One month ago, I moved to Baños del Inca, a very small town only 6 km from the “city” of Cajamarca. My first two weeks were filled with holidays: an amazing Christmas visit with my family and a strange illness that rendered me useless for about ten days. Finally, I feel like I’m beginning to settle in and learn the lay of the land. My thoughts so far? I love it here.
Cajamarca is a small city in northern Peru that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. Due to a recent mining boom, many Cajamarqueñians say the city is growing faster than its old colonial structure can handle. Yanacocha, the second largest gold mine in the world is located less than an hour from the city. To date the Yanacocha mine (not where Charlie works) has produced more than $7 billion worth of gold. A strong mining presence is felt as you wind your way through the streets of Cajamarca and notice a large population of trucks and stores that sell work boots, safety glasses, and hard hats.
Despite Cajamarca and Baños del Inca playing a significant role in Peru’s history (more on this later), the area does not attract much international tourism. Small, local tour companies offer van trips to nearby ruins, waterfalls, and other incredible features, but these target mostly Peruvians. This is just fine with me, the tourists can stay away (unless you’re coming to visit me and stay in my house, in which case you’re more than welcome, I love hosting). I have found that in Peru, tourism brings opportunists who recognize that people who can afford to travel have money in their pockets. This puts any gringo at a much higher risk of pick-pocketing, harassment and scams. In Cajamarca, this occurs on a small scale (as it does anywhere in the world), but I feel far less targeted than other places I’ve been in Peru. I’m sure its only a matter of time until the locals catch on, but for now, the area is free from that burden and filled with its own unique culture.
If you want an in-depth understanding of the history of Cajamarca and Baños del Inca read a book. I’ll tell you my version with no promises of accuracy or political correctness. Here goes. A long time ago there was this wicked tall Inca named Atahualpa (let’s call him “Hap” to make things easier). He was the leader of the northern Incas (his brother took care of the Cusco region). Anyway, Hap and his homies were hanging out in Baños del Inca when they heard that Francisco Pissaro and the Spanish (the conquistadors or conquerors) had reached Cajamarca. He headed over to Cajamarca with 6000 of his guys. Some Spanish priest tried to convert him to Christianity, he said “screw you” and threw the bible on the ground. This started the inevitable fight between the Spanish and the Incas.
The problem for Atahualpa was that the Spanish had cannons and men on horses with swords and the Inca’s had nothing but slingshots and axes (how embarrassing). Within a few hours 160 Spaniards killed 7000 indigenous people and captured our friend Hap. Seriously, 160 dudes killed 7000! I am not exaggerating! When Hap figured out how gold hungry the Spaniards were, he held his hand up above his head and said “I will fill this room this high with gold if you let me go.” “Cool,” agreed the Spanish. After a year of gathering Incan artifacts from as far south as Cusco (which they melted down to make pure gold), the room was filled. Unfortunately, the Spanish heard a rumor that Hap’s buddies were coming to help him. They freaked out and killed him anyway. Jerks.
The only Inca building that’s still standing in Cajamarca is the Cuarto del Rescate where Hap was held prisoner. I visited it last week and honestly, it doesn’t look all that bad compared to how I would imagine a prison cell. Hap’s presence is still felt throughout both Baños del Inca and Cajamarca, mostly because there are statues of him everywhere with his hand raised up high marking the spot to which he would fill that room with gold.
The Hat People
I have got to stop calling them that. A Campesino is a person from the countryside. They look, dress, and live very differently from the city folk. The stocky women wear wool, knee-length skirts with petticoats underneath to reveal calves with tone I can only dream of achieving. They sport three or more layered sweaters, with their hair tied back in a long black braid, topped off with what looks like a straw top hat made from woven palm leaves. They often have either cows, donkeys, or sheep in tow. Tied diagonally around their bodies is often a piece of patterned, bright colored cloth used to carry their baby, a sack of potatoes or something else really heavy. Their attire makes me feel like I’ve traveled back in time 100 years or more (because I bet they were wearing the same get-up back then).
I can’t help but wonder why they dress like this. Are there practical reasons to wearing a skirt and 5 sweaters? Or is it just a tradition that hasn’t been updated? Hmm, maybe people puzzle over the same thing when they travel to Salisbury, NH and see everyone (most of whom are related to me) wearing flannel shirts, work boots, and neon orange hats (so hunters don’t mistake them for moose and shoot them).
It has not yet ceased to amaze me how comfortably the hat people, I mean campesinos blend in with the city folk. While I can’t help but watch (or stare with my mouth open) in amazement at how much they can carry on their backs, the Cajamarqueñians don’t glance twice. In fact, I get far more stares walking down the street than any Campesino.
The other day while I was doing errands, I heard a little boy say to his mom “Look! Look! Look!” while pointing at me. “Yes,” the mom assured her son, “that’s a gringa.” I smiled, blushed and pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my blond hair as I walked away. Supposedly, due to all the mining in the area, a slew of gringos live in Cajamarca and Baños del Inca. If this is true, I don’t know where they’re all hiding. I have run and walked extensively around the two towns and can tell you that they are not shopping in the mercado, eating in local restaurants, drinking soda in the Plaza de Armas, or running the footpath between Baños and Cajamarca.
