I stood at the side of the road, nervous. How had I missed an entire Peruvian town? I’d been watching the Sacred Valley pass through the windows, paying attention to the bus attendant, reading the signs as we lurched around each curve in the pock-marked road towards Urubamba. I did all the right things. All the things you are supposed to do if you don’t want to fail at bus travel in South America. And yet there I was, standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere in the Peruvian Andes. A failure.
Until that moment I had been very good at navigating the countryside around Cuzco. Probably too good; I’d gotten cocky and proclaimed southern Peru to be no challenge, practically one of those “international” theme park exhibits in Epcot Center. I scorned the travel agencies offering guided tours of this or that Inca fortress, with stops to buy mass produced trinkets and eat guinea pig at over-priced buffets. My tour bus was small, and yet it contained multitudes. It left from a dusty station on a street full of plumbing supply stores, in a part of the city where there were no pretty girls in traditional costumes brandishing baby llamas and offering to take your picture. And this was the way I liked it.
The gate to the station was plastered with bullfighting posters promising ¡Los Toros Grandisimos De Urubamba!, two weeks ago. The walls had once been white, then robin’s egg blue, now they were both and neither, with raw mud brick revealing itself at the corners. A dog lay in the dust as if waiting for the eleven o’clock to Pisac. Vendors stood behind carts piled with chicha morada, Lays potato chips, and Bolivian cookies in colors that had been outlawed back in the states since 1962. As if to contrast the stoic saleswomen, fixers flew from the gate to the ticket office to the buses, crying out names of towns along the main highways and herding passengers into the corresponding transport. I paid the thirty cents for a ticket to Chinchero in seat #19, bought a packet of nuclear cookies, and allowed myself to be shoved onto the bus along with a fedora bedecked woman in wide skirts, a couple of school boys, and a sack of dried purple corn.
Seat #19 was on the aisle, next to a young woman and her energetic baby. “Bababababababaaaaa!” the baby gurgled. The young woman teased it, cooing, “No, mi hijo, ma! Mama! No papa, mama!” I sat down and smiled as I took out a pen and a postcard I’d been meaning to write. The woman, who I could see now was about my age, apologized in advance for the baby’s behavior. I reassured her as best I could in mangled Spanish.
A drunken old man carrying a heavy burden had boarded the bus, filling it to capacity. We were moving, winding our way up into the hills that surround Cuzco. Soon we were in the countryside, the pastoral Sacred Valley which is the setting to every “authentic” vision of the Andes you’ve ever been sold in a travel magazine. The valley is corn and potato country, but it could pass for the location of one of those old Juan Valdez Colombian coffee ads.
“Where are you from?” my seatmate asked, or, I think that’s what she asked. When I told her I lived in los Estados Unidos, she looked confused and tried to clarify by asking, “Cuzco o Urubamba?” I had no idea what this had to do with her first question, but I answered “Cuzco?” since that was where I was based here in Peru. We proceeded to have an entire conversation in Spanish, only ten percent of which I understood. I tried to convey my lack of Spanish language skills, the poverty of my vocabulary, but she hammered away with no concern for my ability to participate.
Corn fields and pastures rambled by outside the window. Every quarter mile or so we stopped to jam even more passengers on board, exchanging school kids for women with braided hair and babies tied to their backs, old men for younger ones. People chattered in Spanish and Quechua and shared hanks of bread torn from flat loaves. A radio droned the news from Ayacucho. An hour passed. I figured we should be getting to Chinchero any minute. The bus attendant, in charge of the flow of passengers into and out of the bus, was busy shaking money out of a tribe of convent school girls who’d just boarded.
Looking over their heads at the roadside and the valley beyond, I saw a sign: Maras, 2km. An ordinary sign, to be sure, but it sent at least one internal organ shooting up into the back of my throat. Maras is a village several miles past Chinchero. Somewhere in the ever-shifting mass of passengers and cargo, in the incomprehensible small talk with the young woman, in the droning countryside, I’d missed my destination.
“Señor!” I called out to the bus attendant. ”Voy a Chinchero! Está pasado?” Hoping I was communicating the gist of my concern.
The bus attendant motioned to the driver, who slowed down a touch and coasted to the side of the road. The attendant pushed me out and onto the crumbling gravel-strewn asphalt. This did not ease my concern. I was now standing on the side of the highway, miles from anywhere. There wasn’t another human in sight, let alone anyone who spoke my language or who could reassure me that this was the correct course of action and I’d be arriving at my destination momentarily. Where was my tour guide, my kiosk of trinkets, my overpriced buffet?
I looked up the road, nothing. I looked down the road, also nothing. Peru moved from the file in my brain labeled “theme park” to another file, labeled “Deliverance”. I could practically hear the creepy banjo tune, now in a duet with the Andean pan flute. The guidebooks were full of warnings about young women wandering around the Peruvian countryside alone. I would have to walk to the nearest town and hope there was a place to bunk down for the night. I was going to get robbed. I was going to be lost here forever. I was ruined.
I sighed, “Fuuuucccckkkk,” and wiped my palms on my jeans. I let my backpack slump into the dirt. I wanted to cry, but instead I looked up. The sky was the color of a pitcher that has sat on my grandmother’s sideboard for decades, the clouds like milk. A sheep nibbled at a fern by the roadside. The hills were soft, grassy, a painted backdrop for a school production of The Sound of Music. I took a breath and saw another bus coming over the hill towards me and Chinchero.
Right now Sara Clarke is driving around New York City in a minivan full of guns, gaff tape, and film location permits. Later, she will attempt to write about it.