long sight of llamas at the crest of a hill, then descends toward another lake, slightly smaller and greenish instead of blue, with a small town at the far shore.
I shoot some photos at the edge of the small town, then drive in I pause on the Plaza de Armas to figure out what to do next. A woman unlocks a door and disappears inside with her three burros. The town bills itself as “Capital of the Circuit of Four Lakes.”
A cop or security man passes on my right, and when he glances into the car I ask him for some information. He confirms the name of the town, and I can see from the map that my choices are to circle another lake or two, to return the way I came, or to continue North several kilometers and drive back out to the main road up there. I settle on driving back the way I’ve come.
The cop points at one of the other men and says the man would like to accompany me to Sicuani. “Por que no?” I reply, starting to make space on the front seat. Ragna’s little pillow goes to the back seat now, along with my maps.
Meanwhile a local woman approaches the left side of the car, pleading. The men are discouraging her, gently urging her to stop pestering me. I suspect a class difference between my passenger, who’s wearing a blue sweater and clean shoes, and the woman, whose clothing is neither new nor fully clean. He is employed in a white-collar position, and she clearly is not. Whether or not that plays a role in their discouraging her, I can’t be sure, but they speak to her as something less than an equal.
Does she want money or a ride, or what? They say she wants a ride too. She is alone. I can fit one person in the back without an extended effort to move things out of the way. “Por que no?” I say again. I get out to open the left rear door to toss stuff to the other side and make room. The men are surprised. The woman is grateful. As we start off, the man asks where I’m from, and I answer. As we turn right off the Plaza, he greets a friend, and shouts loudly that he’s going to the United States, and we all laugh.
I take a banana and offer each of them one too. They accept. Conversation is minimal. Beautiful country. They agree. Do tourists visit here? Yes. I cannot resist detouring for a quick look at the village near the first lake. The front gate is brightly painted, but the only inhabitants I see have little to say to us.
When we reach the main road, it’s crowded with women leaving after the event. A bunch of them are climbing into the back of a huge blue truck with wooden slats on the sides, evidently to return in a group to their village.
The passenger in front, the man, is a teacher. We talk sporadically. He lives in Sicuani and teaches in the village where I picked him up. (It’s a long commute!) I answer his questions about my travels in his country and ask if he’s visited the U.S. Peruvians don’t go to the U.S., he says very definitely, adding a one-word explanation: “Plata.” I reiterate my admiration for the local countryside and inquire about land prices up by those lakes. He says lots can be as much as U.S. $7,000 apiece, sometimes can be encountered for as low as $2,000 – and that he has two for $3,000 each that he might sell.
Before Sicuani we reach Rakqi. We stop. He is enthusiastic that I must see the ruins at Rakqi. But the village is filled with tourists holding cameras but unable even to shoot a picture of the church because their own tour-buses take up most of the tiny Plaza de Armas. Handicrafts shops. I tell him I’ll return some other time. I’m thinking that sunset, somewhere, might be nice.
I let the woman off where she lives, and the man in Sicuani, and negotiate the streets of that town. I’m sort of headed for Lampa. There’s something there I’d wanted to see on the way up, but got outvoted.
Suddenly there looms a sign: Juliaca straight ahead, Arequipa to the right. The right turn must lead to the back roads I’d originally wanted to to take up to Cusco with Ragna and Selma, but they didn’t have time – for what promised to be a great many hours on dirt roads when the paved road would be quicker; and we wanted to go to Lake Titicaca on the way. I turn right and immediately pause to question two men standing near a motorcycle. How is the road? They say it’s much quicker, that Arequipa is much further away if you go around by Juliaca.
At first it’s paved, but quickly it’s a dirt road. The countryside is pleasant, and quite unpopulated. At some point I pass a kid near a tiny village. When I ask him whether I’m indeed on the road to Arequipa, he points — then says, “Plata.”
For a while, in the middle of nowhere, the road is beautifully paved, leading to the town of El Descanso. I stop to snag a juice, and ask the shop-keeper how many hours to Arequipa. I ask again outside, on the street. The respective answers are three hours and five hours. As soon as I leave El Descanso, the road is dirt again.
