Gifts Given

Posted by on Mar 23, 2014 | 0 comments

Gifts Given

Warren Dent

I staggered into the coolness of the cathedral and stopped in wonder. My eyes refocused to the darkness and I watched the shadowy movements of worshippers with candles in front of the sanctuaries, and silently counted the silhouettes of those seated in prayer.I walked forward, my head up, admiring the extraordinarily beautiful nave, until I came to the baroque altars decorated in gold leaf. Incredibly ornate, they were clearly worth a small fortune. As I realized this, contrarily, the bile rose in my throat. How on earth could it be justified I thought.

How gross, when just outside the three porticos, maimed and deformed beggars clamored 1280px-2010-0109-Lima-Cathedral-Intfor alms. How could the church present itself in such richness when patrons lay across the steps unable to lift their heads or walk across the plaza without aid? My soul hiccupped with the indignity, with the readily tolerated contrast of religious dichotomy.

beggarchurch_beggars_by_lokisb-d3ewryoAnd, as opulent as the church was, its visage was dotted in parts with rather gruesome and grisly icons and statuary. Chills ran down my spine. Worst of all, in the Sanctuary of Saint Rose of Lima, lay the revered remains of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who plundered the Inca Empire in the 1530s. I was appalled, and realized I’d forever have a hard time understanding the worship accorded this barbarous, illiterate pagan inside a Catholic church.

Clearly I was the odd man out because the citizens of Lima readily accepted the irony, and who was I to challenge their ways and beliefs? As I headed for the exit leading to the openness of the plaza I nearly bumped into a reverend who had just entered. I was surprised, as he was wearing a flexible straw hat which he hadn’t removed. As much as I was uncomfortable in any church I did observe common courtesies and practices. For the priest, or reverend, whatever his religion, not to remove his head covering, seemed totally inappropriate, and added to my irritation. I wondered, did he also have some disdain perhaps for the incongruity of this strange environment? A satchel bounced off his hip, held loosely by a long strap over his opposite shoulder. Ahh… I thought, a scholar on a mission. An absent–minded professor intent on discovery. I left hurriedly.

I’d come to Peru to visit and experience ancient civilizations. This was a vacation I’d long promised myself. I’d been involved for the past two years developing a new social media product for my company in Silicon Valley. We’d finally launched version 1 and the last three months had been spent in PR events, responding to customers, fixing errors, working through post mortems of our development process, and drafting initial plans for version 2.

Frankly, I was exhausted, and had decided that travelling was the only way I could best regain my sanity and energy. I wasn’t that naïve to think that I could truly get away from it all totally, so I had my tablet with me, but I was pleased with myself that my email inbox was down to less than fifty new messages a day. OK, I hear you, but when it used to be 400 a day that’s a big change. And I was proud that I was able to limit myself to an hour a day on the machine, and even that was decreasing steadily. I’d spent the first couple of days at a resort in San Diego, lazing unreservedly on golden sand and taking a couple of half-day sailing trips out with the wind and the waves. As a result I had the start of a soft tan, and was sleeping better, so I pulled up stakes and flew into Lima.

On American Airlines I arrived not long after midnight, grabbed a taxi to my hotel, and woke up late, anxious to get going on my first day of sightseeing. My hotel was just off the main city plaza and I knew that the cathedral, known locally as the Iglesia de San Pedro, was a focal point a tourist shouldn’t miss. So it was my first stop.

Unfortunately, it didn’t provide a great introduction to the sights of the city, that was for sure. And it colored my attitude as I traveled with my afternoon tour group to the Huaca Pucilana ruins in Miraflores, the Larco Museum, and other old buildings and colonial houses. There were interesting sights outside Lima at Caral, Pachacamac, and Marcahuasi, and while I was tempted to take a trip to see them, by day’s end, I decided I’d absorbed a sufficient flavor of the city and that I’d go to Cuzco a day earlier than planned. I had the hotel re-book my air travel and hotel in Cuzco and had a marvelous Chinese dinner at a place I randomly chose in the Barrio Chino. I ended the day with a much better taste in my mouth than how it had started out.

GuideNext morning I was off early to the airport. We taxied to the end of the runway, paused, the engines revved, the brakes were released, and the Star Peru 737 raced down the tarmac and rolled-out gracefully into the morning air. An hour later and 11,000 feet higher we touched down effortlessly on the extra long runway at Cuzco, the oldest continuously inhabited city in all of South America.

There were lots of locals milling about inside the terminal, some guides ready with oxygen tanks for their aging customers who had bravely determined to manage through the thin air of the Andes. Waitresses, information booth attendants, and stall servers were all in native garb Bright color dominated my senses. The local Inca descendants loved color of very hue, brightening up their days in the often overcast environment. It was impossible to suppress a smile at the positive impact all that color had. At least for me anyway. Of course, not every person was smiling, but even so, their vivid ponchos, caps, scarves and mittens lit up the whole baggage arena. I liked this place.

