“Urubamba is so rich, but its citizens are so poor.  We feel ignored; we’re such an important part of Peru’s identity and yet we’re so unappreciated.  I just want the best for my people, is that so much to ask?”

-Pepe Morales, Urubamba Citizen

Keeping the Sacred Valley Sacred

Once upon a time, around 500 years ago, the Inca Empire stood as the largest nation on the planet.  The four districts, or Tawantinsuyu as they called it, that constituted their rule covered an absurd distance that reached as far north as Colombia, went as far south as Santiago, Chile, and even stretched inland into modern-day countries like Bolivia and Argentina.  As a result, the Incas have their stake in history for having erected the biggest native state to ever exist in the Western hemisphere.

In the midst of this impressive expanse of land lies the Sacred Valley, and out of all the valleys that carve into the Andes it’s the only one that earned the name “Sacred”.  Hundreds upon hundreds of other prodigious locations could’ve scored that designation, and yet this modest 37-mile tract of land takes the gold.  Why?

The most commonly known reason is for the Valley’s agricultural benefits; the soil is rich in nutrients, the rain pours, and the sun shines – the obvious criteria for cultivating good crop.  Yet, the fact it had such wonderful farming properties in the region it’s in is what separates it from all other valleys.  Cusco, which was the capital and centerpiece of the Tawantinsuyu departments, was only a day’s trek from the Sacred Valley, thus making it a crucial pipeline of trade, transport, and rest; a pivotal artery that delivered nourishment to the Inca’s heart.

With food production at its core, the Sacred Valley allowed an easy passage for those from the Colla Suyu (southern) district to reach noteworthy municipalities like Ollantaytambo, Cusco, and Machu Picchu.  Such access gave convenient lines to Chinceros and Urubamba, which fostered an industry of exchange for those passing through.  This was especially significant since the Incas didn’t do business with hard currency, it was with commodities like food and tools.  In turn, the abundance of resources that made their way across the valley provided ample means for citizens to have downtime on longer treks and recuperate.

But, as you’re probably aware, it didn’t last.  The Spanish conquistadors made sure of that.  With its destruction the Sacred Valley was in danger of getting lost in the annals of time until the accidental discovery of Machu Picchu (a topic in which I’ll touch on later).  Instead, it continues to be “sacred” in another sense; it’s beautiful, rich in history, teeming with a vibrant culture, and brings mass amounts of tourism to an area of the world that could use the economic support.

While that may not have the same ring to it, it’s importance in the present shouldn’t be understated.  It’s not just about marvelous landscapes or money, it’s a source of pride for the native population.  Here, where conditions aren’t as glorious as they are in developed countries, being able to point to the hillsides and share their ancestor’s ingenuity is an indispensable aspect of life for the locals.  I hear it in their voice each time they talk about it, they speak with passion and conviction, fully aware of the triumphs that are scattered over their cherished land.

A lot of families here operate differently than I’m accustomed to, the whole concept of “opportunity” and “career-growth” is often lost amongst the necessity to farm, work, and provide for your household.  As an adolescent it’s way more problematic to branch off, pay for an education, and leave your parents on the highland to do backbreaking labor; sadly, the future rarely shines as bright here as it does in other parts of the world.  With little to look forward to except years and years of toiling in the soil, what do they have?  The glory of a time past, reminiscing in the marvels that their own bloodline created.

If something as simple as a venerated homeland can offer someone a sense of belonging in an otherwise tedious lifestyle, wouldn’t you still consider it “sacred”?  I know I do.

The Business of Misrepresentation

The house we use here in Urubamba is falling apart, it has been since the very beginning.  The list of defects seems boundless; the showers are of glacial temperature, all of the faucets run, our stove shoots plumes of ash, and within our first week here the sink in the boys bathroom fell off its hinge and shattered on the floor.  We’ve been confronting our landlord about these problems around twice a week for two months, pleading with him to get all the facilities running properly.  “Yes, of course,” he says, as if his responses are always pre-recorded, “I’ll have someone on it tomorrow afternoon.  The most important thing for me is that you’re comfortable!”

To this day, nothing has been fixed.  It hasn’t even received inspection.

Our trash collector is a five minute bike ride away from where we live.  With a house that lodges 25 people, 20 of which are teenagers, you can imagine how much garbage we accumulate (it’s a lot).  We’ll call him in the morning to confirm the pick up: “Please come by in the afternoon, we’ll be waiting here with your payment.”

“Great!  I’ll be there!” he usually replies, only to never show up.  His excuse?  “Oh, my apologies.  Today wasn’t a good day.”

You may be starting to sense a pattern, so allow me one more parable.  Last year when I was traveling around South America I would always tell the bus company I wanted a direct route, no stops whatsoever.  I’d buy the ticket, and the common outcome would be six or seven stops, the complete opposite of what I had requested.  A girl I met was telling me her tagged luggage was stolen from under the bus during one of those unspecified stops and how nothing was done about it.  Their reaction towards our complaints?  Essentially, it went like this: “Whoops!”

