Lessons from Peru: All The Pretty Colors (Part Two)

The Andes Mountains & Incan Towns

Andes Vegetation

Our last couple of work days were so emotional. We started to build the walls for the home, and for the first time we were able to experience the shape of the home, and got to see the excitement in Evelyn’s face; this was her home, and now she can start to really see and feel the solidity of the home! The goodbyes were tough. I couldn’t believe this was it, I felt like we should have stayed one more week to see it through.

Alas, our time there was up. The following day, we all got up at 5am to embark into Andes Mountains to venture into a few Incan Towns.

Of course, many fell asleep. I sat in the front of the bus with Grace and Zenon. Grace kept me awake, telling every which thing, until she eventually got comfortable with the blanket she shared with me and fell asleep. I sat, still, not wanting to disturb her, until Zenon started talking to me, giving me some back story about the places we would go, and talking to me about Grace. He loves her very much, and just wants the best for her.

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It started to get light out, but the bus was still very quiet, peaceful. Zenon pointed out Incan highways, talked about his best friend Jimmy Carter and coacoa tea, until he also grew quiet as he started to really see the world outside the window. I looked out as well, at the sky as it changed colors with the rising sun, the foothills of the Andes rapidly approaching, creating stark edges against the sky.

The further we went, the more vegetation was able to be seen on the side of the rock; cactus, trees, dirt, and something yellowish. Almost consistently, there was always some sort of water bank, whether it be part of a river or a small lake.

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Eventually, the familiar sounds of shuffling weight and morning sighs gave us warning of the bus waking up. Finally, there was a whisper and an eruption of laughter. Zenon smiled, crinkles on the sides of his eyes from many years of smiles and laughter and told me in Spanish “Ya, asi empieza”; “Yup, this is how it starts”.

I could hear whispers of people being hungry, wondering when breakfast would happen. Kathy turned around from the front seat to talk to Zenon, and I heard him tell the bus driver to stop “En la calabera de mi abuela”; “at my grandmother’s skull”.

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We stopped, stretched out our legs. Grace ran around, pulling me along in stride. Everyone seemed a little bit confused, but got out of the bus and stretched out their legs, and admired the mountains they suddenly found themselves surrounded by. When everyone was out, Zenon got our attention and pointed to the rocks and proudly proclaimed with a chuckle; “This is my grandmother”. Grace pointed out more faces on the side of the rock, and we took turns making up names for them.

grace and i grandma

We got back on the bus, and drove up some more. I looked over my shoulder to see the others looking out the windows at the sight, eyes wide. We stopped an hour later for coffee, hard boiled eggs, bread, bananas, and mandarins. We walked around, took pictures. Grace, Kathy, and I, took to throwing rocks down the valley into the water. We didn’t quite make it, but we tried.

After we finished our breakfast, we loaded back to the bus. Jack’s eyes lit up at the sight of Doritos. Zenon laughed and shook his head. We had to wait until the air pressure popped the bag open. The bags were full of air, and looked like the “Happy Mother’s Day!” balloons you can get at the dollar store.

We passed through many smaller towns, taking potty breaks in the small convenience stores. These towns looked to be only a street long and wide. Some had schools, others did not.

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We finally made it to the first Incan town, Laraos. We marched off the bus, checked on the unpopped Dorito bags, and wandered into the town. It was so colorful, and truly a wonder. Nina kept asking “how does someone build all this up here in the mountains?” I don’t know, but it’s great. The town sat above a valley that dove deep, almost straight down, where I spied cows and donkeys grazing.

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We followed the town’s vice mayor into a community center where she dressed us all, one by one, in traditional Peruvian gear. The women wore thick, long, colorful skirts, a matching corset, and a thick shawl, with a straw hat on top. The men wore a longer shawl and a black hat.

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Everyone was ecstatic to dress up. I got dressed in purple, Grace in pink, Rosa in green, and Kathy in blue. We went out to take group pictures and wander around the town. After photos, the group donned the clothing, but I held on a while longer to get some shots with Kathy, Rosa, and Grace. Zenon was our personal photographer, and I felt like they had accepted me into their family.

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Lunch was at a little closet restaurant where they served a single menu item; Pachamanca and a kind of tamarind tea. The word “pachamanca” means cooked underground, with the rocks. This is a traditional style of cooking in the mountains, where the food is heated with the rocks on the floor. Our dish included corn, green beans, potato, yucca, sweet tamales, and chicken. Zenon traded my chicken for his sweet tamales.