Eventually I come to a large town. In the middle of nowhere, it boasts an airport and is 3,900 meters alto, according to a sign. I don’t recognize the name the sign mentions, but I’m where I might have expected Yauri to be based on the map. As I reach the outskirts of town, unattended llamas walk home along the road from an arduous day of grazing. The town has plenty of one-way streets and traffic jams. As I rush through, I stop for one photograph:
On the far side of town, I see a woman and ask how long it is to Arequipa. “Seis horas,” she says, quickly reconsidering and saying, “Cinco. Cinco horas.” It is a few minutes past five. I know that the paved portion of the drive, on the main road from the crossroads to Arequipa, cannot be much, so most of the drive will be along these dirt roads, often unmarked, and perhaps without grifos, or even villages. In darkness. I should have kept to my original plan. I should also have bought gas in the town through which I’ve just passed. I consider turning back, but don’t. I have a bit left in the extra gas can up top. Maybe that’ll be enough, or some town along the way will have a grifo.
Still, it’s a nice sky and vast, empty land. I rush on through late afternoon light, dusk, then darkness. There are no towns, and certainly no grifos.
In total darkness now, I reach a village. It’s cold, too. There’s a restaurant, with a bus stopped near it and passengers eating inside. I ask about gas, and am told that it can be encountered at the far edge of town.
The gas at the edge of town ain’t easy to spot. I drive to what seems like the edge of town. Nothing. I drive on, another kilometer or so, eyes scanning the night. Nothing. I return. I see a light and an open door, and look for someone to ask, but encounter only the barking of dogs. I cross the street and walk back down to a small store. The lady confirms that they do have some gas, and disappears into the back to get it. We stand in the darkness pouring gas into the car’s tank with a smaller can and a makeshift filter, hoping not too much of it ends up on my shoes.
I drive on through the night. Lightly traveled, curving roads. I was up early and feel tired. Sometimes it’s hard to pick up the road surface, which isn’t the distinct black of a paved road. In this light it’s indistinguishable from the dust and the surrounding countryside. When trucks pass, I can’t see anything anyway for a moment, in the flying dust. At some point I see a sign for Chavin, and stifle a sudden impulse to go back to Cañon de Colca.
Finally I reach the main road. I’m further from Arequipa, further back toward Juliaca, than I’d expected, possibly by 50 or 60 kilometers.
I reach Cañahaus. I could use something to eat or drink, and wouldn’t mind getting a little more gas. In the darkness I approach a road-block. The cop asks the usual routine questions, quite surprised to see a lone gringo at this time of night. I ask him if there’s a grifo around. There isn’t – but he sells me some gas. Another makeshift funnel, in pitch darkness.
Setting out again, I’m tired. I’ve traveled a long way today; I’ve shot a lot of photographs, walked a bit, and worried about possibly running out of gas or losing my way. On the other hand, I’m refreshed by the knowledge that now it’s just another 78 km. of road, paved. Still, all I really want is to be in the flat, at rest.
There’s a further delay, of course. More than half the way to Arequipa, I spot a bunch of people surrounding a car in a small turnout on the other side of the road. Folks in distress – as I might easily have been, had I missed a turn or blown a tire or missed the gas in that small town. There’s a lot of traffic tonight, but after another kilometer or so I can turn around. I drive back and pull in where they’re stopped – well aware that friends in Lima and probably Arequipa would warn me to do nothing of the kind. Ultimately I take one of the young men to the next town, the last noticeable town before the outskirts of Arequipa, and to a mecanico. I wait awhile, until it appears that they will be all right, then continue.
Fortunately I negotiate the streets into Arequipa more accurately than usual. I’m too tired to do much beyond stopping at the corner store for some snacks and milk and juice. I just want to crash. Home in the flat, there’s little time to contemplate the fact that I now live here alone — or the sadder fact that I’ll be leaving Perú very soon. I do turn on the TV, and discover a Red Sox game. Texeira is batting; but I can’t even stay awake through his at-bat.