Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Story Jar - The ever-changing taxi from Chinchero

Story Jar - a bi-weekly column published in the Patriot and Free Press, Cuba, NY

Published in two segments, Copyright 2007 Elaine Hardman

Going to Chinchero – the local bus

If you’re ever a tourist in Cusco, Peru wanting to make an excursion to Chinchero, you’ll be offered two transportation choices. You can hire a taxi or take the Urabamba bus.

The taxi gives private transportation and leaves immediately but carries a price of about 50 soles each way. The bus leaves every 15 minutes and, for 3 soles, offers local color, company and the opportunity to say “Urabamba” – a name that bounces nicely off the tongue. We took the bus.

Our hotel receptionist gave us a map to the Chinchero/Urabamba bus station. In addition to sending us off the “tourist” track, the map was full of errors.

No matter. We asked someone for directions and experienced an explosion of Spanish of which we understood only the hand gestures. Asking a couple more times, we finally zeroed in on the place. Our last request brought a grunt and a thumb over the shoulder pointing to a fence. Behind the fence were buses.

Rick bought tickets for seats 5 and 6. Well, this didn’t seem so bad. People filed on and sat down, the bus rumbled to life, shot a parting cloud of black diesel smoke and took off with the conductor hanging on the side.

Just down the street, more people hopped on the bus including a young man who spent several minutes lecturing, it seemed, and repeatedly saying “Amigos.” People ignored him and he eventually sat down.

It seemed that those jumping on the bus along the route didn’t pay but maybe they slipped a sole to the conductor faster than I could see. It wouldn't make sense if they didn't pay. The conductor has his metal tube full of tickets and a change bag. Besides, why would anyone (other than the odd tourist) go to the bus station if they could hop on for free a block or two later?

The conductor was clearly in charge of where and when people go on or off and how much time they were allotted to do so which was not much.

As we traveled, people stuffed into the aisle including one Andean woman whose ample posterior spent about 20 minutes shoving Rick against me. Eventually, a seat opened up for her and Rick relaxed a little.

We passed pigs foraging on the roadside and two girls harvesting a forsythia-like flower used in dying wool. We passed perfect photo after perfect photo but the bus rattled and roared faster than the camera could shutter through the dusty windows.

Rick got the conductor’s attention about 30 minutes into the ride and told him that we wanted Chinchero. No doubt everyone one the bus figured that’s where we clearly-non-Andean people were going. Rick stood when he saw a sign for Chinchero about 20 minutes later but several people made it clear that we weren’t there yet. Eventually the bus stopped, the people nodded, and the conductor gave us time to climb over a large, heavy, blanket-wrapped parcel to stumble out the door. The bus riders were quite kind considering they likely figured we should have taken a taxi.

A man got off with us and made us understand that he was going to the church plaza so we walked with him. He was a vendor who happily sold us a weaving along the way.

Outside, the church is a sweet, simple adornment on a hill but inside it is about as ornate as any country chapel can be and then some. With six altars and a separate room for a carved, stone, baptismal font, it is the gold-leafed and brightly-painted definition of ostentatious. A statue of Saint someone (James?) on horseback, trampling an Inca King tells the story of Andean sadness built into every church here. Sacred Incan places and symbols (such as the puma) were destroyed and the people were enslaved - forced to build Catholic churches and Spanish forts.

The Chinchero church is built on the ruins of a huge Incan temple. It is surrounded by terraced farm land. In the valley that day an Andean woman herded her horses while cows and sheep grazed. A field of beans on the hill looked ready for harvest. The view of distant fields and snow-capped mountains was as impressive as one might expect at 3855 meters above sea level.

We walked and shopped and looked and then went to the banos. This was an expensive facility, priced at one Sole but it had toilets with seats, toilet paper, soap and even paper towels. Very clean and new. Worth every centavo. We crossed the parking lot and looked for a sign that would tell us where to find the bus down the hill to Cusco.

Chinchero part 2 – The Ever-changing Taxi

After our morning in Chinchero we walked out to the main road to get the
bus back to Cusco but ended up in a taxi. After asking a uniformed (police? army? transportation?) officer where we would find the bus to Cusco. He brought us to taxis. No, we said, bus.

Rick pulled out a ticket stub and acted out a little this-ticket-got-us-here-on-the-bus-and-we-want-to-go-back-on-a-bus dance but a taxi driver said that he would take us for 3 soles per person, the bus rate. That was puzzling but we said okay.

We climbed into the back seat of a Toyota station wagon expecting a leisurely ride to somewhere in town. Immediately, a woman with a blanket-pack and a basket full of cardboard got in behind the seat with an elderly man and his pack. The uniformed guy slipped in the front seat and a teenager appeared from nowhere to sit next to Rick. Aha – this would be a shared taxi. That's why it was a bargain.

Not far down the hill, the lady got out and collected more cardboard from some people behind a fence. Her blanket pack and cardboard stash were put on top of the car with a thud that made us appreciate her strength. Another stop let the uniformed guy out and the next released the man from his cramped position behind us.

A ten year old boy jumped in the front seat at the next stop and, after he shut the door, his dog did a prance along side for a while. The teenager got out next but only to let a girl in the back seat while the small boy scooted over to let the teenager in the front with him and the driver. The taxi driver charged down the mountain with the car in neutral between stops, wind whistling through the windows.

At the next stop the boy left the front seat making room there for a smartly-dressed woman while the boy and a few little girls got in back. Reasonable expectations aside, there were six people behind the back seat by then. Should you wonder about it, there were no conversations directing these moves. Not one word.

A man and another woman were passed by to my relief and we coasted, at break neck speed past cows, sheep, pigs and other disappointed would-be passengers. The sun was hot, the air cold and the choreography of the ride fascinating.

We stopped for gas, not much, and the driver was given a glass of juice. Juiced and gassed, we pulled out into the road in front of a dump truck but it was going up hill and so we had plenty of time though I did watch with a bit of concern from my seat at the dump-tuck side of the taxi.

The teenager jumped out and there was a to-do over finding change for him. He had a 5 sole piece rather than the proper small change. The cardboard-toting woman wanted out next, a move that required shuffling children and scraping noises on the roof.

All of this time we had no idea where in Cusco the taxi would leave us but were thrilled with the ever changing passengers and didn't care. We rode along, sailing past buses for a number of kilometers listening to little girls giggle and talk behind us.

Eventually the taxi stopped at the bus station – the very place we had trouble finding that morning - and everyone piled out. Rick paid 6 soles and everyone else paid one. It costs more to keep the same seat for the whole ride, I guess.

The girls, dressed in gray pleated skirts and blue sweaters with yellow ribbons in their bouncy hair headed toward the school while we found our way to hot miso soup and soothing flute music at a Japanese restaurant. During lunch, I poured over my scribbled notes in order to preserve this memory.

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