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Following lunch, we had about 20 minutes to explore. I was really curious about the valley, and wanted to see how low I could go to get close to the cows and the donkeys. Grace and I descended and eventually found the donkeys! But they didn’t want to be found, and kept running away from us. Fair enough, we were strange creatures to them. We finished our little hike and got back on the bus for the second town.

 

Many fell asleep, the drowsiness hits after a full meal. We drove an hour more to another town, where Zenon asked about a llama. We were too late; the family who had owned the llama had already eaten him! With that, we drove away. There was debate as to whether or not we would be able to make it to a third town, it would be getting dark soon, and it would no longer be safe to drive this high up in the mountains.

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They settled on a town on the way down. We started driving, past the first town we stopped in, and then took a different route than what we had initially used. We passed through several other towns, but we didn’t stop there. We kept going. The bus was quiet; no one had woken up yet. Then suddenly, Zenon was trying to get their attention. We would be driving inside of a canyon, and he didn’t want them to miss this opportunity.

Cameras and cell phones out, we watched as the walls around us became narrower, and the river we were driving alongside became a stream. There was a long pipe that lined one side of the walls; the driver said it brings water from all the way up here down to the towns in the valley, the very towns we had driven past on our way up.

We finally stopped at the end of the canyon, to a wide open valley. We got out, took a potty break and stretched out our legs. This town felt a little empty, but not in the sense that no one is around, rather that everyone is hiding. It was so beautiful. It reminded me of the stillness of Requena, Spain; surely there are people here, but we are strangers, and they just aren’t quite sure if they should come out or not. There was so much color.

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We trekked back into the bus, and I noticed that the Doritos had popped. It didn’t take long for us to quickly pass them around and consume them. It seems that Peruvian Doritos have a certain kick that American ones just don’t. We were obsessed with them.

This time around, Grace was more energetic on the bus, and turned around to talk with the rest of the group. She started with Jack, asking him to win a game on Kathy’s phone for her. Next was Jess and Adriana. We played a name game, and the rest on the bus were spectators, cheering us on. This was the first time I saw her truly open up to the rest of the group, and I was happy for it. She is shy about her English, but I know it’s in there! They helped her out, teaching her phrases and answering the multitude of questions she has. She never runs out of questions.

I was a little bit tired, so I listened to them and watched out the window instead of more directly participating. I had my time with Grace, I can’t be greedy. Eventually it started to get dark, the group started to quiet down as the days exhaustion started to hit them. Jess moved to the back of the bus for a nap, and Grace moved to sit next to Adriana and talk. For the first time that whole day, I finally let myself lean against the seat and window and closed my eyes.

The quiet didn’t last long however. I am a light sleeper, and I felt Jess’s footsteps approach the front of the bus to talk with Zenon. She was asking about dinner; the plan was to get Chifa – Peruvian Chinese food. She was wondering if instead we could just make sandwiches at the center and call it a night. I’m sure everyone was tired, and this made sense to do, however, Zenon did not take to the news very well. He was a man with a plan, and he was thinking out loud on how to pivot the plan and make it suit our needs better. I think his musing stressed her out a little bit, and she turned to the group to see what we wanted. Many of us were okay with waiting a while longer to try Chifa. So it was decided.

We got back to the hotel, dropped off our bags and went right back on the bus to be dropped off at a Chifa restaurant. I sensed the mood had changed. Maybe Zenon was running out of patience, or we weren’t flexible enough, or maybe everyone was just really tired and hangry. I’m not sure. But dinner didn’t feel as warm as lunch. Zenon, Grace, Rosa, and Kathy all sat on one end of the table, and the rest of us on our own side. What happened to integrating the groups? I was a little bit sad. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I saw Grace.

The day eventually came to end, around 10:30pm. The next day we would be up at 6am to get a bus to Lima. I went to my room, exhausted, and worried. I didn’t want to leave Peru with Zenon and his family having a negative image of us. I kept going around and around in mind, trying to figure out when and how and why the mood changed so drastically, and maybe I just won’t ever know exactly what. And maybe I’m an overthinker.

I heard voices in the common room, echoing through the hallways and bouncing off the walls into my room. A couple of people were talking about the day, and about the sudden turn of events. They had the same thought. They wanted to remember the good things, not the stress or the anxiety. Hearing this put me at ease. I finally went off into sleep.

