No surrender

Atahualpa surrendered in Cajamarca, but I won’t: Peru and I are now the best of friends.

It turns out that when I staggered off the bus the other night down the street to the nearest hotel, it was equivalent to bunking near the Port Authority in New York. Traveling without a guide book is inefficient but it toughens the improvisation muscles.

I came here based on a vague memory that someone had once told me Cajamarca was a good spot, somewhat off the main gringo trail. I couldn’t remember if it was a city or a village, and I didn’t know where the backpacker hang-outs were. My first morning, I stopped a man on a bicycle for help, just because he looked more Irish than I do. Guy was English, it turned out, but his Irish grandparents ruled his face if not his accent. He was a missionary who had once run an evangelical church on Booterstown Avenue, right where I lived during college, and his kids, who were born in Dublin, were called Róisín and Siobhán. (Row-sheen and Shevaun). It occurred to me that I was probably the only person in Cajamarca who had ever pronounced their names correctly, and I felt he should invite me home to tea. Just as well that instead he simply directed me kindly to the colonial center. I would certainly have got into a spat over the effects of missionary activity in Latin America.

Cajamarca is lovely, and I am basking in the first warm, sunny weather since Mexico. In the old center, by the stately churches, you get a better class of catcall. I found a more central hotel (just as dilapidated), and this morning I laced up the hiking boots once more for a twenty-mile walk through the hills.

I took a colectivo from the very smelly market up to Ventanillas de Otuzco to see the pre-Inca burial catacombs. The translated sign solemnly noted that this site had once contained many mommies. From there, I headed down to the river to cut across to Baños del Inca, 6 km away, to indulge my rustic spa habits. On the way, Julia asked me the time (nobody wears watches here), then asked where I was going.
   ´I’ll come with you,’ she said cheerfully. ´I just moved here from Lima. I don’t know anyone but my in-laws, my husband is still down there, and I have nothing to do. And it’s terrible that you travel alone.’

So we walked along the river, where tuk-tuk drivers washed their sputtery little rigs and workers insisted on posing for a photo, builders’ bellies proudly stretching their shirts. Julia was from Arequipa, way down south on the coast, and met her husband when they were both working in Lima. She had sold cosmetics, baked bread, worked in a factory, sold candy, sorted yellow onions for export. Now there was no work of any kind, so a month ago she had brought the kids to live with her husband’s family here in the boonies. They were good people, but you couldn’t find a job in Cajamarca—or anywhere else—without connections, which she didn’t have. So she was going to leave the children here and head back down to Lima tomorrow to try again. Fujimori, the Japanese, had been great, a wonderful president. He sorted out Shining Path and set the economy up again. But things were sliding now, and everybody hurt. It was getting to be as bad as the old days with Alán Garcia.

We split up at Baños, and I paid $1.25 for the luxury hot springs tub, which looked just the same as the dollar tubs except the only other woman in it had skin as white as mine. Peru, like Ecuador, segregates instinctively.

From Baños I walked on to Llantambo, where gaggles of women in straw ten-gallon hats carded sheep and llama wool and gave me contradictory directions to La Collpa. It was on the other side of the hill, they told me, and I could either go backwards or forwards. Or I could climb the hill. But really I should take a colectivo…did I not have any money?

Eventually I struck off towards the hill, with the nodded blessings of two farmers. There was a river, small but fast, in my path, and I yelled across to the kid laboring on the other side.
   ´I want to go to La Collpa…where’s the bridge?’
They were sorting stones from the river bed, dumping them from a huge forklift into a wire net that sifted them by size. He signalled me to wait, then ran up to the forklift driver. I scanned the river for a bridge, or a path on the other side, then gaped as the forklift drove right down into the river and rumbled across to the spot next to me. The door opened, and a shirtless seventeen-year-old hauled me into the cab. I balanced on his lap and we chatted politely as he backed across the river and set me down on the other side. They both refused to take payment, and directed me to the next lot of workers down the road, who would tell me where to go.
    ’Look after yourself. There are some bad people in this country,’ the fourteen-year-old warned. He was stunted by hard work and bad food.

The other workers took great delight in directing my scramble up the hillside to look for the path.
   ´Left a bit…further up…that’s it, darling, keep going…watch out for the dogs, they’re mean around here…’

They were. Yet another tried to bite me, in exactly the same pattern as before. A silent cur, guarding its owner away from home, loped up behind me and gripped my calf. I raised my stone and the woman shouted, and it slunk away without closing its jaws. I’ve started to plan my trip based around proximity to rabies centers.

I was, as usual, filthy and thirsty by the time I found the path back to Cajamarca, and I bought a fifteen-cent ice-cream from a kind old man pedalling his cart in the middle of nowhere, just to ask him if I was going in the right direction. I couldn’t resist eating it, then fretted about hepatitis for the three hours it took to reach home. (Home. How quickly I label prison-cell hotel bedrooms these days.) But there are no perfect days without ice-cream, right?

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