Last summer I spent an expanding and enlightening week wandering in Peru's Sacred Valley. The highlights were almost too numerous to mention—the resonant ruins of Machu Picchu, of course, plus other soul-stirring sites such as Ollantaytambo, Moray, Pisaq, Tipon and Pikillacta; the amazingly varied and delicious cuisine; the uniformly hospitable people; the intricate textiles, transporting music and other cultural and artistic riches; ancient and cosmopolitan Cusco.
But one completely unexpected highlight was a chance to experience firsthand - literally - the fine art of making roof tiles.
On the next to last day of my journey, after exploring as far as Racchi, halfway to Lake Titicaca, we were returning along the road to Cusco. On the way we approached a site I had expressed interest in earlier in the day—a roadside area where a team of workers was making roof tiles; that morning we had seen the tiles arranged in semi-circular columns by the side of the road.
Throughout the Sacred Valley I had been expressing admiration for the mud-brick and roof-tile houses that we saw everywhere, and as we passed the site, my guide Manuel turned to me, ''Do you want to see how roof tiles are made?"
Of course, I said.
OK, he said with a grin, then instructed our driver to make a U-turn. Suddenly we veered off the main road onto a dusty driveway. We bumped past a one-story mud-brick house and a startled grandmother sitting on its porch, then rolled to a dusty stop at the edge of the tile-maker's lot.
Manuel and I descended from our van and walked over to the work crew, under their bemused stares.
''Hello!'' Manuel said. ''My friend here would like to learn how roof tiles are built. Would you mind showing us?"
''With pleasure,'' said a strong, compact man in a white baseball cap, orange shirt, and mud-spattered apron. He approached us with a big smile, and when I extended my hand to shake his, shyly indicated his own mud-lined hands. He didn't want to dirty my pristine palms.
He explained to Manuel, who translated to me, how roof tiles are made. First you get clay from the local quarry and heap it in a big pile to dry in the sun. Once it is completely dry, you wet it thoroughly with water and then mix sand with the clay, so that the mixture is about 30 percent sand. You have to check this mixture very carefully, the foreman said, to make sure that there are no bubbles because bubbles will cause cracks later.
Then you leave the clay mixture to dry in the sun and the shade for two days. After that, you cover it with a plastic tarp and dry it for one more day.
''That's the clay you see here,'' the foreman said, pointing to a muddy mound under a sky-blue tarp. ''This is the material we use to make the roof tiles.'' Then he looked at me and grinned, ''Do you want to try?"
I looked at Manuel, who smiled at me. ''Why not?" I said.
The three workers broke into broad grins and one lifted off his own mud-layered apron and handed it to the foreman, who gingerly draped it over my neck and tied it behind me.
Then we went to work.
First, under his careful direction, I scooped a big handful of clay from the slick mound under the tarp. Placing that handful on the dirt ground just in front of the mound, I kneaded it into a sausage shape. Then I transferred this mud-sausage to a rectangular metal mold roughly 6 inches by 10 inches, with sides about a half-inch high.
I placed the sausage at the end of the mold closest to me and then began to spread the clay the length of the mold. The foreman showed me how to work my hands along the clay, almost as if I were massaging it, making sure that it filled every crack, crevice and corner entirely.
By this time, five kids ages 4 to 14 had come to watch the show. We all inspected my work to make sure that I had filled the mold evenly and uniformly, with no air bubbles anywhere. Finally the foreman gave a smiling thumbs-up. Then he told me to take a thin, smooth piece of wood, about three inches by eight inches, from a pail of water. I slowly slid this piece the length of the clay, skimming off any excess, to make sure the surface was absolutely smooth.
Next I carefully lifted the molded clay out of the mold and placed it onto another mold curved in the shape of a semi-circle. I left it there for a few minutes, just enough time for it to assume the curved shape of a finished roof tile. Then I slid it off the curved mold and carefully carried it — trailed by the ever-growing gaggle of kids — to an area where hundreds of roof tiles were laid in neat rows, drying in the sun. With a little flourish, I placed mine at the end of the closest row, then posed with it, surrounded by the giggling kids and smiling workers.
As Manuel and I went to leave, we thanked them all profusely, especially the foreman, who had so graciously and generously interrupted his day to teach a stranger his everyday art.
I extended my now mud-caked palm. He looked at it and then at me, and clasped my hand into his own.
This essay, originally published in the October 2010 edition of Recce: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler, was awarded a Society of American Travel Writers prize in the 2011 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism competition.
Don George is Editor of Recce: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.