Lima

Lima

The next morning we wanted to show them we could be better prepared and more attentive. We arrived early to breakfast, instead of 15 minutes late as we had consistently done all week. We came with our luggage so we wouldn’t need to return to the hotel again, and leave for Lima even sooner.

Zenon was alone. It was a Sunday, and Kathy, Mace, Rosa, and Little Rosa, were nowhere in sight. I understood. These women probably haven’t had a day off in about a month, for it was one group after the other, and they were there for us every step of the way, giving us everything we could ever need and more. The level of service and attention is truly outstanding, and it always makes me wonder who is supposed to be serving who? Aren’t we here to work and build? It’s exhausting work, and I didn’t blame them. Zenon, however, was very flustered, quickly trying to make us our regular breakfast of avocado, bread, and scrambled eggs. Stephanie, Nina, Sam, and I decided to try and help. We got up and started making the orange juice for him, and asked him if he wanted help with the eggs too, but he didn’t want us to help him with that. He kept checking his phone, trying to get any word back from Kathy.

We got our breakfast in order and ate quietly as Zenon started formulating a plan for us to follow. We put our luggage into Zenon’s car; he didn’t want us taking it onto the public bus we were going to take. Instead he would drive to Lima on a different route and have our luggage safe in the fuller center office there.

Finally, Kathy came, a little bit out of breath, sleep in the corners of her eyes. She said she missed her alarm. We got into 3 different cabs to the bus station. It was quite smaller than I anticipated, and I almost didn’t recognize it as a bus station. I was oddly excited to board the bus. When I studied abroad, travel by bus was the cheapest way to go, so I knew the drill. I am now conditioned to believe that the end of a lengthy bus trip lays an adventure.

The bus was very comfortable. I sat towards the front with Nina, with a good vantage point to see the screen. In the length of the bus ride, a couple of movies aired; Princess and the Geek and Pitch Perfect 3, both in Spanish.

I looked out the window a few times, and it was very dusty outside. We didn’t drive into Lima the same way we had initially driven to Cañete. The outside world looked like a desert.

Before we knew it, we had arrived. The bus station we pulled into was much bigger than the one in Cañete, and it felt more familiar to me. After a brief potty break, we scuttled into three more cabs and went into city center to watch the changing of the guards. A small marching band and a drumline created the soundtrack as the guards marched around with their rifles. They did some drop spins, but to my dismay, no tosses or intricate marching routines. Alas, tis not marching band!

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Many of us were out of Peruvian currency by the time we arrived to city center, so we needed to exchange moneys. Kathy was alone today, leading us through the day and I could tell she was a little weary, but determined to help us figure out where to exchange our money. She found a police man who took it upon himself to escort us to the spot where we would exchange money, and later to the atm. The police man was funny, asking me if I was Peruvian.  I shook my head and explained I was with the group and he laughed and said I could pass, and to watch out for any Peruvian man might approach me. I laughed and nodded. The police man was very excited to help us out, and was ready to give us a tour of Lima. I would have gladly followed, but the group wanted McDonalds. We thanked the kind sir and went along to the nearest McDs.

I’ve been to many McDs in other countries, and even though I never would go to one in the states, it’s interesting to see the manifestation of American culture in new places. In Italy, 4 different kinds of pasta are added to the menu, as well as a coffee bar featuring Italian classics, such as marrochinos and coronettos, and some Italian-American creations. The one in Peru had chicken added to their menu, and opportunities to bundle them up with other menu items. As I am vegetarian, I was already planning on just getting fries, but the woman at the register helped me build my own sandwich without meat, which was really awesome! They would never do that in the states.

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I sat at a long table in front of Kathy, and watched as she picked at the food in front of her. I could tell she wasn’t quite used to it, and then she asked if this is the food Americans eat all the time? I laughed and told her, well yes, a lot of Americans eat it, on the go. I explained what a to-go window was and her eyes went wide and she shook her head and laughed.

Our next stop was to the catacombs of Lima! This was probably my favorite thing out of all the Peru exploring we did – at least a tie with driving through the Andes mountains. I love going to museums and learning about the history of a place, and that is exactly what we did. I am knowledgeable of some Mexican history, how the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and Mayas there and colonized it. I knew about the mestizo culture a little bit too. But I guess I never thought about how the Spanish impacted other places and people of the world outside of Mexico, the Inquisition, or the Moorish communities of Andalucia. But it makes sense. Peru was Inca territory before the Spanish, and they were taken over, Christianized, there way of life completely shaken and changed.

