Peru 2008: Discoveries in Urubamba and the train ride to Aguas Calientes

June 28, 2008

We checked out of our hotel this morning, after separating what we would need for an overnight in Aguas Calientes, the town that serves the tourist industry of Machu Picchu. Most of our luggage would be loaded on a bus and driven to Cusco by Victor, where it would be left waiting for us at our hotel there.

I was feeling extremely tired today, after having had to get up several times to go to the bathroom. I think I was dehydrated: a combination of not wearing a hat and drinking too much alcohol (the sugar and alcohol cause your body to lose water, not retain it), and perhaps the unusual food we’d had for dinner, although I doubt that was much of a factor. Maybe just the hectic pace of the day had caused me to get overly fatigued and thus unable to combat some of the other assaults on my body!

Being in somewhat of a bad mood, however, I also blamed (and maybe legitimately so) the fact that I’d had to sit in the back of the bus yesterday. It’s always bumpier in the back of the bus. I started thinking about the people who always sat in the front. I remembered reading that we were supposed to rotate seats on a regular basis, but human nature finds comfort in arranging oneself in a particular place and sticking to it. I made sure I didn’t linger over breakfast in order to find a seat in the front of the bus this time.

Before taking the train to Machu Picchu, we were going to have a few “discoveries” as Boris always calls them (an OAT term, I think) in Urubamba. We’d been to the town before, of course, to visit the school, Pablo Seminario’s studio and the home-hosted dinner, but we had not really seen the town. The bus dropped us off at the central square, Plaza de Armas, where we saw a large crowd of people gathered.

I climbed the steps up to the Cathedral to get a better view of the square. Someone was talking through a loudspeaker to the crowd of local citizens on bicycles, some dressed in native, colorful ponchos and hats, and others in modern clothes. Most were men and boys, but there were also some young women among them. I guessed they were having a bike race, but it was really a rally.

  Posted signs made the purpose of it clear:

“There are those who cross the forest and only see wood for the fire.”

“Friend, use your bike so you don’t contaminate the environment.”

It was a conservation awareness rally! I wondered if these people were going to clean up the trash along the way, which our rafting guide had mentioned the day before – I had noticed a lot of plastic bags and other trash caught in bushes and tree branches and he said that local citizens were going to clean up the trash this weekend, as they do periodically. Today was Saturday!

Behind the gathered bicyclists were waiting police for crowd control, as well as a line of “taxis cholos” – carriages mounted on 3-wheeled bicycles.

However, we were going to take a different alternate method of transportation, perhaps a bit ironically considering the purpose of the bike rally: we walked into another street where a line of motorcycle taxis waited for us. Similar to the “cholo” taxis, they have carriage bodies mounted on motorcycles; only the latter are open with a bench for two to sit on. The driver sits in front on the motorcycle seats. This was the first time I had ever ridden on even the semblance of a motorcycle!

We were paired up and Jayme and I ended up sitting together. Off we roared through the streets of Urubamba; unlike Ollantaytambo, these streets were paved and less picturesque.

We were dropped off in front of a small semi-enclosed plaza. There was a small group of people gathered at the far end near some arches, listening to a man standing in the middle. Probably some kind of workers’ meeting, I deduced.

We crossed a small bridge over a wide aqueduct and down another street to the entrance of a cemetery.

I recalled other Latin American cemeteries I’d visited – fascinating, and definitely different for Americans who are used to cemeteries with the dead buried underneath expanses of green lawn. I imagined Peruvian cemeteries would be similar to those elsewhere in Latin America – people buried in large cement mausoleums, with a picture of the deceased attached to the headstone (as in Brazil) and offerings of flowers and a variety of objects placed on or around the grave, as in Cuba.

However, this was a little different. People are buried above ground in cement mausoleums, but they generally do not display pictures of the deceased. Most interesting are the decorations and offerings at the graves.

