Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The boy from Machu Picchu

Tello’s explorers were no strangers to hardship. Many of Tio Hernan’s stories tell of the constant challenges the expeditions faced in finding provisions and eating well on scant resources. On the 1942 expedition to the Urubamba valley (also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas) located close to Cusco and the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, they met a young boy who turned out to have a particular flair for making ends meet.

In this story Hernan describes the ingenuity, creativity, and drive for improvement that many Peruvians still pride themselves on today. 

But he also writes about a far less attractive social phenomenon, and the obstacles and harsh conditions that eventually blight the life of a resourceful young man.

The boy from Machu Picchu
In which we learn more about the expedition's young camp cook and his unfortunate fate.

There are some interesting ruins at Corihuayrachina, linked to Machu Picchu by a very well conserved granite paved Inca road. We had just set up camp there when we realized that we were running very low on provisions. So we sent a peon to buy more from the small town which is situated down in the valley near the famous ruins.

The next day climbing back up the hill, burdened with his purchases, came not the peon but a small boy of about fourteen years of age. He explained that his brother had been taken ill, and so he had come himself to bring us our provisions.

Tello guessed that the peon was simply an idle scrounger and was highly suspicious of this new emissary who he feared in the next breath would inform us that all the leftover money had been appropriated by this good for nothing brother of his.

He asked to see the list of supplies he had bought. Everything was in order, except for the balance of money owing.

 “And my change?” Tello asked.

“I spent it,” the boy answered coolly.

“What do you mean you spent it?”

“Yes señor, I spent it.”

It was a candid answer.

“And how do you intend to pay me back?”

“By working,” the response was so measured and dignified that even Tello was taken aback.

“Working… and what work do you suggest you can do?”

“I know how to cook.”

“Ah you can cook? And who showed you how to cook?”

“I was kitchen assistant for the Wenner Gren expedition.”

Our ears pricked up. It was a gift from heaven. We directed him straight away to the camp canteen, and the boy went off to the small hut that served as our kitchen.

Watching his peculiar hunchbacked gait, Tello said, “Poor kid. It’s obvious he’s got a touch of malaria, but he has to make his own living. Even if he doesn’t cook very well, at least it will be an improvement on the stuff you lot prepare.”

And Juan de la Cruz Tapia, for that was the boy from Machu Picchu’s name, did us proud in the kitchen. At times, when food was scarce and there was nothing much to eat except wild pumpkin, he performed miracles. He had a special talent for conjuring up the most delicious soups and a sweet dessert that he made from the peanuts he found growing wild around the camp. 

As well as being our cook, with his humble appearance and his gruff little voice, he also made us laugh with his sharp wit. He entertained us with local stories and legends, and those he had picked up on his travels further afield in search of work.

Tello came to be very fond of him and the next year sent him to Lima to work at the Pachacámac site.  But after a while it was evident that he didn’t like the work so much there, because within a short time he gave notice. Maybe he was looking for a better position, but it seems that this was the beginning of his downfall. 

Some months later Tello met him in the street, looking pale and thin, and took him to the museum. There, tearfully, he told us a sorry tale. His new boss, a wealthy man from the city of Cusco, would sometimes set about kicking and beating him because the car was not shining quite as brilliantly as he liked or some other detail annoyed him.

 Juanito, had a natural dignity and integrity, and he was not afraid to stand up for himself when he felt he had been wronged. He had even sometimes contested the orders of Tello.  The problem was that to this new boss, who was obviously a brute, used to punching and abusing the native Indians of his home town, it was like a red rag to a bull.

Eventually tuberculosis took Juan back to the mountains, to Jauja where Tello used to send him money from time to time. Someone from the museum would take it up to him and on one of these occasions I found him there working again as a cook, but at a hotel where all his clients suffered the same ‘white plague’.

And now eleven years later, just recently, I read in a Huancayo newspaper the news of his suicide, citing as a reason his ‘suffering from an incurable disease’.

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