The Hotel Torre Dorada, was a little ways from the center of town, but I had gotten a fantastic rate that was about half the rate of other top hotels. And they had a shuttle to town anyway. Lovely little place with a garden, at which humming birds were in constant attendance.

I preferred to do a lot of exploring on my own so tended to minimize tour group participation. But I had booked a city environs tour in advance and that was scheduled for after lunch. I planned to do my own walking tour of the city the next day. Then I was headed on a day trip to Machu Picchu and back, before leaving the following day for Puno. I decided I would do something a little uncharacteristic and have the concierge book both train trips. They made it very easy I must say.

The highlight of my afternoon tour was the ruins at Saksaywaman, which is a complex on the northern outskirts of the city made of large polished dry stone walls, with boulders carefully cut to fit together tightly without mortar. In the 1500s a giant fortress occupied the site with towers on its summit as well as a series of other buildings.Sexy Woman Cusco

Large storage rooms used to hold military items, and there were buildings with large windows that looked over the city. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America, and display a precision of fitting that is unmatched in the Americas. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones ( I know because I tried ) . This exactness, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, plus the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes over time.

I was flabbergasted by the precision with which the stones fit together, but highly conscious that what I saw was just a fraction of what once existed at the spot. My little pre-trip reading suggested that the Spaniards who originally built the city, pulled down all the smooth masonry in the original walls, and that all the government buildings and houses in the original inner city were made of the stone taken. Today, only the boulders that were too large to be easily moved remain at the site. Some of them are estimated to weigh over 100 tons.

The walls that are still standing are about 6 meters tall, so I walked back a distance and tried to contemplate higher walls made of smaller boulders stretching perhaps another 6 meters high forming buildings and lookout posts. It was a real head scratcher to understand how native labor had built the walls millennia ago with such meticulousness.

We had travelled to the Saksaywaman site in old Chevrolet cars, a driver and guide in front, and two or three travellers in the rear. Our particular guide was a student at the local National University who constantly asked us to correct his English and help him learn. Clearly his ancestry was native Quechua. His seriousness was consistent with his eagerness to improve and he absorbed input, practicing new pronunciation over and over. He deserved very part of the generous tip I gave him on return to our hotel.

I stood by the fireplace in the corner of the lobby warming my backside and admiring some of the pottery decorating the entry foyer. The front door opened and two newcomers entered, struggling with an assortment of suitcases, all different sizes, and all old. Veteran travellers for sure. I looked more closely across the room and verified my initial impression. It was my irreverent reverend and his wife (at least I presumed that’s who was with him). Qué coincidencia. They must have been on a budget too….

The lady looked around and saw me staring, and while her husband completed formalities at the desk she wandered over and said, “También tengo frio” in her best Spanish. I wasn’t much ahead in language capability so I responded: “Here, this will warm you up quickly,” and moved aside to make room.

“Ah, thank you. Your English is very good.”

“Well, it’s my Spanish that’s bad. I’m Californian by birth, currently resident in San Jose, here on vacation.”

“Oh, excuse me. Your clothes made me think you were an employee. My husband and I are from Minneapolis.” My mind swirled and rested. Sure, I had on a striped poncho I’d bought on the way back from Saksaywaman, but I wondered why she thought an employee would be idling by the fireplace instead of offering to help with the baggage. And she wasn’t even blonde!

“Nice to meet you Mrs…?. I’m Gareth.”

“Robinson. Call me Linda. Everyone does. Is Gareth a biblical name?”

“As far as I know it’s a Welsh name of Anglo-Saxon derivation. Means ‘strong-spear’. Never found out why my mother chose it.”

“I must ask my husband. He’s a Professor of Religion at the University of Minnesota. He’ll know for sure.”

Yep, definitely ‘ditzy’. Know ‘what’ for sure? I’d researched my name over and over. It just sounded biblical, but it wasn’t.

At that point Reverend Robinson wandered over, touched his wife’s arm and said “They’re ready to show us to our room.” He turned to me, pointed back to his luggage, and said “Las maletas, por favor…”

Here was a man who jumped to conclusions quickly. Before his wife could enlighten him, I walked to the desk and whispered “Which room?”


The Reverend approached: “I’m sorry Gareth. I made the same poor assumption my wife did. You don’t have to carry those for us.”

“I was headed upstairs anyway Sir, happy to help out. I must say this middle sized bag is awfully heavy. Did you bring extra boots for exploring Machu Picchu perhaps?”

“Not quite Gareth, just some bibles to distribute to local churches.”

“In which case I commend you Sir. The bag feels lighter already.”

“Maybe you’d like to join us for dinner here in an hour Gareth? I’d be happy to reward you with a drink as a ‘thank-you’.”

I hadn’t made plans for dinner so I accepted after a small hesitation. Would these two really be good company? I guessed I’d find out later.