I find this aspect of the culture, how businesses function, to be one of the most curious.  That’s because if any of the aforementioned situations transpired in the United States, they’d be out of business.  Fast.  The landlord wouldn’t be able to find tenants, someone who actually collected trash would collect the trash, and the bus company would have zero passengers.  Yet here it seems as though falsifying information to please the client – and subsequently not following through – is accepted.  Even when I ask directions for somewhere simple, like a restaurant, the person I ask will point off into the distance and say: “It’s over there.”

“Over where?” I’ll inquire further.

“There,” they’ll point.

“Do I need to turn anywhere?” I’ll ask, confused.

“Just go that way,” they’ll reply, finger still outstretched, “you can’t miss it.”  And needless to say, I always seem to miss it.

Over the course of my time living in Urubamba, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this distorted truth stems from a good place; that they want to please you.  No one wants to look you in the eye and say I don’t know, instead they’d rather give you an answer and try to lead you down the right path.  As Southern Peru is a shy culture, perhaps they just feel uncomfortable letting you down.  As for some of the larger companies, it could be that there isn’t an infrastructure to deliver astounding customer service; like in the example of the bus company, maybe there simply isn’t a way to recover the bag.  “Whoops!” just might be the best answer they have.

I don’t know what the real answer is, and maybe I don’t need one.  Cultures differ, and this is just one of those characteristics that contrasts what I’m used to.  It’s these small nuances, the pockets of diversity, that make our species so interesting; I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.  In the interim, I have no problem taking advantage of “Peruvian time” and showing up 30 minutes late.  Instead, I finally might have found a culture that goes by my schedule!

“I climbed all the way up the mountain with a torn knee so I could feel the land’s spirit.  I was hoping its energy would help me heal faster.  When I arrived at the top and pressed my body against the snow I could sense a power from within the ground revive my leg, urging it to rehabilitate.  It was then I knew all the pain and agony from the ascent was worth it.”

-Nico Jara, Program Coordinator

The Underrated Dominance of the Andes

Last year, I made it my goal to hike up Mt. Chicon and touch the glacial snow that stared down at me every single day.  The massive, imposing peak had been dangling a carrot in front of me since the moment I arrived in Urubamba; and I was taking the bait.  I am going to touch snow, I thought to myself, I am going to conquer the summit.  I had a vision – or even better, a dream – of myself standing high above the Sacred Valley laughing at the mountain that had taunted me since day one.

The thing is, I failed miserably.  I didn’t come close.  By the time I needed to turn around my lungs felt as though I had chain-smoked 5 packs of cigarettes earlier that morning, and I wasn’t even halfway up.  I couldn’t take ten steps without keeling over and gasping for air.

I was completely clueless at the time, but I had the foolish expectation of climbing a mountain with an elevation of 18,175 feet.  That isn’t a typo; Mt. Chicon, which casually exists in Urubamba’s backyard, is nearly 4,000 feet taller than Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in the Rockies.  Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, sits 3,670 feet lower.  Even Mont Blanc, the pride of glory of the Alps, stands at a mere 15,780 feet.  Chicon towers over other ranges and still only holds the title of 11th tallest mountain in the Cusco Province, or 126 tallest in all of Peru.  For as enormous as it is, it’s nothing in comparison to the rest of the Andes.

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You’re pathetic, Chicon.

The point I’m trying to make is this: the Andes are gargantuan.  At 4,300 miles end-to-end they’re the longest continental mountain range in the world, stretching over 1,000 miles further than the United States is wide.  Within that impressive distance lie more than 50 volcanoes that rise above 19,700 feet (which is taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro, by the way).  Additionally, within approximately 1,333,000 square miles of territory, the Andes possess an average height of 13,000 feet.

I’m not trying to knock the Himalayas, I know it’s the most immense mountain range by far, but the Andes don’t get the credit they deserve.  Having trekked the Altiplano previously I can say from experience they’re relentless; the landscape is littered with rocky, serrated ridgelines as far as the eye can see.  It’s almost claustrophobic being so inescapably enclosed by the numerous snowcapped peaks that boast their supremacy, perpetually bursting skyward like they’re trying to make a statement.

They’re tall, cold, dry, and deprived of oxygen; an impressive creation to say the least, a prime example of Mother Nature’s brute strength.  They’re capable of taking the most determined human and putting them on all fours – trust me, I would know.

