High in the Andes Mountains on the legendary Inca Trail, four professional women embark on an adventure to help them confront their online dating woes –– only to find themselves victims to a predator’s ruse, and in a fight for their lives. But, unbeknownst to the hikers, they have been under the vigilant presence of Taki and Koyam, two elderly indigenous women who understand the danger the women are facing. By following the wisdom of their mummified Andean ancestor, Taki and Koyam work to save the women and act with spine-tingling resolve against the sinister forces of Rodrigo and his minions.
Today, I’m going to share an excerpt from the book, Missing in Machu Picchu.
This is a psychological thriller blended with historical fiction, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading the excerpt.
Missing in Machu Picchu
By Cecilia Velástegui
Gossip is the hot brew that warms an icy heart. Koyam and Taki could always count on the mouthwatering taste of gossip to fire them up on the bitingly cold Andean mornings. The promise of chitchat made these two elderly street vendors suck their shriveled fingers with anticipation of the succulent details coming their way. But they were no mere chattering birds: they saw themselves as honorable listeners who never passed the tattling down the grapevine without a good reason or acted maliciously on hearsay.
Gossip simply provided tasty tidbits they could mull over while they sold their homemade souvenirs to the foreign tourists wandering Cusco’s frigid Plaza de Armas. For the last three years, ever since Machu Picchu was added to the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, foreigners had descended like ravenous locusts, hungry to check yet another “Third World” Eden off their bucket list of exotic vacations.
On any other morning, these old friends would have sat on the cobblestones of the plaza, adjusting their voluminous black skirts, chewing and regurgitating each savory morsel the same way their llamas leisurely grazed on the distant hills. But not today. Today, they didn’t even have the stomach to ridicule the gringo tourists pacing erratically in the Plaza de Armas, jittery after drinking too many cups of brewed coca leaf tea, shouting into their cell phones. The word they’d overheard outside the Internet café on this frosty January morning was bitter and poisonous, poker-hot. It singed Koyam’s heart, and inflamed her with a searing rage.
“Rodrigo! Did the gringa just say––Rodrigo?” she hissed, strangling the corners of her old alpaca shawl.
“Indeed, she did,” said Taki. “But the youngest gringa said Rod. Perhaps they are speaking about a different man.”
“If it is Rodrigo, they are not talking about a human being––they’re talking about a monstrosity––”
“Calm down, Koyam, you always overreact. Let’s get a little closer to the gringas and listen to what they’re saying.”
“We can get as close as flies in quinoa stew, but we’re still not going to understand all the gringa chatter,” Koyam retorted.
“We understand a lot more than they think we do.” A mischievous grin lit up Taki’s wrinkled bronze face. “How do you think we haggle and pester them into buying our souvenirs?”
Koyam didn’t answer. She stared across the plaza towards the twin bell towers of the cathedral, silently invoking the sacred mountain beyond: Huanacauri. She didn’t dare utter the name Rodrigo, not even as she begged her ancestors to curse this beast for eternity. She thought he had left Cusco for good, but if he was back, Koyam would be forced to retaliate.
Her lips were clamped, her mouth tight as the stone walls her Inca ancestors built in their sacred city. All these centuries later, it was impossible to wedge even a credit card between those stones. She and Taki loved to watch the tourists try, laughing whenever they broke their funny money: it was their very own street-clown show. Koyam didn’t care if the credit cards were ruined. She and Taki only dealt in cash.
But today Koyam wasn’t laughing. She sealed her lips so her prayers could not be observed by anyone else in the plaza. Her great-grandchildren often scolded her for openly talking about the ancient ways: the old beliefs in huacas, the sacred places and objects so revered by their ancestors. They forbade her to mention the supernatural being who feasted on sacrifices on top Anahuarqui Mountain. They admonished her as if she were the village idiot, and not their seventy-year-old matriarch who still helped support the family. She felt sorry for them. Not only had they lost respect, they were forgetting the ancient ways. It would be their loss not to have Anahuarqui on their side.
Koyam tried to remind them of the words of Manco Capac, their emperor from centuries ago: “Do not forget us, your ancestors. Adore and cherish what we hold dear. The deities, the sun and moon, speak to us. Don’t forget your ancestors who are all around you, watching everything that you do. Honor them. Respect them or they will––”
She never got to finish the rest of Manco’s speech, made hundreds of years ago at nearby Ollantaytambo. Once her great-grandchildren had accomplished the purpose of their visit––to lecture Koyam, as usual––they fled to their next appointment. They all wanted to be perceived as young and modern professionals, working diligently in the tourist-related industries that had blossomed in Cusco in the last decade.
Every once in a while Koyam’s sweet-talking great-granddaughters stopped by the plaza, saying they just wanted to chat with her and Taki before meeting up with a tour group outside the cathedral. They liked to remind Koyam that she should be happy they were living in such an advanced and technologically superior era. Taki knew what they really wanted: to shame their great-grandmother into silence, to stifle what they saw as her antiquated mumbo-jumbo about mummies and sacrifice and the afterlife. They didn’t want her to feed tourists any pseudo-mystical gruel like the bogus shamans who set up shop in the shadowy outskirts of the plaza, offering the tourists a temporary high, and lots of nonsensical talk about the cosmos and harmony.
