I just fell.
Afterwards, I felt old and helpless. Especially when two twenty-something young men rushed to help me get up.
Traditionally, falling is not a big deal for me. Many a winter I have slipped on ice and gone down, sometimes on my back and sometimes on my butt.
But this time seemed different. I felt fragile and unsteady.
When I fell I was just beginning to walk up a dirt path that connected with an excavation and construction site in Cuzco, Peru near where I have been staying. A bit of loose dirt or a mis-step and I went down.
The young men, though friendly and smiling, seemed obscenely energetic. Filled with excess. Very sure of themselves.
For a second or two, I sat there, stunned, and then pushed myself up and continued down the foot path, thanking the guys, although my masculinity did not let me take their proffered hands.
Anyway, I had some peanuts in one hand, tightly gripped, and somehow, surprisingly, I did not lose a one. I would have lost them if I had opened my hand to take the help.
Maybe I was distracted by lifting my hand to pop some in my mouth, while looking at one of the workmen to see if I knew him in order to say hello, and I just did not plant my feet right.
That I would have to pay attention to plant my feet right seems a sure sign of impending change, weakening.
I continued my way down the path, shaken and so careful now about my feet that I forgot to look for the workmen.
For months they have been excavating what once was a steep hill with with weeds, garbage, and a dirt path that connected my street, Jardines del Inca with the colonial neighborhood of San Blas. Every day, I made my way down the path to the city, or back up again, I would watch then shovel at the earth or wheelbarrow the dirt up the steep path--often tangling with pedestrians trying to use the same path.
After a few weeks, I just started to say hello to them. I recognized them, and they me.
Slowly they peeled back the earth, stepped layer after stepped layer, until one day someone said my name and stopped me. It was a young archeologist I had met when he was a student and waited tables while studying in the local university.
We shook hands, shared an abrazo and caught up briefly. It turned out this was to be a construction project to finally make a paved connection between the two neighborhoods, Balconcillo--where I was staying--and San Blas. Then people would not have to go through the mud and murk of this corner where trash got dumped and stories said thieves often lurked.
The archeologist, call him René, said that the people of the neighborhood were expecting a road capable of supporting cars connecting this corner of San Blas--its many stairways and steep, cobbled paths--with Jardines del Inca, my street, and the outside world. But, the planners from the City Government, where René now worked as a staff archeologist, had decided to make more stairs.
Rene had been called in to keep an eye on the digging in case Inca artifacts, stones, or foundations showed up. After all, he smiled, this had been part of the Qhapaq Ñan, the Royal Inca Highway that ran throughout the empire. This was the main way to get from Cuzco’s center to the important Quarter of the empire called Antisuyo.
René reminded me that the area I lived in had been a zone of finely made terraces with stone retaining walls--a few of which could still be seen. It was a series of broad steps up the side of the steep mountain. Now, though, most of the Inca had been lost because the expanding population of Cuzco needed housing and they took over this land. That was before the days of worrying about cultural heritage, René huffed.
He said he was not popular with the workmen, or the engineers, because sometimes he had to stop them from advancing, if he saw something.
One day René could hardly stand still. He bounced around like a kid who had just been told Santa would come in the morning.
They had just found, he said, a small portion of the original Inca roadway.
Not long afterward he said that a neighbor had brought a suit against him, accusing him of destroying the Inca Qhapaq Ñan. In this way, he said, the man was trying to fend off attention from the part of the roadway that lay on his land.
The excavation continued, day after day, week after week. Every day the path was different and some days Jardines del Inca was blocked from the other side to cars because municipal dump trucks and front loaders would come to carry away the mountain of dirt that was piling up. They closed it so they could dump sand, gravel, bags of cement, wooden forms, and construction stone in various sizes.
One afternoon, when the sun was shining intensely and the temperature had risen, I walked down the path towards the city. As had become custom, I said hello to the workmen and they returned the greeting.
I asked how they were, and one man, laughed “it is hot. We are sweating “la gota gorda” (the fat drops). We could sure use a cold soda.”
Taking the hint I went to the store and bought them a large bottle of soda and some glasses. I came back with it to wish them well. They said “thank you” over and over.
My buying them a soda became a routine. I would walk by, say hello and they would say how hot it was. Then I would give them a coin of five soles, or some combination of coins that would allow them to buy the big soda.
We became friends. Of sorts.
Not long ago, the man who I usually gave the coins to came up to shake my hand and, when I asked how the work was going, said “in a month or so we will be finished.
“We want you to be the godfather of the finished construction. You will come and help us finish celebrating.”
I was in a hurry and stunned. I was honored but also wondered how much it would cost and whether it would break my budget. I realized, though, that I would not be here when they finished. I could not accept. Needing to think it through, I said “let’s talk about it tomorrow. I have to run now.”
That was a couple of weeks ago. The day after our conversation it was raining and I did not have an umbrella. They signaled me to come up when I got out of the taxi bringing me up the hill to my apartment. But I did not want to get wet and so made hand signs for “later.”
Since then, we have not talked. When the sun shines I have been busy, working hard because I am leaving in a week or so and need to have lots accomplished so I can go back to the university in the US. After work, when I go down the hill, the workmen have not been there. I have been feeling guilty.
“You got them accustomed” one of my friends accused me.
I guess I did. But I meant well. Was my giving them a soda or money for one so bad?
I do not think there was anything wrong with them asking me to be the sponsor (godfather) of the party completing the project. That was really kind of cool.
What was wrong was timing. Now I am embarrassed.
As I lifted the peanuts to my mouth, that is what I was thinking in a flash. I looked at the workman, and was disappointed I did not know him. I wondered where the guys I knew were, and then I fell.
Now I just feel old and foolish. With my bad footwork, I mangled a very nice relationship.