Back in my room I did a little Internet-aided research. Found a Professor Robinson in the Department of Religious Studies in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. No photo and no extra information – just his name on a list of faculty members. He was a lot further away from home than me.

Dinner started out with our sharing what little knowledge we had already garnered as tourists in Peru, Don and Linda having seen more in Lima, my having the benefit of today’s tour in Cuzco. While I would be seeing the sights in town tomorrow as a pedestrian they would be on a more extensive all-day bus tour high-liting church visits. But we were all going to Machu Picchu the following day. Turned out we were on the same train (thank you concierge !) but I’d paid extra to ride in the Vistadome car and have a catered lunch. I could understand why the Reverend didn’t pay the extra as it was no small amount, especially fro two people) and as far as I knew Professors of Religion didn’t make a lot of money, unless of course they’d authored popular text books that were required reading by their students.

I told them my educational history, and a little about my job. From the strange questions asked by Linda, it was clear that my field was totally unfathomable to her. I tried hard to illustrate concepts as simply as possible, but to absolutely no avail. Honestly, some of her questions were so illogical that I was reminded of ‘dumb blonde’ jokes. I couldn’t shake the ‘ditzy’ label I’d conjured up earlier. I worked very hard at being polite, but decided that conversations with Linda were a real challenge, and hoped I could avoid them in the future. I wondered why a Professor had become attracted to her. Not for stimulating intellectual dialogue and companionship for sure.

Don was a more interesting chap. Maybe in his early fifties, with a large balding spot on top, a little florid in complexion, with a pleasant, broad face, and a few capillaries starting to show on the cheeks. His clerical collar was a little askew, and he sometimes seemed a little distracted. When he got going he was quite a story-teller. I asked him what he liked best about being a Professor – researching or teaching – to which he replied ‘both’. I liked that. He’d taught hundreds of students in both undergraduate and graduate courses and in his time seven graduate students had gotten their Ph.D. under his direction. As well, he often provided visiting services at a Lutheran church in southern Minneapolis. This trip was the twenty second he and his wife had made to various countries around the world.

Thankfully, dinner was not a long affair. The thin air seemed to have tired all of us a little bit more than usual, and the bottle of wine we shared probably contributed. We exchanged ‘goodnights’ and headed to our rooms.

Something was crying for attention in my memory banks based on some unidentifiable element of conversation at the table. For the life of me I couldn’t draw it out. Something to do with Linda’s illogical meanderings maybe? Perhaps she’d been one of Don’s students at some point, as she was definitely at least ten years younger than him. Maybe he’d helped her get her degree in return for certain favors. I’d seen it happen with my own eyes.

I hooked my computer up to the Internet and quickly downloaded my new emails. And there in my Inbox was the clue that untangled things. An email from my friend who’d been my room-mate at College as we did our degrees together. Our graduate degrees that is. We had shared an apartment off campus at Stanford. Two serious guys whose heads were usually lost in books but who had a common love of nature and sports. We played tennis together regularly and went sailing at every opportunity when we found spare common time. My Ph.D. was in Computer Science, Greg’s was in Religious Studies. He ended up graduating nine months before me, but stayed around until I finished, working on a one-year post-graduate scholarship while he looked across the nation for a good academic position elsewhere.

Memories came flooding back. Greg had gotten his first two degrees at the University of Wisconsin, and had hoped to do his major graduate work at the University of Minnesota. But, similarly to the University of Wisconsin, the Religious Studies faculty there only offered minors for MS and MA degrees. No Ph.D. program!

Clearly my new found acquaintance Don could never have mentored 7 Ph.D. students there. No sir. Not possible. My headache cleared instantly with the realization that the man was a fake. Possibly a clergyman, certainly not a Professor. My, oh my, what sort of intrigue had just befallen me…? Delusions of grandeur? First indications of senility? I went back to the University of Minnesota’s website, and double checked the list of Religious Studies faculty. Yes, there was indeed a Robinson. A.M.Robinson, Ph.D., but no Robinson with an initial D for Donald. I fell asleep wondering at the subterfuge… Why?

The morning broke chilly and overcast and I’d just sat down with my breakfast when the Professor and his wife appeared, and asked if they could join me at my table. I sure wasn’t going to challenge the Prof directly but an opportunity to learn more arose when he asked if I’d join him and his wife in a small prayer of thanks for the food. Not my usual way to start the

day, but at least the prayer was short and meaningful. I asked how many bibles he’d brought along and was surprised when he said ninety. He’d already placed thirty in Lima, was hoping to leave another twenty behind in Cuzco, and take the remaining twenty into La Paz, Bolivia. Not quite a missionary, but certainly determined to spread the word of God. The bibles were in Spanish, so he’d definitely come prepared.

I asked how often he got to preach at the Lutheran Church, and what Synod it aspired to. My question caused several eye flickers and a protracted hesitation. Linda stopped chewing her piece of toast and her mouth stayed open for several seconds. She looked at Don with obvious discomfort. He indicated that his Church offered the teachings of the Missouri Synod and that it was at most once a quarter that he was asked to officiate.

