On Friday, June 29th, Ben and I sat in the main plaza of the town of Tinke–3 hours east of Cusco. “The bus will come through some time in late afternoon,” Jason had told us. “Make sure you’re waiting. You can always stand on the side of the road and flag it down if you end up some place else along the highway. I’ll be on that bus,” he had told us. It was the Huayna-Ausungate line, a huge yellow and orange bus that would be impossible to miss, especially since all traffic: 1. Has to go over speed bumps while entering and exiting any town along the highway now that it is paved, and 2. Blows its horn to let you know it’s coming. Still, it felt like there was too much that could go wrong, so I insisted that we sit in the blaring sun right on the road
While we waited a line of taxi drivers tried to sell us a ride to Marcapata, the next town we were headed to, where my real research on the highway would begin. “It’s a holiday; the buses aren’t running their afternoon schedules,” one taxi driver told me. It was true, it was some sort of holiday, as were most days in Peru (some of my favorites: Day of Friends, the first Saturday of July; Day of Pollo a la Brasa (a specific type of grilled chicken served with french fries–a signature Peruvian dish), July 15th). But I also had my bullshit detector tuned, and said thanks–if the bus doesn’t show up by 5pm, we might consider paying the 80 soles (about 30 dollars; the bus would cost us 6 soles apiece, about 3 dollars). But while we were waiting, the taxi driver sat with us and made some small talk: I gleaned that the highway was paved about three years ago in Tinke, and there’s been much, much more traffic, he said. It’s good though–and how could it not be for a man who makes part of his living driving a collectivo (a taxi that departs multiple times a day for a specific destination–in this case the town of Ocongate about 10 km west of Tinke)? It was good for Tinke because now they were more connected to Cusco. I asked him if he’d seen more travelers coming to Ausungate (the trek began in the town of Tinke), but he said that he hadn’t noticed this. That in fact the past few years had actually seen fewer visitors.
Eventually, the bus did show. And Jason was on it.
I met Jason through a botanist living in Peru. I contacted the botanist knowing he had conducted research in Quincemil, a small town situated on the highway between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado, and might be able to put me in contact with some people living there, or might be able to head me in a particular direction. He suggested I get in touch with Jason (they’re both originally from Kansas), who now lives in Cusco, because he had lived and worked both in Quincemil and Puerto Maldonado (and some small places in between), and could set me up with several interviews with people living there.
Jason suggested we start in Marcapata–a small town located in the high-mountain forests four and a half hours east of Cusco. He didn’t really know anybody there, “But I’ve been there and people will recognize my face,” he said. At over six feet and blue-eyed, I had reason to believe him. Marcapata was a good place to begin because until recently the town had remained relatively isolated, and with the paving of the highway and now so accessible from Cusco, it was bound to be facing several changes.
That evening we wound up the road from Tinke, the highway peaking at nearly 4800 meters in elevation (that’s over 15,000 feet), the bleak hills yellow and rocky with more snowy peaks looming in the distance. Eventually we started to wind down again, the road a series of hairpin turns that the bus took cautiously (considering that this is Peru we’re talking about).
We passed high elevation trout farms, where in small pools people farmed trout and sold it fried on the roadside, the occasional tarp shanty advertising a bare-bones sign of offerings. Eventually the landscape started to green up again, but we didn’t see it for long as the sun stuck to its faithful six o’ clock setting routine. We landed in Marcapata’s main square at six-thirty, in total darkness.
We stayed at a hospedaje right on the corner of the highway and the road leading to the town’s plaza. We went to one of Marcapata’s two restaurants and enjoyed some pollo a la brasa. Staying right on the road might have been good for research, but it was bad for sleep. Trucks passed at regular intervals all through the night. Since we were situated on a curve in the road and on a steep slope (as is the whole town of Marcapata), lights shining through the curtainless window and gears moaning as trucks farted into a downshift was the theme of the two nights we spent there.