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The museum that leads to the catacombs holds the bones of important Spanish men and tells the story of St. Francis, his educational tactics, holds one of the oldest libraries I’ve ever seen, is the home to the beginnings of musical literature. It used to be a Franciscan Monastery, and before that something else of the Incas. It was remodeled by the Franciscanos with tile handcrafted and shipped from Sevilla. I was excited to see the tile; I didn’t need the tour guide to tell me where it was from, I recognized it from the tile I had seen at Real Alcazar, a palace in the city center of Sevilla. Real Alcazar used to be a Moorish temple before becoming sort of an embassy for visitors of the Spanish Royal Family.

The catacombs below were dark, the ceilings low but the hallways wide in some places but then so thin you could barely fit one person at a time. What was really interesting to me was how the bones were arranged, grouped by type of bone rather than outlining a skeleton. Archeologists laid it out this way to make it appeasing to the eye (and probably keep from scaring people with the image of literal death). The people in these catacombs used to be organized by importance and rank; people would be able to buy and set aside a place for them to be buried, and that place may be really well kept and private or maybe not, it all depended on your social status. Most of those buried here were high class Spanish men, but some wives and children made it into this lot as well. When the archeologists reorganized the space, the bones were mixed up, and now no one can tell who was who really anymore, and that is so amazing to me. In the end we are just human, and our time on this earth truly is brief.

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After the catacombs, Zenon took us to a market a ways from city center. There were three cabs waiting for us, but they wanted to overcharge us for the ride. Zenon got mad, and walked away from the cab drivers muttering under his breath. We all thought it was funny, and eventually the drivers lowered the price a bit. Driving away from city center was really interesting. Some of the infrastructure reminded me of Mexico and Milan, but maybe I was just missing these other sites.

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The market was very cool. It was a bit secluded, but the prices were good, the sellers ready to haggle, and I was able to find everything I was looking for; a sweater, a hat, shot glasses, and easy llama keychains. Everyone was really excited about shopping, and more than happy about souvenirs. I got sucked into the glamour shopping, and didn’t even notice when Kathy left. Like many of the other wonderful people I had met, she slipped away, subtly, barely saying goodbye.

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The market was a short walk away from the Fuller Center office in Lima. There we dropped our bags with the luggage Zenon had brought for us, and walked a few more blocks to a chicken place. If anyone has ever had Church’s Chicken in Mexico, think of a place like that, just a slight step up. I ate salad and drank Inca Cola, and sat next to Zenon. I could tell he was tired. It had been quite the long day for everyone, and quite the long run for him too; this was the last day of two consecutive groups in a row.

We walked back to the center to pick up our bags, and I walked alongside Zenon. I realized this would be the last chance I’d get with him. We spoke in Spanish, I asked him questions about the different signs we saw, about the next group that would be coming, about Grace. He spoke of his dreams for the Fuller Center one last time with me.

Before we knew it, we had our luggage in place and packed in the bus. This was our last stop with Zenon; we would be dropped off at the Airport and then be on our way back to the states. Just like Kathy, just like Grace, and Little Rosa before them, Zenon slipped away, barely saying goodbye. Maybe it’s just a Peruvian thing; or maybe just a human thing, to avoid goodbyes and let people slip in and out of your life.

You Can’t Take It With You

I learned so much in Peru, from spending time in the community building Evelyn’s house, and from getting the opportunity to see many different sides of Peru. So much more than I could have even guessed. I’ve never been very much for souvenirs; I usually just buy them for other people. I’ve learned that souvenirs don’t always bring back the experiences, the memories you made, or the people you met. It’s something nice to share, but the really important parts of every trip always stay; the people, the sites, the food. To experience it again, you simply have to go back. All I’ve left now is the sweet memory, and I’m so thankful for it.

The more I travel, the more I fall in love with the world and the more I can’t sit still. The post travel depression I have felt since returning home is so real, but I must hold on to the memory and trust that one day I will be out there again. If there’s anything I’ve learned in Peru, it’s the importance of trust, and just being okay with not knowing every detail because no matter what, it will work out if it’s meant to be and it will likely be amazing.

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