I’d done a little more study on rising early, learning about the different evangelical Lutheran groups with their subtle differences in beliefs, and practices. I told him a little about my old room-mate and how his thesis had been on the role of women in the clergy. Not that it bothered me one way or the other, but I talked about how passionate Greg had been in favor of allowing women ministers and I remembered he preferred the Missouri Synod over the Evangelical Lutheran Church because of their support of women pastors.

Don abruptly changed the subject at this point asking more about my background and hobbies. I told him about my interest in native cultures and how being this close to Inca descendants was so exciting. On one of my previous excursions I’d gone to New Zealand where I’d studied the Maori culture, vowing to go back on an extended sabbatical if I could arrange it. New Guinea was on my list also. Linda became more animated, asking more inane questions, until it was time for them to leave and get ready for their bus tour.

I climbed the stairs back to my room, grinning inwardly. What on earth was going on? I’d caught Don out fair and square with his implicit acceptance of women pastors. Let’s just say I had ‘exaggerated’ Greg’s support for them. I had no real memory of what his thesis was truly about but my reading this morning readily indicated that the Lutheran Missouri Synod steadfastly opposed female pastors.

Now, more than ever, I was convinced that dear Don was a phony. Not only was he not a professor – neither was he a pastor. Which begged the question. Just what was he? And why was a church tour of so much interest? Keeping up the charade for what purpose?

Not something to linger over, as I slung my camera over my shoulder and headed out to learn about this ancient city I’d come so far to see.Large churchA

Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire starting in
the thirteenth century until it was conquered and plundered by the Spanish, under Pizarro, in 1835/6. All the Inca gold and silver treasures made their way
back to Spain, but over time the city became the center for the Spanish colonization and spread of Christianity in the Andean world. It prospered thanks to agriculture, cattle raising, and mining, as well as through trade with the old world. The colonists constructed numerous churches and convents, as well as a cathedral, and university. Many of the local buildings were based on the massive stone walls originally built by the Inca. A major earthquake in 1950 toppled many Spanish-built structures but those on Inca foundations survived intact.20120516-img_1990-2

Thank heavens I had made sure my camera battery was fully charged overnight. I was struck by how clean the streets were and how incredibly attractive architecturally the churches and many of the buildings were. I visited two of the churches and once again was awed by the splendor inside. This time I didn’t notice the beggars as much as I had in Lima. They were around but more prevalent at specific non-religious tourist spots. Sometimes
playing flutes, or simply sitting with arms and hands outstretched.untitled

I didn’t need to enter more churches, and most of my time was spent in the market and the Barrio de San Blas. This neighborhood houses artisans, workshops and craft shops.It is one of the most picturesque sites in the city, and I enjoyed taking my time meandering along the alleys, admiring the skills of painters, potters, weavers, and carvers, taking multiple photos of their wares. A few dollars departed my pocket for small carvings of llamas I couldn’t resist. The streets are steep and narrow and feature the old houses built over the stable Inca foundations. Just charming.

imagesCAELOY8A A pleasant open plaza adds to the pervasive friendliness and openness as does the oldest parish church in Cusco, built in 1563, which has a carved wooden pulpit considered the epitome of Colonial era woodwork in Cusco. I did pop in to see that. Well worth it. Strolling along the narrow lanes made me conscious of how generations of natives had trodden the same paths for centuries past. Pretty amazing to think about treading in their footsteps.


The marketplace was all about color. Rich, vibrant, stunning color. The Inca native descendants clearly loved color. Their natural everyday dress itself could be colorful, but in the presence of tourists they upped the ante. Why not? For a few coins they’d happily pose with you while someone took your photo. I strolled up and down aisles, in and out of stalls, all around the plaza, letting the color infuse my being. I decided it was very difficult not to be happy and not to smile when surrounded by so much brightness.Peru-CuscoFestival

The market catered for everyone. You could choose from a variety of herbs, fruits, grains, and vegetables. Even the corn cobs came in different colors. There were flowers to decorate your table, skeins of dyed alpaca, vicuna and llama wool to knit with, and flutes and musical pipes to entertain oneself. I was fortunate to be present when a group of dancers and musicians emerged from one of the buildings and delighted the crowd with their chanting and twirling. I applauded wildly and happily added some coins to the strategically placed hats on the ground. I tried to capture some of the sound by using the video capability on my camera, but limited the time taken in order to avoid premature battery discharge. I’m sure I got enough to jog my memory if ever needed.

The main objects available on display of course were woolen goods. They ranged from wrist bracelets, to head warmers, shawls, scarves, and hats. In between you could buy ponchos, sweaters, blankets, rugs, and bags, or multi-hued bolts of cloth to make your own item once home. Nothing like it back in California for sure. Finally, after circumnavigating the plaza at least three times I tore myself away, and took a circuitous trek through other parts of the town back to the hotel. What an intriguing city. I was so glad I’d come.