The most active place in Marcapata was on this very corner. There were always people waiting–for a collectivo, for a truck on which they could catch a ride, for a bus, for their families, to go to work, etc. etc. The next morning, a Saturday, we wandered into the plaza, but it was nearly empty. The church with its traditional thatched roof was closed up. (Every five years the town re-thatches the roof–a big celebration in the town.) Talking to people was harder than I expected because everybody was working, and the town had a little bit of a reserved feeling. We wandered up the steep slope on the south side of town, where we interviewed a store-keeper, who told us she’d like to see more tourism happening in Marcapata. That a group designated to help the town develop some sort of tourist economy came in one night and gave a power-point presentation, and that the town hadn’t received any sort of help after that for learning how implement their ideas. Around the town the landscape was beautiful–jagged, green hills with rushing rivers down in the valleys. We walked around some more and ran into a group of men who were laying stones to make a road by hand. One guy would wheelbarrow liquid cement uphill, another would pour it in between the stones with a little pitcher. One guy would hold a two-by-four at the edge to keep the cement in place. An older man sat on a little stool nearby sewing up a pair of shoes with a little puppy sleeping at his feet. This was Saturday in Marcapata.
We stopped and talked to the men for awhile. Tomorrow, one man said, he would spend the whole day harvesting maize on his chakra (small farm). In the next few days as we drove down the highway we would see rows and rows of maize drying–hanging from front porches, or when there were no porches from lines suspended beneath the roof’s overhang. We would see makeshift tarp structures in maize patches right along the highway, where the produce was piled as people harvested.
On Sunday, we would interview another man, and he would tell us that Marcapata is a pure town. There is no alcoholism, no drug problem, no prostitution. Everybody works hard and wants their town to develop safely and wholesomely–not like some of the mining towns that were booming east of Marcapata, down in the jungle (which we would see later). Marcapata wasn’t like that, he said. And looking around, I believed him. Everybody worked. We were the only ones I ever saw drinking beer with dinner. People seemed excited by the prospects the new highway was bringing–easier way to travel to Cusco in order to sell their produce at larger markets, more tourists coming in (many from Cusco) to see the quaint little village and its old church. There was a sense of pride in the place. While we were there, there was also a group of Jehova’s Witnesses wandering the town (nicely dressed and urban-looking, clearly not from Marcapata), which made me nervous for a minute. It felt strange for there to be two separate groups (although there were only three in our group, and sometimes only two when Ben wandered off to take pictures as Jason and I talked to people) approaching people–although I was only looking to gather information rather than impart any. But on Sunday, too, we were approached by two girls from a university in Cusco who were doing a study on tourism potential in Marcapata. It seemed like…vultures had descended?…to put it totally cynically. But more like the place had been discovered, and suddenly there were all these outside groups interested in/concerned with what would happen next, how the little town would change. (This is also me coming to terms with being a “reporter,” and the parts of the job that have previously made me feel uncomfortable–that I’m always mining for some sort of information.)
We decided to stay through Sunday, too, to see if we could get a better feel, to see if the market might create a more vivid picture of the town. By noon on Sunday the plaza had filled up. The church–which is 345 years old (one man told me it was 580 years old but the math quickly made that pre-Columbian and…impossible, although this particular man was bent on discussing the miracles of the town)–was finally opened up, and I went to mass. The quiet preaching from the (very white) priest was challenged by noise coming from the plaza. What seemed like a born-again Christian group had set up a table and loudspeakers, and was broadcasting the word into a gathering group. He was broadcasting in both Spanish and Quechua, and I never really caught what he was saying. Even Jason had trouble understanding what was being said, although we could get a general impression. Ben later told me he had seen some shaking and trembling, some moaning and crying. The noise from this group mixed with the quiet preaching (the whole mass was performed in Quechua) of the Catholic church, now brings to mind what a friend in Lima told me at the end of my trip: Peru is full of contradictions.
Mass continued as if nothing was different (although one person told us that they had never seen this born-again Christian group in the plaza before). The church was filled mainly with campesinos, some of them wearing their bright orange suits which meant that they worked for CONIRSA, the construction company that had built the road and still employed some people of the town with maintenance projects. Over their orange suits, some of them wore their brightly-colored hand-woven blankets filled with bundles (I’m not sure of what) on their backs. We stayed in Marcapata until late afternoon, paid for our hostel, then stood out on the busy corner waiting for the bus to go through town. We were headed to Cullebrayoc, a community about a half-an-hour east down the road.