Those imposters—and their promises of an Inca paradise—seemed to attract lost souls from the four corners of the universe. Taki felt sorry for such down-and-outers, their pasty pale faces sagging with internal agony. They gazed at her as if they had just encountered their promised Mother Earth, their personal Pachamama. Taki, always compassionate, would bless them in Quechua, just as she did her own great-grandchildren.
“How can it hurt? Don’t they deserve a drop of compassion?” she would ask when Koyam frowned at her.
Koyam didn’t want these losers hanging around, siphoning more and more energy from Taki’s goodwill, like their incessant hits from their druggie pipes. A Quechua blessing realigned the energy force of nature; it balanced one’s relationship with all life forms, and was meant to augur abundant beginnings and appropriate endings––in the same way that planting potatoes in September and freeze-drying them on July nights made natural sense. Koyam believed Taki’s blessings should be reserved for those who respected the spirits of the mountains and the life force in rocks, lakes and jagged peaks. Not these gaunt foreigners with less life force than a firefly. Koyam shooed them away with a swift slap of her hands; in the same manner she got rid of filthy cockroaches.
Koyam finished her silent supplication, pulling her multi-colored shawl tight around her stout shoulders.
“These types of gringas,” Taki was saying, “the ones who are no longer university students, but who still travel in groups—they all have one thing in common: they complain non-stop! They gripe about this and they grumble about that. Let’s get closer to them, so we can hear whether they’re whining about Rodrigo.”
Taki began gathering up the souvenirs she sold, placing a bundle of woven friendship bracelets with vibrant patterns on top of the alpaca hand puppets and the larger textile handbags. She tucked the handbags at the bottom of her bundle, and decided she wouldn’t bring them out again today. Their intricate geometric patterns and vibrant colors represented the woven stories her ancestors had passed down to her, and the symbolism of each design weighed heavy in her heart. How could she explain to all these persnickety women tourists that the red zigzag of the bracelet weave represented the labyrinth at the Qenqo Temple, where the dead were embalmed and blood sacrifices performed in the holy chambers? All this would do is to send the nosier ones in search of the temple’s ruins. Taki would rather not reveal the secrets of its carved tunnels and sacrifices to anyone.
Sometimes Taki just pretended not to understand the tourists’ loud and slow-paced questions. “Caan yoouu tell me about the motif in this bright blue bag? Is this a real cocaaa baaag? Do yoouu still chew coca leaves? Caan I seee your teeeth? How much for the cocaaa baaag with the long red fringe? No, no, no, that’s tooo muuch.”
They always thought everything was too much. Money seemed to be the measure by which they judged everything. Taki could hear them as they walked around the plaza. “I booked this vacation online and used my points to upgrade my flight. Oh, and I also got a 30% discount on the hotel. I charged it all to my credit card, so I’ll have to work extra-long hours to pay it off. So far, this vacation isn’t worth all the money I spent, how about you?”
Taki wasn’t up to haggling today. She had to save her energy to deal with Koyam’s torrential storm of anger. Taki knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the gringas were talking about the odious Rodrigo.
She lugged her bundles deep into the colonial arcade surrounding the plaza. Thankfully, there weren’t that many tourists about today, so she didn’t have to worry about the police shooing her away. Anyway, Taki knew how to charm her way around these young cops—she’d known most of them since they were babies—and some of the police seemed almost proud of the elderly vendors, in awe of their defiant pride. Taki and Koyam always dressed with care in their traditional voluminous black skirts and rainbow-colored shawls, their decorated red hats worn at a jaunty angle. Whenever they encountered a bossy police officer, they pointed to the large rainbow flag waving in the plaza. Just as the rainbow’s colors represented the Inca Empire, Taki and Koyam were living relics who belonged in the plaza. End of conversation.
The door of the Internet café was open, as usual, and Taki peered in. The four gringas were still there. She plopped down on the ground, spreading out her bundles, and Koyam joined her. They rearranged their souvenirs, trying to hear what the four American women were saying.
At first all they heard was the clicking of the keyboards. Koyam sighed with impatience.
“Let them finish their online words,” Taki murmured. “Every day they have to chitchat with all their friends back in the United States, bragging about their travels. Once their friends log off, they’ll start their loud talking again.”
“Online? Log off? How do you know these things?”
“This is the way my great-grandchildren talk. You have to learn these things. Here, try this: If you agree with someone, instead of giving them a pat on the back or a nod of the head, you have to punch your fist to their fist. Come on, try it!” Taki held up her fist, laughing at the sight of Koyam’s horrified expression.
“The only thing I want to do with my fist,” said Koyam, “is to put a jagged rock in it and clobber Rodrigo.”
Taki sighed and shook her head.
“Throw the bitterness out of your heart,” she urged Koyam. “You always think the worst of people. You have to learn to take things in stride and—”
“I haven’t done it in sixty-eight years!” interrupted Koyam. “Why should I start now?”
“What do you mean, sixty-eight? We’re both seventy. Don’t tell me you’re going senile.”
“Shh!” hissed Koyam. Inside, Taki realized, the clatter of typing had stopped. “The gringas are talking again. What are they saying?”
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