Back in my room I took a quick stock of my photos and weeded out some of the duds, checked that the video had worked (yes!), plugged the battery into the charger I’d brought along, and decided to go out for dinner to a quaint little restaurant I’d seen on the way back from my town tour. The warmth and fulfillment I had experienced during the day made me want to savor it further with local food, alone, and I was glad the Robinsons’ tour bus hadn’t arrived back when I might have been invited to share a repast. I did wonder however how many bibles they’d been able to give away during the day.

Next morning very early, the Robinsons and I and 20 other folk were on a PeruRail bus taking us to the train station at Poroy. We were ticketed on the first train destined for Aquas Calientes, a little over three hours away. The sun was just breaking through as we left 15 minutes before 7am and headed northwest. We stopped at Ollantaytambo, some 65kms out, where we boarded more passengers, then headed along the valleys into the Andes. The Rio Urubamba was a companion for much of the ride. The Vistadome was great in allowing one to easily see the country side, although frankly I didn’t find it very interesting. Going through the Canadian Rockies was much more awesome.

We all alighted at Aguas Calientes just before 10am and bought our $10 tickets for the 20 minute bus ride up the mountain. Most of us had bought our $45 site entrance tickets in Cuzco, but a few folks had to find local currency to buy them at the Cultural Center. I have trouble with people who don’t do a little reading and research ahead of time to be better informed. We left a number of them behind waiting for a later bus, the Robinsons included.

It was a steep and somewhat scary climb up the twisting hairpin-filled road. But when we finally stopped and got our first glimpse of the famed view, it took my breath away.

Like most tourists, I’d seen the picture in magazines several times over the years. And, like others, having seen the picture, the site’s uniqueness was indelibly imprinted on my memory banks. And while the familiar picture is accurate, there is absolutely no way it can convey the unbelievable thrill and feelings of seeing the actual place in person.MP

I headed off to Watchman’s Hut to see what every photographer wanted to frame in his lens.

The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later in 1572 at the time of the Spanish Conquest, although the Spanish never found it and consequently did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Theories abound as to the site’s role in the Inca culture. To some it is the traditional birthplace of the Incan “Virgins of the Suns”. To others it was an estate of the emperor Pachacuti, ninth ruler of the Empire. For others it was a sacred religious site. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over much of the site, and few outsiders knew of its existence. I stood at the edge of a guide-led group and learned about the estate’s layout.

3-hitching-post-of-the-sun-machu-picchu-lima Approximately 200 buildings were arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. Extensive terraces were used for agriculture, and sophisticated channeling systems provided irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western section, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. The temples were part of the upper town, the warehouses part of the lower.

I was captivated by a structure called the ‘hitching post’, or, more correctly the Intihuatana stone. ‘Inti’ in the Quechua language means ‘sun’, ‘huata’ in Spanish/’wata’ in Quechua, means ‘to tie’. At midday on 11 November and 30 January the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. On 21 June the stone casts the longest shadow on its southern side and on 21 December a much shorter one on its northern side.

Clearly, a ritual stone, that may have been built as an astronomic clock or calendar.   It blew me away to think that ancient cultures could be so accurate in their measurements of the sun’s progress.  Absolutely mind-boggling.

Once again as I wandered around the site I experienced that eerie feeling that ghosts of stern Inca officials were present, watching me closely to make sure I did no wrong, and that I appreciated their beautiful and beloved estate.

I looked up as the sun finally pierced the clouds and whispered to them: “Thank you for your greatness.”

I was in dreamland on the way back to Cuzco. What an absolutely incredible place!  Such a serene, peaceful setting, hidden away from prying eyes, and holding its stories wrapped in centuries of silence.  I was glad no war had been fought there to ruin its sanctity.

The excitement of the day, the early start, the thin mountain air, and the extensive trekking around the site caught up with me, because fellow passengers had to wake me as we pulled back into Poroy around 7pm.  What great dreams…

Next day saw another early morning start as the Robinson’s and I shared a taxi to the main station where we would catch the train to Puno. Don and Linda had experienced some of the same feelings I had at Machu Picchu and we were all thankful that we’d made the journey there. We swapped email addresses and agreed to share unique photos in case some of our own hadn’t turned out well.

As we pulled up outside the platform, a four piece band was playing haunting Andean pipe and string music, and small boys crowded around the taxi anxious to earn a tip carrying our luggage. I was happy to share a little wealth with a grinning ten year old, and Linda quickly gave up her load to two youngsters, but Don insisted on carrying his heavy case himself. He was a bit portly and he struggled with it, rejecting my offer to help. Made me wonder how many bibles it still contained.  Map

There were a couple of travel options to get to Puno. One was to take an express bus, which was the fastest way – the other to take the train, as we had all elected. The train was far more expensive and much slower, but offering luxurious comfort, great viewing windows, and more of an included entertainment and meal experience to fill up the time.

