“Traffic,” points out my guide.
A stocky woman with a dusty bowler hat and pigtails urges her flock of sheep off the road with a short length of rope. Road cleared, she stands to the side, adjusts her Keqpe Rina – the colourful wrap women wear around their shoulders to carry wool, snacks and even babies – and flashes us a twinkling smile.
I am in the Sacred Valley, so named after the Willkamayu River, which means the sacred river in Quechua, the still spoken lingua franca of the Inca Empire. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities and was one of the empire’s main points for the extraction of natural wealth, as well as one of the most important areas for maize production. It encompasses the heartland of the Inca Empire and thus is steeped in history. Whilst the sites are impressive it is the tradition of everyday life that so caught my imagination.
Hemmed in by soaring 4,000-metre peaks, the valley is flat and bountiful, supporting over two hundred different types of potatoes. Moving out of the valley precise Inca terracing defines the hillside and then eventually gives way to a more pastoral way of life. An ox plods along the road accompanied by a young boy carrying a wooden yoke. Further along, two young girls with faces reddened by the altitude and elements, marshal their small flock of sheep.
“It is Saturday so no school, but the children still have responsibilities,” commented my guide.
It is a simple but hard existence at altitude, even in a valley that is sacred.
The brilliance of the local embroidery emblazoned with yellows, reds and pinks stands out against the dazzling blue of the sky. The crisp mountain air heightens the contrast. Colour, I am informed, is indicative of a woman’s marital status: if it is more colourful then she is single. If that is so, there are a lot of very flirtatious old women.
In contrast to the bright local garb of the women, the mud-brick adobe houses exude the rich warmth of terracotta. Although some are adorned with political graffiti promoting the dubious virtues of one candidate over another, they have not been polluted by the creaking of corrugated iron. Terracotta roof tiles lend a further rustic charm.
A team of men are working on the roof of one house. They are not employees but rather a group of mates come together to help out a friend. A touching example of ayni a Quechua word which can be best translated as reciprocity.
The houses are full of good luck symbols and symbolism. A Latin cross provides protection. A pitcher with an alcoholic drink made from maize bequeaths a plentiful supply. Two clay bulls, which decorate every roof and represent the duality of day and light, bestow luck upon the household. Ladders leaning outside walls are not evidence of slack workmanship but more a symbol of progression, to do more.
Even the small towns have not lost their innocence. Women carry bundles of grass home; fodder for their guinea pigs. In a small courtyard, a baker flips loaves of bread in a large fire oven. People come in to buy bread. The baker doesn’t stop to serve anyone but merely nods or grunts a greeting allowing them to pay and take what bread they need and importantly him to continue his work. Warming and reaffirming scenes.
A local woman chatters to me in Quechua. She has just bought her meal of potatoes, spinach and fava beans. All smiles, teeth and hand movements she tells me that although she doesn’t know what I eat in my country, what she has here is alright. She is not wrong.
The air might be thinner given the altitude but such scenes are invigorating, the oxygen of travel.