I would like to think, that I am enough of a “runner” so that on any given day, if I needed to run ten miles, I could. This was true until I moved to a town that sits at 9000 feet (2730 meters) above sea level. The first time I went running here, I noticed the altitude immediately but fought for my breath for 30 minutes. My stupid legs would NOT move, no matter how hard I pushed them. I got back and quickly jumped on google earth to map my run and find I had gone less than 3 miles. Impossible! I thought to myself. I can walk faster than that! Training at this altitude has been an experience but a nice challenge and at this point, my body is finally adjusting.
Surprisingly there are a lot of runners here. I see them on the 6 km footpath that runs along the road between Baños del Inca and Cajamarca. Runners of all ages, some more serious than others fill the path each morning. Being such a friendly town, people greet me along the way. I never feel as if I’m running alone, rather am part of a community of runners. I have even heard rumor of a half-marathon in May.
Despite all the athletes in Cajamarca, I doubt I will find an equivalent to my dear friend Gabriella in Lima, who was willing to meet me in the dark at 5AM for a 15-mile run or an hour-long stair and sprint workout. Gaby, my partner in fitness who would gossip, discuss important celebrity news, and scream along to Ace of Base with me to distract ourselves from the pain. Gaby, my partner in masochism, who no matter how bad we felt from sit-ups and lunges would declare “one more time” just when I thought we were finished. Gaby, my partner in debauchery, who would meet me the same night to soften the muscle pain with Pisco Sours. A friend like that is hard to come by.
Speaking of Friends
Of course, my main concern from the second I arrived to Baños del Inca has been making friends. The problem is, very few people here speak English, and believe it or not, due to my insecurities about my vocabulary and accent, I can be quite shy in Spanish. I figured the best place to start, was close to home.
Home. Have you ever read the book, ‘The Secret Garden? Well, I live in a secret garden with two other couples. From the street it looks like nothing more than a garage door. Open it to reveal a long grass driveway lined with flower bushes that host a number of large turquoise humming birds. Curvy stone pathways wind their way through rose bushes, clusters of corn, strawberry patches, and herb gardens. Finally you will arrive in a small courtyard with a large stone grill and a fountain in the middle, which the owners call the “Plaza de Armas.” Within the large “garden” there are four buildings, a large fenced-in area for the chickens and rooster, and six dogs (if you include Brandy). The building we live in is simple (the bottom floor of the owner’s home), with white walls, brick floors, and tons of windows.
Olga and Walter, the owners, live above us. They are a middle-aged Peruvian hippie couple that spend their days tending to the gardens and working on the property. They have a communal kitchen and sitting area that I visit a few times a week to drink tea that Walter makes from the herbs grown here. Olga is bubbly, social and loves to throw big parties (two so far). The third couple, a Canadian guy and Chilean girl, are closer to our age and speak English, but we have yet to get to know them well.
I have one more part-time neighbor, a young campesino girl named Bersa. Her parents live three hours from town and with her being the youngest of at least ten kids, they were unable to take care of her. They sent her to live down the street from us with her very frail grandparents. Unfortunately, her grandparents don’t attend to her much so she spends most of her days here, helping Olga with projects around the house. She visits me daily, to drop off fresh-picked strawberries, tomatoes, or herbs from the garden. In exchange, I am teaching her English. One word a day which I write on a notecard for her to practice. She’s a fast learner. Yesterday she greeted my dog Brandy by saying “Hello. My name is Bersa.” Brandy looked at her and replied, “Hello. My name is Brandy.” Just kidding, Brandy doesn’t speak.
At the end of the street is a small store that sells your basics: soda, chips, toilet paper, milk, etc. I noticed as soon as I moved here that people tend to congregate there to hang out. It reminds me of the store my grandfather and his brother owned in Concord, NH called “Phil and Larry’s.” People would come in for a candy bar and stay for an hour to chat. I can do this, I thought to myself. So I went to the store, bought a coke from Marta and sat down to chat. I learned that she owns the shop with her sister (exactly like Phil and Larry’s!). She had seen me go running by in the morning and told me she goes swimming three times a week in the public pool. Since that afternoon, Marta does not allow me to pass by the store without a friendly greeting and kiss on the cheek (even when I pass by 6 times a day).
Violeta from the laudramat is equally friendly. She looked confused the first day I walked in, sweating, my hiking backpack filled with clothes. I explained to her that I had to carry them about a mile from my house to get there. She asked why I didn’t take a taxi and I replied “everybody else around here carries things on their back, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” We got to chatting that day, and now I need to plan at least an hour each time I go to drop off or pick up clothes. She loves to cook, as do I, and she has been giving me recipes for local dishes. Next week I’m going to her house for a cook out.
While, at this point, I don’t have enough friends to throw a party, I’m getting there. “Poco a poco,” like everything here in Peru. Nonetheless, I’m out of the city. The sounds of traffic and construction are nothing but a distant memory. They’ve been replaced by a plethora of bird calls, dogs barking and a rooster that calls at all hours of the day and night. The mountains, the Eucalyptus trees, the fresh air, the friendly people; for the first time since I moved to Peru, I feel like I’m in my element.