We definitely had a long ride ahead of us – just on ten hours to cover over 200 miles heading southeast to Puno which was located on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia.

Five minutes before departure time a young boy strolled along the platform selling ‘final-chance’ souvenirs. I looked at the range of items he held in his hands and was surprised to see a silver key-ring in the form of an Incan knife.  I hadn’t seen this particular design in any of my tourist shop inspections so picked it up and checked it over. It was weighty, and had a 925 stamp on the back suggesting, although not proving, that it was real silver.  When I asked the boy how much he responded with a high value that was consistent with a silver composition.

MSKYRPRU001_2LHaving learnt a couple of tricks of local negotiation, and a few Quechua words I picked up a wooden analog and asked its price in Quechua.  He offered a reasonable price and I nodded my head and reached in my pocket for the appropriate coins.  At which point he held up the silver key-ring again and offered a new price substantially below the original suggestion, with a value I presumed was very close to the floor he would probably take.  The train whistle sounded. I proposed ten percent less, he countered at five, and we settled.  I may have been taken in, and I’ll take it to a jeweler on my return, but even if I overpaid, I like the ring and I enjoyed the purchase experience. The little chap ran along the platform waving as the train pulled out, an enormous infectious smile stretching across his face from ear to ear. I was happy to have made someone else happy and waved back vigorously.


The train was rich in appointments and very comfortable, specifically designed for long-haul travel. Beautiful large side and roof windows, wide seats, carpeting, with a dining car and separate observation car.  It had everything one required for a pleasant journey between mountains and clouds, and between mountains and highland plains.  Designed for appreciating the journey, not just reaching the destination.

After we left Cusco, we slowly drifted from urban to rural with avenues of rustic dwellings giving way to the fields that ended abruptly where the Andean slopes begin to rise. The buildings seem to be made from mud bricks, baked a rich shade of purple by the sun. The land beside the tracks is all used for farming, while the Andean peaks that surround long valleys with the steep slopes of the mountains are good for little but providing a spectacular view. We follow the course of the Hutanay river uphill past remote communities usually organized around colonial churches.

We pass through Oropesa, a town with forty-seven bakeries, providing daily bread to Cuzco. We turn sharply northeast and pick up the Huambutio Vilcanota River which we then follow faithfully to near the summit of our trip.

Some of the mountains are covered by weather-beaten shrubs that take on a mustard hue from a distance, other peaks are naked red dirt that reminds me of the Australian Outback, and the tallest summits are crowned by boulders that provide a sharp outline against the blue sky.

Along one stretch of the line, between two villages that seem to hug the tracks, I see a woman wearing a full skirt dyed a brilliant shade of indigo leading two lambs to a patch of green grass and another local hauling a bundle of sticks on her shoulders. Everywhere, people dot the landscape, tending crops and minding stock, lugging cargo between buildings, arranging the harvest in rough pyramids to dry, or just sitting in the shade of a tall gum tree.

In the town of Sicuani the train creeps along the wide street that marks the neighborhood’s main drag.  Aymara women from nearby villages bring their products to this picturesque village aboard tricycles and lay out their wares on both sides of the train tracks, which form the center of an informal marketplace. There are primitive stalls and ground blanket settings selling everything from rope to shampoo, with the women dressed in full skirts and bowler hats darting around the market to complete their morning errands while their men sit in the sun to read the newspaper.

As we cruise through the highest lands of the journey people become scarce, the collections of buildings become smaller and further apart, alpacas rather than sheep roam the pastures, and the farms give way to open land where wild sun-bleached grass flanks dry creek beds. The river Vilcanota is nothing but a stream at this stage.

We stop for twenty minutes at La Raya, the highest point on the route at 4321m, or 14,176 feet, above sea level.  imagesCAH79HIGDancers on the platform entertain us as we stretch our legs and test the thin, crisp air. The surrounding peaks are now hidden in a fine mist. An old woman who wears the bright clothes that are unique to this part of Peru – a hot pink shawl and skirt with vibrant flowers embroidered into the fabric – is posing for photos, so I snap a portrait before giving her a few coins from my pocket.  There’s an old wooden church close by the station and a few of us walk gingerly to it. I chat with Don who is carrying a bible he clearly means to donate. Still a mystery man to me.

And on we travel.  A sumptuous lunch is served and I sit with Don and Linda making small talk about the journey. Linda asks me what I bought from the kid just before we left Cuzco and I drag out the key-holder from my pocket. To my surprise she digs in her purse and pulls out a jeweler’s loop and examines my purchase up, down, sideways and all over. “I didn’t realize you were a jeweler,” I said.

“I used to be at one stage,” she responds.  “Not any more, but old habits die hard.  Can I ask how much you paid for this in $ equivalent?”

While I go through a mental conversion in my mind she chews on the rounded edge and smiles.  “This is the genuine thing from what I can tell.  You did well with that price, so I suspect this comes from someone’s home, not a from a local jewellery designer. A family treasure that is now missing.  If you ever decide to sell it back in the States you would probably make 40% on your money.”

