Heads of the household

“This,” Hernan says proudly, “is the room where I was born.”

Well, not quite. He is one room off, as his aunt quickly informs him. But it is clear how proud he is of his origins.

Hernan has brought us to his aunt’s block-long home in Urubamba to show us where he came from and to give us a glimpse into daily life.

The house is a series of rooms that surround a large courtyard, big enough to embrace corn, animals, herbs, tomoatoes, patio and a German shepherd cross named Lobo. Since Hernan’s uncle died, there’s been no one to maintain the gardens, and several of the rooms have been rented out. Hernan moved out when he was still a child. But his aunt still operates a small store in one corner of the house, complete with a pack of dogs who peer out through the wrought iron gate and yap at anyone who happens by.

We walk through musty room after musty room, my grandmother’s house pops into my mind. Each closed-up room is a trove of old photos and memories, and I recall as a child wandering into the unused rooms at grandma’s to explore the past much as Hernan is doing today.

The home’s main entrance is a heavy wood door with an imposing padlock on it, and behind that is a second doorway that spills out into the courtyard. Above this second doorway perches a shelf where several skulls rest, along with offerings of fresh flowers, chicha corn beer and other votives. Hernan’s ancestors rest here, guarding the household against trouble.

“Too bad Wes doesn’t have this,” Hernan says, implying that ancestral skulls might have protected Wes’ home from the break-in it suffered while he’s been in Peru.

I flash on this for a moment, and it’s immediately clear folks in the U.S. would be completely creeped out at the prospect of having their ancestors’ skulls on a shelf in their homes. But the Peruvians’ attitude toward the deceased is similar to what I’ve seen during my travels in Mexico, and in some ways it’s a healthier way to come to terms with mortality. It’s omnipresent. Ever possible. Not something that’s relegated to a cemetery and thought of only once a year when you arrive with flowers to remember the dead.

“One day, my skull might be up there,” Hernan says, pointing to the shelf with a smile that doesn’t quite reveal if his statement is jest or a benign acceptance of the inevitable.