This is an adapted excerpt from my memoir, Between Inca Walls.
At the Cusco railway station on November 22, 1964, my Peace Corps roommate Marie and I purchased tickets for the local train to Machu Picchu, not the more expensive train for tourists. Our plan was to see the ancient wonder of the world, then visit fellow volunteer, Larry at his site in Quillabamba.
Trains were one of the few things that arrived and left on time in Peru. We hopped aboard as soon as ours pulled into the station and settled onto a couple of scratched blue vinyl seats. After a short wait, we hear three toots of the whistle and began to move. The diesel engine labored forward, then backward, to pull, then push, the six passenger cars up the zigzagging rails on the side of the mountain and out of the city. Close to the top, burning oil replaced the musty smell of red clay soil. Smoke billowed outside the window of our car. I voiced concern to the man checking our tickets.
“Just a dirty carburetor,” the man said.
I wondered why someone hadn’t cleaned the carburetor. The smoke dissipated. The view from the window improved as the train lumbered along.
Miles of beige grass spread out across an immense pampa replacing the reddish-gray adobe buildings of Cusco. For an hour we followed the lush green banks of the gurgling, then gushing, Urubamba River. We arrived close to our destination three hours after we departed.
A yellow bus waited to take us up the mountain to Machu Picchu at the Aguas Calientes station. We hurried aboard. Soon we were zigzagging up the side of a steep mountain on a gravel road. The fifteen sharp switchbacks jerked our bodies left, then right with each thirty-degree turn. Marie laughed as she fell across my lap. I giggled and pushed her back.
Solemnity returned when we exited the bus. There before us at 8,000 feet, stood the place Incan nobles had come for religious ceremonies over five hundred years before. I stopped on the crest of the mountain a few yards past a cream-colored hotel, spellbound. Spread out for five miles below were hundreds of stone steps and buildings. Gray stone walls surrounded terrace after terrace of lime-green grass. Behind the structures stood tall, forest-green mountains. Their sharp peaks poked through white clouds. Cliffs on three sides dropped straight down fifteen hundred feet to the Urubamba River. A bright blue sky with wisps of white clouds swirled above us. I felt within reach of heaven.
Marie and I hurried off to explore before the sites became crowded with tourists. The huge stone walls and buildings fit together without mortar—the same masonry techniques used for the impressive walls in Cusco. We trotted up and down the varying levels of stone houses, marveling at the workmanship. Here sat an altar, there, a solar clock. A sophisticated irrigation system of aqueducts crossed the terraces. We ducked through trapezoid-shaped doorways, careful not to bump our heads. The residents must have been shorter than us.
At the far side of the ruins, a steep trail led to Huayna Picchu, a pointed mountain towering 1,200 feet above where we stood. It called to us to climb it. We picked our way up the narrow dirt path, trying not to look down until we reached the top lest we be overtaken by vertigo. This higher peak was where the priests and virgins began each day— appropriate for us two virgins.
Heavy blue-gray clouds from the nearby tropical rain forest floated below us. I saw the perfect background to snap a photograph of Marie with my Instamatic camera. She looked regal sitting on the precipice in her red-and-black alpaca sweater. Quiet beauty surrounded us. We hated to leave. But the only afternoon train to Quillabamba would depart soon.
Back on the bus, we plunged down the hairpin curves and scurried onto the train. The engine chugged for an hour through a tropical jungle thick with vine-covered trees. At the end of the line we boarded a bus that sped along an unpaved road for another hour to Quillabamba. The bus deposited us at our destination at dusk.
Marie found a reasonably priced hotel and we checked in and washed the sweat and dust from our sunburned bodies. Then we sauntered over to the town square, where we found Leah, one of the female Peace Corps volunteers. She told us that Larry, who’d trained with us at Cornell and in Puerto Rico, was at a nearby soda fountain. I wondered how he liked his new home. We found our tall, blond friend sitting with a group of companions.
“What are you two doing here?” Larry said, little surprise registering in his blue eyes.
“We had a couple of extra days in Cusco.” I said. “Marie and I thought we’d come see you.”
The three of us exchanged the latest gossip about others in our training group. Larry invited us to see his place. His apartment was bigger than our room in Abancay. And he had indoor plumbing. Two turkeys strutted around the common yard of the apartment complex. Larry said he was fattening them up for the Quillabamba volunteers’ Thanksgiving dinner.
“Hey, you two,” Larry said, in a serious tone, “tomorrow morning is a Requiem Mass commemorating the one-year anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. Want to go to it with me?”
“Sure,” I said, surprised that this foreign country would be honoring my beloved President.
“What time?” asked Marie.
“Seven o’clock,” Larry said, “I’ll come by your hotel to get you.”
We were up early the next morning.. The cool humidity of the jungle town slapped me awake as we walked with Larry to Quillabamba’s main church. As I entered the church, I was surprised. Was the large number of people there for the same reason we were? The sermon, in Spanish, extolled the virtues of our departed president. The Mass touched me. I recalled the shock I’d felt on this day the year before when the President had been assassinated. Now, on November 23, 1964, I worked in the very organization President Kennedy had initiated and felt proud. I tucked the funeral card with a photo of our handsome dead President into my purse.
Evelyn LaTorre is a memoir writer living in Fremont, CA.