See you in Uhujapacha

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last week we buried Ken Duncan in the cemetery at Huayllabamba, a riverside town in the Urubamba Valley and, as is often the case, it would have been more fun if Ken himself had been able to enjoy it too.

It turned out to be a rousing send-off. It included a trumpet-and-euphonium thump-thump band; a few hits of Scotch and the never-fails drama of a wailing widow determined to lay her hands on the money.

Ken, 64, an irascible, clever Scot had lived on his farm nearby for most of the past 15 years. It was he who introduced to Peru the awaymanto, a wild Andean fruit, as a commercial crop. He even sold some made-in-Cuzco jam, he would tell us, to Harrods and claimed to have met Mohammed Al-Fayad, Dodi’s father.

He spent the last month of his life in the clinic in Cuzco and had hired a couple of off-duty policemen to stand at the door to shoo off the wife, a communera from the highlands of Huancavelica who he hated.

No matter. She and her mum were there, tearful and in black, within minutes of his death and they quickly shelled out borrowed banknotes to acquire Ken’s body from the hospital.

“In the old days,” Roger Valencia tells me, “people in the Andes believed that when you died you moved along to Uhujapacha, which was a repeat version of the world they had just left.

“The only difference was that it was timeless. ”

Roger, friendly and polished, is Cuzco’s top guide: if you are a princess or a film star visiting Cuzco and Machu Picchu, you get Roger.

“If you were the Inca here, you were an Inca in Uhujapacha. If you were a soldier you should be buried with your equipment, a farmer or a ceramicist, the same. If you were a llama, you were a llama next time around. Not much social mobility.

“Also, it was important to take along presents.” All of which explains why ancient Peruvian graves have always been a rich source of treasure trove.

No longer. Not long ago I was window-shopping for a nice cemetery and the one up the road at Maras has a glorious view over the Cordillera. But the locals advised against it. They told me that these days people will quickly steal even your modest marble headstone.

Today people in the Andes are just like the rest of us and think, right or wrong, that we can’t take it with us so Ken was buried simply in a grave alongside his campesino neighbours.

After the funeral service in the town’s quiet colonial church, all organized by Carmen, the widow, we accompanied the casket and the band, playing noisily through narrow streets to the cemetery. At every corner the procession would stop, as is traditional, for a prayer or some wailing chants.

We crowded into the modest cemetery on the edge of town. A god-daughter and a couple of neighbours made short grave-side speeches.

Carmen, a thin 40-something who until Ken’s death had been prohibited by judicial order from getting within 1,500 yards of him, now stood flanked by her mum and lawyers within 1.5 yards of him, wailing as she shoveled her piece of earth onto the coffin.

Moments later things livened up again in the street outside with several crates of beer and wine. There must have been a hundred people, mostly from around Ken’s farm a few miles away.

As the afternoon faded into dusk even over the great mountains rising out of the valley, Carmen told everyone that she was serving supper down in the parish rooms. And the band, paid for by one of Ken’s god-sons, played on.

I remember a few years ago in San Lorenzo de Quinti, in Huarochiri, a traditional area in the highlands deep behind Lima, members of a family up from the city spent the afternoon telling ancestors the latest news.

It was good-humoured and convivial with frequent toasts in aguardiente.

“Y la Sandra, que te recuerdas tuvo problemas en tercero, termino muy bien su secundaria y esta de novia con un chico del barrio y esta trabajando como secretaria en la municipalidad.”

“El Jorge esta pensando entrar en la Policia Nacional…..la tía Juana no podía venir por estar delicada parece ser de los riñones y el esposo no encuentra trabajo….”

I certainly hope that when I’m getting bored in timeless Uhujapacha people will come and keep me, too, up to date.

FIN

Published in Spanish by Caretas magazine the week of October 27 2008

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