Rie and I do stick out a little here. Chachapoyas has a slowly growing tourist trade, but it’s still a small town with relatively few visitors and there’s no escaping the fact that our white faces are a bit of a novelty. Sometimes little kids will stand in front of us and stare open-mouthed. Sometimes older kids or wry-faced teenagers will see us and suddenly start spouting some English: “Good morning!” “How are-ra you?” Once a well-dressed local man leaving what looked like a business meeting in the café glanced over at my table and said in perfect English, “Good to see you. Have a nice day.”
Being easy to recognize around town can have its advantages. Sarita, the smiling young waitress at Café Fusiones, always greets us warmly and asks where we’ve been if we miss a day. People we’ve met only in passing say hello on the street. And when we went out for pizza one night, the young and hugely talented charango player we met early on came over to our table, kissed our cheeks and talked to us for a bit. He was there with his band mates, most of them in jeans and black shirts, and they had no doubt seen us in the small audience at their last show.
“Check us out,” Rie said later, laughing. “We are in with the band.”
But nothing tops the reception we got yesterday when we went with a guide to see Karajía, a group of ancient clay sarcophagi built into a high cliff ledge near a small town an hour or two away. The tall, solemn-faced figures are pretty iconic around here—photographs of the grouping are displayed in restaurants and wooden reproductions are on sale just about anywhere you go. We were picking our way down the steep trail when we came upon a family group, a grandmother in an embroidered shirt and white cowboy hat, two younger women, and a bunch of kids.
The grandmother waited for us to catch up and then took each of our hands in turn, holding them in both of hers, smiling and pouring forth a torrent of words. When it was my turn, all I could make out was “bienvenida,” “gringa” and “señorita,” but her enthusiasm was unmistakable.
The other foreign teachers had already clued us in that gringa and gringo aren’t pejorative terms around here—they’re just descriptive and you hear them a lot. “Gracias,” I said over and over as she held my hand. “Gracias!”
It did cross my mind that she intended to accompany us to the sarcophagi and maybe expect something in return, but that wasn’t it at all. She and her family were visiting Karajía for the first time themselves and were terribly excited about it, exclaiming and laughing at every turn. The figures arouse plenty of local pride—they’ve just appeared on a new Peruvian coin, for instance—and here we were, these obviously foreign visitors, climbing down this remote hillside to go see them. I think she took our presence as further confirmation that the site is unique and special and worthy of international attention.
And after we made our way along the narrow trail, after we all admired the tall, dignified figures and shivered over the human bones that were lying around, she went around a small wooden fence and picked me a bunch of conical purple flowers, handing them to me with an explanation that I mostly didn’t get. I think it was more or less that these were flowers you didn’t see everywhere but that grew here.
I asked if I could take her picture and much of the family crowded in, then all laughed uproariously when I showed them the picture on the camera’s little screen. Then all the kids and one of the younger women were picking us flowers, tall red gladiolas, little yellow blossoms, delicate orchids they pulled out of the ground roots and all. I thanked them and thanked them and stuck a bouquet into my backpack, and still they picked more.
The sarcophagi at Karajía were striking, even if their impact was a little diminished by the fact I’d seen so many pictures of them before I saw the things themselves. Meeting that family, though, made my day. (KK)