Often at American cemeteries, I have seen a few graves with flower pots, some with wilted flowers, but here almost every grave has a vase of fresh flowers. People here seem to be diligent in their visits to their dead loved ones. Another innovation here are what I dubbed “apartment buildings for the deceased” – large concrete blocks containing eight or more vaults, each niche filled with flowers, decorations, or other offerings to the dead. Some are bare, either because no one has purchased that spot yet, the family of the deceased has not yet had the name and dates of their loved one painted or engraved on yet, or cannot afford to do anything with it.

However, the above ground graves are all from families of middle and upper class families. The poorest members of society who cannot afford to purchase a space in a mausoleum are buried in a separate section of the cemetery, UNDERGROUND, with crosses or small tombstones to mark their graves. These are not as pretty as our cemetery – the graves are delineated as mounds and are covered mainly with the sandy, rocky soil common to this region. However, these dead have dedicated loved ones, too, many of the graves decorated with vases or other colorful tokens. There are also flowering bushes and cacti planted among the graves.

(A week later I would make a connection of this burial custom when we visited the funerary ruins of Sillustani, near Lake Titicaca. The royalty were buried in funerary towers, commoners just above ground level, and the servants of the buried lords underground. The higher up you were buried, the higher your socio-economic status).

We walked up and down the aisles, looking at different tombs. Particularly poignant was someone who had recently brought their loved one, named “Trinidad”, a large bouquet of hearts decorated with red ribbons and stars encased in a plastic bag, and a pink basket with a monogrammed handkerchief  folded over a round wicker rim. Rose bushes were planted in front of the grave, which was set inside a block of four vaults. A lover who died too soon? A tragedy on someone’s wedding day? Or a beloved daughter who died in her youth? I imagined writing a sad story about this and took a picture to remember it. Respectfully, of course.

Boris pointed out the most fascinating grave of all. He was telling us that some people decorate the niche of the deceased’s vault with objects that have to do with their life or profession.

“Can you guess what this person did for a living?” he asked us, pointing to a niche that contained an elaborate arrangement of objects.

The back of the niche was painted blue with the deceased’s name written in a semi-circle across the top “Hon. Hquiles…Trujillo”. Underneath were painted a brown Christian cross and a card hand of 4 Aces. Underneath were placed a miniature table, stools, a plate of food, a plastic bottle of pink Kola Real, a miniature clay cooking stove with two clay pots on top, one filled with dirt (probably meant to represent soup or potatoes) and – here’s the giveaway – a miniature frog game! These objects were all reflected in the mirrors placed on the side walls and floor of the niche.

Someone exclaimed, “Oh – a tavern owner!”

“That’s right,” Boris confirmed.

Soon after that, we left the cemetery and walked to our bus, which began our journey to the train station. Along the way, we had another discovery: an ancient Inca bridge whose foundations are still in place. The stone supporting pillars of one section stand in the middle of the river and next to it is a complete section of the bridge, with supports holding two sections of suspension rods and wooden slats across it. On the other side of the bridge are elaborate terraces with steps up the side to a wall extending some distance above the river.

Inca terraces & bridge foundation
Inca terraces & bridge foundation
Bridge with Inca foundations
Bridge with Inca foundations

We got out to take a few pictures, then were on our way again. We were all given train tickets and told we had to sit in the seat assigned to us.

On the train, I was seated next to George, which was OK with me, but once we got going, he got up and moved around a lot, taking pictures out the window. During the one and a half hour train ride, there was some beautiful scenery to be seen, including snow-capped mountains as we ascended one range and descended into a valley beyond it. Raw00444 Raw00448 Raw00455 Raw00427 ??????????????????????????????

Machu Picchu is actually lower than most of the Sacred Valley sites we’d been visiting. Ollantaytambo is 9,100 feet (2,800 meters) above sea level, while Machu Picchu is only at about 8,500 feet.

On the train we were also served a “snack” which turned out to be quite substantial: a roll with butter, a small sandwich and a passion fruit pastry. The box it came in had a decorative dried flower held on by a round golden sticker, which I peeled off and stuck on the page of the small agenda I always carry with me, under today’s date.

Next: Machu Picchu Day 1

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