Peru, part 8
Norma and Marcos arrive at eight and we drive south of Cusco for todays foray. We stop at a lagoon in hopes of doing some bird watching. We have not seen many birds at this high altitude. The lagoon has only scattered pools of water with the majority of the area choked with cattails and reeds. Norma isn’t a birder so of the few birds we did see I could only identify the little blue heron. We do have a show put on for us by a young boy herding a flock of sheep. Several times the boy prods one lagging sheep with a stick trying to hurry it along. The sheep taking exception to this physical suggestion would always turns and butt the youngster. This tickles the little guy to no end and his belly laugh is so infectious that we laugh aloud too. I’m sure that our attention to his predicament with the ornery sheep adds to his merriment.
There is a group of men stripping grain from the stalks of konau along the highway by the lagoon. Paul asks Norma if we can cross the road to watch the process. The men are quite friendly and willingly allow us to participate in the mundane task. The workers hand us a stalk and we pull the grain head through our hand adding the kernels to the pile of grain on a tarp. The fellows indicate that we need to strip the small side shoots of the head too, despite the minimal grain they have. None of the tiny pieces of grain must go to waste. I pull the grain off three or four stalks but stop when the area between my thumb and index finger starts to become raw. Ouch, this job calls for gloves in my opinion but none of the natives are using gloves. Paul continues to help remove the grain until they finish denuding all of the heads of konau. Paul and I take several photos while the group is working. When we are ready to leave one of the men rubs his thumb and finger together in the universal sign for money and says “chicha”. They want money for the photos we snapped so they can buy corn beer. Pooh, we were hoping that since we lent them a hand with the harvest they would forego payment for the photos. Paul exhausts his pocketful of coins paying the group of men. Norma tells us now the men will pull the tarp onto the highway and allow cars to drive over the konau in order to separate the chafe from the grain. We find this method to clean grain bizarre.
We drive to the Incan gateway, Rumicolca, positioned to give a clear view of the southern valley. The Inca believed Cusco was the center of the universe and they built these majestic gateways on high points to impress but also in order to see who was approaching the city. As usual the workmanship is masterful and the view stunning.
We travel to Pikillacta, a Wari settlement, where 20-foot high walls surround the ancient city. This site is pre-Inca and though the stonework is crude in comparison to Inca work, it is still admirable. There is a wide avenue around the perimeter of the city with formidable walls built on both sides of the road. Remnants of houses litter the site and in one area, the remains of circular granaries dot the landscape. Workers are busy doing restoration work and one house they have reclaimed shows that the Waris’ used lime to plaster the outside of the mud and rock walls. We walk down the avenue between the red rock walls which tower above our heads. We must climb up on platforms in order to view the crumbling buildings of the vast city. It is overwhelming to contemplate all the manpower and hours it took to build the walls and structures of this settlement.
Our last stop is Tipon and we have a choice to make. Go over noon hour or wait until four o’clock. the reason for these arbitrary times is that earlier this year a landslide blocked the road to Tipon. they only allow traffic to the site when the workers are eating and when they quit for the day. We choose to go to Tipon now, as we really don’t want to wait until four this afternoon. The debris the road crew has cleared so far leaves just enough room for a car to squeak through. Norma says these landslides happen every year and no one can seem to figure out how to keep part of the mountain from sliding onto the road. It looks as if the engineers need to adopt the Incan techniques as they shored up everything from mountainsides to riverbanks and their work is still doing its job today.
Due to the time constraints, if you don’t leave the park by one you must wait until four, we hurry through this engineering marvel. Tipon is like stepping back in time as the terraces and working irrigation channels are in perfect condition. I shake my head to think that people built this masterpiece of engineering in the 15th century. The functioning aqueducts flank the sides of the twelve wide terraces and miniature waterfalls cascade through channels down the face of each terrace. The Inca also adorned the site with beautiful fountains on the top terrace of this archaeological park. Although we were unable to linger long at any part of Tipon we still had time to admire and contemplate the Incan ingenuity. The guard at the park is blowing his whistle indicating tourists must vacate the premises. We hustle down the last few steps where Marcos is nervously waiting. There are two groups still perusing the park but only one car besides ours is still in the lot. One of the groups taxi driver decided they weren’t coming back in time so he left! Someone is in for a big surprise in a few minutes.