Living Amongst the Ruins of the Incan Empire

There is a quote I think of often these days.  It’s simple, but to me it speaks volumes, and it goes like this: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

Who said this?  Francisco Pizarro did.  He wrote it in a letter to King Charles V shortly before he decimated the Incan Empire, simultaneously attempting to destroy any evidence of its existence in his wake.  What was he talking about?  Cuzco, the imperial capital of the Incans, and the pure marvel that a population had somehow managed to create.  By today’s standards even I am stunned at what such a society was able to accomplish, and so I can only imagine what Pizarro was thinking as he looked down on Cuzco from the surrounding mountains.  Unfortunately, I think I have a pretty good guess.  Without flinching, I believe he thought to himself: “I want this to be mine.”

For a Conquistador that was promised governance by Spanish royalty for any land he took over, I’m sure the deal seemed pretty fruitful.  I bet a few other factors widened his pupils; such as the fact the empire had a well-functioning infrastructure, was rich with precious metals, and was inhabited by people who recognized (and feared) the power their modern weaponry held.  The latter was what brought Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, to voluntarily meet with Pizarro in hopes of discussing a peaceful resolution towards the accusation of being an enemy to the Catholic Church and Spanish Crown.  Of course, this was nothing more than a conniving plan to isolate Atahualpa who, having never seen a book before, threw the Bible aside when presented with the option of converting to Catholicism.  This was the only impetus the Spanish needed to attack, thus unleashing a rain of cannon and gunfire on the unarmed natives that had accompanied their leader.  The result?  2,000 massacred Incans, a captured emperor, and only 5 Spanish deaths.

Afterward, the general gist goes as you would expect; Pizarro’s men pillaged their gold and silver, raped their women, mercilessly killed those who didn’t convert to their way of thinking, and demolished communities in order to rebuild them as “Spanish” (the one they missed, as you may know, being the famous Machu Picchu).  As I alluded to earlier, these Conquistadors literally wanted nothing more than to erase anything Incan from the history books.

All of this from the man who said: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.  Those are the key observations of Pizarro that keep reverberating in my head.  On a factual level these words have meaning because it’s true, the Incan empire was so beautiful and they did complete astonishing works of engineering, but on a personal level it’s because I have trouble coming to terms with someone who carried out brutal atrocities when he was fully aware of the majesty that was laid out in front of him.  Acting primarily out of greed, he ordered the complete destruction of one the most impressive cultures history has ever seen.

As I work and live in the Sacred Valley, a region which is a stone’s throw away from Cuzco and was the main agricultural stronghold of the area, I am constantly surrounded by this history.  Ruins – which include anything from watchtowers, to terraces, to houses – are scattered across the landscape in such abundance that many a passerby don’t even bother to look.  Yet there they stand, not only as a stark reminder of what once was, but as an indication of resistance from a civilization who ensured the Spanish couldn’t finish what they set out to do.

I find that to be one of the fascinating aspects of where I am currently living, that I am constantly surrounded by both the magnifcicent creations of human ingenuity and the beastly demonstration of unyielding coercion.  It always amazes me how the beauty and ugliness in the history of this place perpetually co-exists in a bizarre harmony, and that you can see it plainly in front of you in a simple task like walking to the market in the morning.  Never before have I lived in a place as unique as this, and I’d be lucky as hell if I ever get to again.

And So the Adventure Begins!

A big hello to the blogging community, Internet, and world!  As the sole owner of this domain, allow me to be the first to introduce you to Clear to Roam, a blog dedicated to feeding the relentless curiosity about our global surroundings as we all make our way across this amazing planet.  If you’ve arrived at this first post, thank you for clicking the respective link that got you here, and I sincerely hope you’ll stick around as this front page begins to fill with text. In a few days I leave the United States to begin working a second stint in Urubamba, Perú, a quaint little town located around an hour north of Cuzco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire.  Nestled between the walls of the Sacred Valley, an area considered to be the old nucleus of the Incas, Urubamba is a fascinating place brimming with cultural activity and historic significance.  The rituals of the past are tied with the present more so than any other place I’ve been, the spirit of their ancestral background continuing to live through them with a modest purity.  For all the beauty the Sacred Valley holds, poverty has become an unfortunate reality throughout its various municipalities.  In many instances, especially farmers living on the outskirts of the Valley’s heart, citizens are getting by on as little as $20USD per month. This need for assistance is the void my position is hoping to fill.  I work as a Staff Leader co-managing various community service projects and leading program participants on excursions.  I love the work I do; I get to learn about an absolutely mesmerizing culture, I have a leadership role that enables me to teach, and I’m able to help a community that needs it.  It’s utterly exhausting being responsible for teenagers as they work and travel in a far out country, but it always challenges me, pushing me to be the best possible version of myself. I return to Urubamba rejuvenated, inquisitive, and fueled with a ferocious motivation to do all that we can while down there.  I am so excited to share this journey in my life with all of you out there interested in listening; I am nothing short of astounded by what I observe there, and I hope to pass on that same bewilderment and magic I feel to you. Please feel free to send me any comments, feedback, or questions!  Don’t hesitate to reach out.  Thanks again for reading and I look forward to hearing from you!