I put the piece back in my pocket wondering if I’ve done something wrong by buying it.  But Linda is busy talking, and I concentrate on her words.  “I worked in a store in south Minneapolis and met Don there when he came in one day asking if we could design a pair of small candle holders to be given as a gift to their choirmaster who was leaving after 20 years of service.  They liked what we made and came back over and over asking for unique ornaments for the church. Don and I ended up working so closely together that we got engaged and were eventually married in the church.”

“That’s so touching,” I said.  “Do you still work at the store when you are not travelling?  I suppose it’s in that big mall there.  What is its name?  Mall of the Midwest?”

“I don’t work there anymore. Don took his business to other stores once they thought they had a captive customer for life and started to ask higher prices for their work.  I resigned and help Don look for items online now. “

I let my eyes drop to my dessert while I processed what to me was more bullshit matching Don’s made-up stories.  I was struggling with a few things.  For one, why would the church give an occasional visiting preacher responsibility to buy gifts?  Possible, but lots of inconvenience and lack of intimate relationship knowledge would surely apply. And wouldn’t the Synod offer  standard accessories for local church needs that would have been bought and supplied through a central repository, thereby preserving uniformity across its churches? Only the last part of her story had some credibility, but even then she never demurred when I gave the wrong name for the giant mall in Minneapolis. Even people who weren’t born and raised there knew it was Mall of America.

‘Ditzy’ was an adjective I’d used earlier to label Linda. I knew it was inappropriate to use labels, but they sure were handy.  As she babbled on with the rest of what I presumed was a made-up story, I struggled to think of a new label and finally found one as coffee was served.  She was still ditzy but no longer harmless which that label implicitly incorporated. To me she’d graduated to a different world trying to cover up something underhand. What fit a clueless nincompoop who lied easily? After some thought I finally upgraded ‘ditzy’ to ‘charlatan’.  Something was decidedly untrustworthy about this woman.

I remained as pleasant as possible until the table was cleared although I really wanted to escape from this lying pair in the worst way.  I finally retreated to my assigned seat hoping the vistas would wipe away the melancholy I felt from my interaction with them.  Unfortunately we seemed to pass through endless pastures and plains and remote villages that seem to just exist, immune to the passage of time.  It was a boring part of the journey and didn’t help me forget things.  At long last however we reach Juliaca for a quick stop.  This is a city of 150,000 people, once again with a marketplace set up alongside the train tracks.  And now I came back to life.

I’ve been prepared and anxious for this stop and am first off the train which won’t stay

long. Pucara pot small blackimagesCAJBZK29 I race through the marketplace until I find a woman sitting beside a blanket covered with various forms of red and black pottery – the prized pottery of Pucara.  I quickly bundle up some black pots, that color being the traditional and fabled ancient color used before red pots came into vogue. Among my choices is a Pucara black bull and a drinking vessel with white patches.  I throw all my remaining coins down om the blanket, knowing full well I’ve overpaid but happy with my treasures. I’m helped clamber back on board as the train starts moving, and just have time to turn and wave to the potter as we pull away. Mission accomplished !

Puno is just 47km down the track and we are served a late afternoon tea in preparation for a 6pm arrival.  Some of the passengers are planning to stay overnight in Puno to visit some of the islands in the Lake the next day.   Small tribes still live on some of the floating islands and fish and travel on their unusual reed boats.  For some reason, sightseeing here isn’t that compelling for me. Like me, the other half of the passengers are anxious to catch the hydrofoil across the lake to Copacabana and Bolivia in order to get to La Paz and a hotel for the night in the capital city. Perhaps we’d had enough of the ancient cultures and needed a dose of old fashioned civilization again. Even given my interest in ancient peoples, the floating communities seemed so forced to me that I was willing to bypass them.  Probably to my detriment but I wasn’t going to change things at this last stage.

lake titicaca

There was plenty of time available so most of us gathered at a local café for coffee and reminisced about the journey we had just completed. There was uniform agreement about its value and the spectacular views we’d all been exposed to.  We compared souvenirs picked up in La Raya and I was proud to show off and talk about my pottery purchases since no-one else had any, although I readily spied some in a tourist shop we passed on the way to the café.  Two couples decided to go back and make similar purchases there.

Thirty minutes in advance of departure time we wander towards the water and enter the Hydrofoil company’s building. We delve into bags and purses and retrieve our passports and steadily pass through immigration and customs control into a waiting room. Finally it’s time to board and we step outside for the short trek to the boat.  The shore line is steep and rocky with the boat tied to large stanchions out in the water and large anvil cleats onshore. The way on is via a very narrow boarding ramp, like a passarelle, with taut ropes at the side to hang on to. Manhandling luggage is a challenge and we allow small boys to take the suitcases on one by one, watching with baited breath that they do so safely.

