My first introduction to the Inca culture was a long time ago in sixth grade. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, but rather something that my crew and I discovered during indoor recess. Way, way back teachers actually trusted the kids to play without adult supervision while they enjoyed their coffee and cigarettes during lunch hour (oh and it was a real hour). Back then, teachers weren’t paid a whole lot, and most if not all had to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. So a real, uninterrupted lunch hour was sacrosanct.
On rainy or snowy days we had indoor recess. For us, indoor recess meant hanging out in the library. We weren’t nerds, oh no, we were geography experts. We would search the National Geographic magazines for pictures of naked women, and then project the picture on the movie screen using this old time machine called an opaque projector. It made indoor recess tolerable to say the least. We never got caught, but I suspect that if we did, we would have gotten off with just a promise to knock it off and never do that again (sure, uh-uh, right).
One snowy day, during the geography quest, while I was searching for our favorite pictures, I came across an article about Peru. I was stunned when I first saw pictures of the Incan ruins. No, it wasn’t because of the naked pictures, they didn’t have any, but the absolute grandeur and majesty of the terraces, temples, and ruins of the Inca. I thought to myself if only they had some pictures of… No actually I thought that this would be a cool place to see in person.
I recently retired and was looking for an interesting place to visit. My first thought was to visit Azerbaijan; a small country in the Caucasian Mountains in central Asia. It is a very friendly, western looking country with a great food scene. Oh, and it was on the Silk Road so it had a lot of history as well. That idea got shot down and plan B was Peru. My son, and traveling partner, made all of the reservations and off we went.
Our first adventure in Peru was a bus ride and tour of the ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo in the Cuzco region of Peru. Cuzco was the capital of the Incas. I felt fine for the first day but the next morning I was suffering from altitude sickness. Too bad for me because the bus is here and now it’s off to Pisac. We are above 11,000 feet and we have to climb even higher to go over a mountain. The bus is swaying back and forth, the roads are all mountain switchbacks, (fun in a sports car, not so much in a rickety old bus) and I’m starting to get worse. I quickly motioned to the guide to stop the stop. Silly me. Who stops a bus on a narrow mountain road in the middle of nowhere? No one I know. Soooo I became the guy on the bus that we all hate. Yes, the one who despite all of the warnings about altitude sickness, and throwing caution to the wind by not taking altitude sickness pills, promptly throws up on the bus. Lovely. The lady in front of me kindly offers me an altitude sickness pill. I’m usually loathe to accept drugs from strangers but would have welcomed cyanide at this time because I was mortified. Lucky for me it settled my stomach, helped along by a huge wad of coca leaves that were stuffed into my cheek.
Mercifully the bus ride is over and here I am staring at some of the most beautiful ruins in the world. The Incas were an amazing people who despite not having a written language, the wheel, or metal tools, managed to create one of the greatest civilizations in the world. They left us a magical world of terraces built into the sides of mountains, granaries, temples, housing, art, science, astronomy, botany, and much more.
After exploring the town, having a light bite to eat and some souvenir shopping(found out how to identify real silver from fake) we get back onto the infernal bus and we are off to visit Ollantaytambo.
We had heard from some sources that the teachers in the Cuzco region were striking because of low pay. Apparently going to the university for five years nets you about $500 a month as a Peruvian teacher. Even though the cost of living is lower in Peru, $500 a month anywhere in the world is lousy pay. All of a sudden the bus stops in the road. I see a group of schoolchildren, dressed in their uniforms, holding signs, walking towards the bus. Ah, how charming. Then, immediately behind them the adults, only they are holding rocks and boulders in their hands. Uh-oh. Angry, underpaid, overworked teachers. Who, incidentally, had been on strike for months. I’m thinking to myself, “Barry, how do you say I am a teacher in Spanish?” Just in case they start throwing rocks at the bus. Repeat after me, Yo soy un profesor! Yo soy un profesor! Lucky for me and the rest of the people on the bus they started throwing the rocks and boulders onto the road. This was the only time that I was happy that my wife wasn’t with us. Sal is a staunch supporter of the teachers’ union and was a very active in her local. She would have been the first one to jump out of the bus and join the protest. Finally the mob slowly passes, followed closely by a battalion of very unhappy looking police in riot gear.
Sooooo, now we are in the middle of the road, in the middle of Peru, and the road is covered with rocks and boulders. What do we do? Well we had two suggestions. The first was let’s walk and hour and a half to Ollantaytambo. An easy hour and a half jaunt on foot with a nice kicker of an eight to nine thousand foot altitude and carrying a load of photo equipment and a fifty pound suitcase. Already I’m freaking out. The other suggestion, was, “Hey! How about if WE clear the road?” So that’s what we did. We all piled out of the bus and cleared a path of about two to three hundred yards of rock strewn road. The passengers in the other buses and cars in back of us joined the party and in the matter of minutes we cleared the road.
Back in the bus and on to Ollantaytambo. Those rocking good teachers? They came back to haunt us a few more times. I'll tell you about that later.