We wind our way back down the mountain as the road crew is preparing to resume work. Entering a small village Norma informs us that she has promised to treat Marcos to a roasted guinea pig for lunch. This village is famous for roasted guinea pig and the competition for customers is fierce. We find it humorous to watch a portly woman trotting beside our vehicle frantically motioning for us to follow her. She directs us up a side street and into a small courtyard. A few plastic tables are set in one corner of the yard where colorful umbrellas provide shade. An old car with the family dog lying under it occupies another corner of the yard. The central interest point is a huge clay oven where you can see embers glowing brightly through the open mouth. On one side of the oven is the family’s house and on the other side is a three-tiered cage containing young chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs. There is a big stack of firewood at a handy distance to the oven. A pile of fresh herbs and a bowl of potatoes are sitting on a crude bench. The laundry hanging on the clothesline adds to the family business aura.
We feel a bit odd consuming our box lunch of grilled chicken and rice at the table provided for us. Norma assures us that the women are perfectly fine with this arrangement since we have ordered drinks from them. The guinea pig dinner known as cuy (coo-e) in Peru arrives and the single meal could have fed all of us. There are stuffed green peppers, several roast potatoes and the cuy, head and all, lies atop a pile of pasta. Norma encourages us to try various parts of the dinner since Marcos will never consume all of the cuy meal and his box lunch. I have a bite of the stuffed pepper and some potato, which is tasty. When Norma cuts open the cuy stomach, which is full of minced seasoned potatoes, I try a bite because the aroma is wonderful. The taste matches the aroma and so I have another bite. Oh come on, it’s no different from what link sausage is encased in!
I stare in morbid fascination when Norma picks up the guinea pig head and begins to eat the bits of meat she pulls off. When Paul notices what Norma is doing he blurts out, “you’re eating the head”! Norma explains that this is her favorite part of cuy even though the pickings are slim. Yuck, I’m not touching this part of the cuy. I do however take a bite of roasted meat from the haunch and have to admit it is not bad. Paul who was unimpressed with his first guinea pig encounter gives it another chance. After the initial bite, he picks up a quarter of the varmint so I guess that this is confirmation he likes the cuy meat. After we have all eaten our fill, Marcos packs up the leftovers from the cuy meal and our boxed lunches to take home. There is enough food left over to feed a couple of people or maybe just Marcos who has a large appetite.
As we drive toward Cusco, Norma solves the mystery of the piles of fresh grass we have noticed lying on curbs in the cities and villages. It seems that many people raise guinea pigs in their homes for a source of cheap and fresh meat and they purchase the grass to feed them. Norma explains that most people close off their kitchens and allow the guinea pigs to roam freely and then… well your imagination can fill in the rest! I try not to judge what other cultures choose to eat. If you can push the “eating your pet image” aside this practice makes sense for town people who want to raise their own meat. The guinea pigs produce litters every few months, they grow fast and it is cheap to raise them. The roaming free in your house part I can’t quite fathom though we would love to witness this.
Norma has Marcos stop in an area along the river where men are producing adobe bricks the old fashion way, by hand. We mosey through the outdoor factory watching as the workers mix water and grass with the red dirt to get the right consistency. The brick makers use a simple wood frame to form the muddy mixture into the bricks that eventually will become a house. Norma asks one worker how many bricks he creates in a day and he answers his goal is to turn out 200 of the adobe blocks. I have nothing but respect for these fellows performing this backbreaking work. The one downside to this interesting stop is that the river that provides the hard-working men with water is full of trash. It was hard to look at many of the rivers close to cities because of the filth that was in and alongside the waterways. This is another striking resemblance to our experience in India.
We arrive in Cusco by mid-afternoon so decide to tour the Inca museum just down the street from the Midori. We wander through the building enjoying the beautiful artifacts on display. There is a to-scale model of Choquequirao in the museum and Paul looks at it wistfully even though he agrees that the cancellation of our trek was for the best. We have had incredible experiences the last three days and if we were plodding to Choquequirao now we would have missed all the encounters with these interesting people.
Although we have another day in Cusco, we spend time this evening sorting some of the items we will need in the jungle and putting them in our backpacks. There is a weight limit on our luggage we are able to take with us to the jungle. We are trekking for several hours tomorrow so may not feel like facing all of the work it takes to sort things out tomorrow night.