Here’s a confession: Before I started writing this piece, I had to use Google Maps Street View to remind myself the name of the street I’m writing about. It’s been two years and four months since I last stepped foot in Urubamba, a town in Peru’s Sacred Valley and my home for nine months during my Bridge Year, and what was once effortlessly familiar now requires a bit of dusting-off to recall.
Jirón Grau is one of the four streets that box in Urubamba’s “Plaza de Armas” (translated literally, “Weapons Plaza,” thus named because, back in the day, it’s where the town’s militia would meet when conflict arose; in modern-day usage across Latin America, a town’s central square). It runs perpendicular to the unadorned church that dominates one edge of the plaza. On one corner of Jirón Grau is the ice cream store where I sometimes got “cremoladas,” which is like sorbet that comes in flavors like passion fruit (passion fruit is always a flavor option for any dessert), strawberry (made with real fruit!) and lime. Toward the middle of the street is the Caja Arequipa bank whose ATM I used to take out money, where one of the other students in my group once left his debit card by accident only to recover it, miraculously, the next day. On the other end of the street is the little store where I often stopped to buy bottled water, chips (the group favorite was Piqueo Snax, which was like party mix), chocolate (always Sublime milk chocolate with peanuts; sometimes also Snickers if I was feeling indulgent or yearning for a taste of the United States) or ice cream studded with little ice chips formed after unstable refrigeration. The outside walls of almost all the buildings lining the plaza are white with red trimmings.
The island of concrete that underpins the square is really a square, except it has rounded corners. In the middle is a fountain with turquoise insides. When he wasn’t selling churros, the churro man, whose churros were actually large pastries with flaky, sugar-powdered layers wrapped around a center filled with manjar, would stand by that fountain and talk about the apocalypse, a Bible in hand. During the carnival in February, my host sisters and cousins and I dashed to and from that fountain to fill jugs with water we emptied over each other’s heads, shrieking with hysterical laughter. When the water was all gone from the fountain, we moved onto ambushing each other with pink and purple-dyed flour. That evening, I returned to our house, chilled and still damp and with flour packed into my right ear, and I was deliriously happy.
If you continue down Jirón Grau, you’ll pass Antrax, the print shop where I often went for boxes of Faber-Castell colored pencils and copies of crude worksheets I hand-wrote for the three classes of third-graders to whom I taught English — a job I was definitely not qualified for. But if you’ve reached Antrax, then you’ve left the plaza.
The backdrop to everything is the mountains. In Street View, they are brown and bald. In the rainy season, their slopes are green and look almost like they would be soft to the touch, like moss on a rock.
Sometimes, after we had walked unhurriedly down the side of one of the mountains in the slow-spreading darkness, I would sit with another student in my group on one of the forest-green benches that line the perimeter of the plaza, and we would talk until we couldn’t make out the other person’s features in the dark. Then he would go home, and I would, too. On our second night in Urubamba, our group leader dropped us off at the plaza, expecting us to know how to find our own way home. I am hopeless with directions and, as panic began to bloom in the space in between my ribs, I texted one of my host sisters, the one who was born just one month before me. By the time she responded, from Cusco, where she had returned to university after a weekend at home, I had already fumbled my way back to my house, skirting indifferent stray dogs along the way. My house was only two blocks away from the plaza. After that, I never forgot how to get home again.