The best storytellers weave just enough truth into their tales that it’s impossible to figure out where the truth ends and the fiction starts. Usually this is deliberate because it makes for a better story. But sometimes, you wonder if they even know where the line is.
On the two-hour drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, our taxi driver Aquiles, (derived from “Achilles”), shared stories about growing up in the mountains outside Ollantaytambo. His illiterate parents had 16 children, but 2 of those died very young. Every day, he walked from his home in the mountains to the town’s only school, two hours down and even longer back up; walking with friends made the time go by faster, and his mother always had a sweet snack waiting when he got home.
Aquiles spoke slowly and quietly in Spanish, pausing to get his stuttering under control before continuing: His parents taught him that hard work and honesty are the most important things. They couldn’t afford doctors, so he learned about medicinal herbs from his father, who’d learned it from his own father.
Aquiles had to start supporting himself financially when he was 12, initially working for food or supplies, not money. In his late teens and early 20s, he worked as a porter on the Inca Trail, where he sometimes had to carry 60 kilos. “Wow!” I thought. “He probably doesn’t even weigh 60 kilos. How could anyone carry that much on those steep, stone-step trails?” Now 37, Aquiles is married and living in Ollantaytambo, happy to be a taxi driver and not working so hard. His father is still alive at 101. His oldest brother is 71.
OK, wait a minute. That can’t be right! How could his brother be 34 years older than him? His mother would have been bearing children well into her 50s! When I questioned the math, Aquiles said that women in the Andes used to be able to have children much older than now— even at 70 years old sometimes.
When we later shared these tales with our well-educated guide during a private tour of the region, he believed the stories of poverty, but not the rest. He said it’s very common to exaggerate age, because age earns respect in the community. No, it wasn’t possible for the brother to be that much older.
I also learned that porters on the Inca Trail are only allowed to carry 20 kilos, a rule that is strictly enforced. Did Aquiles really carry 60 kilos on his back, or did it just feel like it sometimes? I was left wondering why he told us these things that couldn’t be true.
A couple of days later, we visited the Maras Salt Mines: Thousands of evaporation ponds fed by a very salty spring of warm water that comes out of the mountain. Aquiles’ grandparents believed that the stream was formed because the people prayed to Pachamama (the goddess of the Earth and fertility) for a reliable source of salt, so she created the spring for them.
Another legend about Maras is that one of the ancient Ayar Brothers, mythical ancestors of the Incas, was transformed into a mountain. When he learned that his brother had become the king of the Incas, his tears became the spring that emerges now.
But people were gathering salt at Maras long before the Incas arrived, so how did it become tied to Incan mythology? Which is the “real” story of the salty spring— the one that teaches the origins of the Incas, or the one that teaches love and respect for the land? Or is it the geological story, about the residue of an ancient ocean deep under the ground? The story we tell depends on what we want to teach.
For millenia, Andean culture has remained rich and alive, despite conquest and tremendous hardship, because of the stories people pass down to their children. Perhaps Aquiles was continuing that tradition by telling us his story: Of a boy who was loved but very poor, and bore terrible hardship to become the person he is today. It doesn’t matter if the facts were accurate; his story taught us everything he wanted us to know about his life in the Andes.