A light breeze that was with us when we arrived in town has turned into a gusty wind and there are murmurs of concern about the pending roughness of the ride ahead as we see waves forming on the lake.  The staff reassure us that the hydrofoil is especially designed to run smoothly across the wave-tops and we shouldn’t worry.   But watching the boys struggle with the bags on the narrow planks as they get blown side to side is somewhat nerve-wracking and we applaud as each case is hoisted safely into the interior of the boat.

I see Don eyeing his luggage warily.  The boys line up with his four bags and start forward.  As the third little chap carrying Don’s big bag attempts to step on the passarelle, a giant gust of wind pushes him and the bag sideways and the bag snags against a pillar on the ramp.  Don races forward to help the young chap but before he gets close enough the bag slides down onto the rocks and one of the catches is smashed, whereupon the bag flies open and its contents tumble out down the rocks towards the water.   Don swears heavily and tries to reach down and pick up objects while the rest of us gape in astonishment and shock.  A light rain starts to fall, making everything more slippery instantly, and foreboding nasty things to come.

Instead of seeing bibles pour out of Don’s case we see a plethora of intricate gold and silver religious icons and statuary of varied sizes scatter onto the rocky slope.  A boat official runs up, takes a quick look, and moments later we are all surrounded by immigration officials and a couple of policia. Whistles sound, and chaos ensues.

The rest of us are bundled back inside the waiting room although Don is frantically asking for help as two burly officials restrain him.  Linda has been pulled inside with us, but starts shouting incoherently and fighting to go back outside.  They let her go and she runs through the rain to Don’s side.  Out of nowhere more policia arrive, and with daylight fading, lights inside and outside are turned on and we see through the window that men are scrambling down the rocky bank picking up objects, and that the case has been retrieved and is lying open on the pavement.  The three young boys are held against a police car looking scared to death, proclaiming their innocence and ignorance.  Don hangs his head and is clearly not responding to questions thrown at him by officials and policia alike.  No doubt he is in for a rough time ahead.

My stomach does a flip flop as the truth dawns.   Don is nothing but a con man and international  thief, and not a church representative in any way.  He uses his disguise to enter churches unchallenged and surreptitiously removes items, perhaps leaving a bible behind in exchange, although that certainly doesn’t justify or exonerate his actions in any way.  The suitcase is methodically emptied of bibles with each one replaced by some religious artifact.

And Linda…  Now it becomes obvious. She acts as a pseudo fence for the items he steals. I bet that for most of those stolen artifacts she had already found committed buyers back in the US, or for that matter in other countries around the world. Some would go to full-scale fences, others to private buyers who’ve bought before and are anxious for a particular type of icon – something representing the ancient Inca or Andean Spanish world perhaps.

I’m aghast. Yes, I had concluded Don was neither priest nor professor, but it never occurred to me that he might be a thief. At worst I had prematurely concluded that he might be a somewhat misguided bumbling philanthropist. But now a further thought occurrs. How did he ever hope to get his bags back through US customs unchallenged?  And as soon as I had thought it I immediately gave myself the answer.  Man of the cloth!  He just wouldn’t declare anything and would probably waltz on through unsuspected.  What a scam!

And then of course there was faithful Linda.  Boy, did my label fit. Con-artist, fence, criminal broker – she was all those wrapped in one. I began to doubt if she and Don were even married. Wish I’d seen their passports together.

How ironic to be caught out in a way they could never have anticipated.  Not in the act of stealing or selling.  Not at the start of a trip where many bibles might have concealed a couple of stolen items.  Not by a diligent customs officer, but by nature itself.  God managed nature. I raised my eyes and offered a mental salute.  Great job oh wise one!

An hour later we were on our way across the lake in the dark and the rain. Don and Linda had been bundled into the back of a police car and driven off somewhere. The three bag boys stayed around, but the rest of our luggage had two boys handling each bag and we all felt better watching them navigate the boarding ramp.  The ferry officials were extremely apologetic and offered us free ‘cerveza’ and sandwiches which were most welcome.

Actually we remaining passengers were all pretty shaken.  Our otherwise lovely day had been shattered by a truly ugly incident. It tainted our last hours in Peru and the wonderful times we’d had.  It was a sad way to say goodbye to the country and its friendly, happy people.   We all hoped our lasting memories would manage and emphasize all the good things we’d experienced and over-ride everything else.

As we raced across the waters to Bolivia I dug into my carry-on bag, pulled out my computer tablet, and as a last farewell to Peru, erased Don’s name and email address from my contact list.

Parting with the country was regretful, but parting with the con-artists was a relief. I hoped their extended stay in the thin air in the middle of nowhere was horribly uncomfortable and that it would take weeks for a US embassy official to visit the town.  In their re-acclimation process I also hoped that the first words they would learn in Quechua, which they would have to repeat a thousand times,  were “pampachayuway manah” – I’m sorry’.

It wouldn’t be enough but it might be the start of their true repentance.


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