Machu Picchu itself is reason enough to spend some time exploring Peru, but we had another more personal reason for some of our explorations in Cusco and Lima. Dad’s sister, Nancy Oaks, spent the summer before her senior year of high school in Peru for a cultural exchange. On August 9, 1970, the flight she was on from Cusco to Lima crashed just outside of Cusco shortly after takeoff killing all on board except for the co-pilot.
Growing up, I remember my family occasionally spoke of Nancy. While I imagine this was a profound tragedy in their lives, I also could appreciate that they had moved past her death, celebrated her life, and not allowed it to hold back their lives. For me, it’s always been a bit hard to grasp that had she lived, there would have been another sibling of Dad’s at our family gatherings and, likely, more cousins. As we planned our time in Peru, I knew this would be an opportunity to find a connection to a family member I was never able to meet.
We had three goals in this search for family connection. The first was to find the location of a photograph of Nancy while she was visiting Sacsayhuaman. Sacsayhuaman is a huge citadel in Cusco built by the Incas and known for the intricate interlocking stones that are typical of Inca construction. The rocks at Sacsayhuaman are huge and it’s incredible to think about what contruction of this place must have been like. In addition to being gigantic, each stone is also very unique. This made our search easier, but not quick, as the location of the rocks in Nancy’s picture was the last section of the site we looked at.
The second goal was to find the memorial to the victims of the 1970 crash. My parents had visited Cusco 10 years ago and found the memorial with help of the local police chief, who had been the first to the site of plane crash. In the years since they visited the memorial, it had been moved due to construction in the area. There was no real information on the internet about where it had been relocated and the one other account I could find of someone looking for and finding the memorial didn’t reveal much about the location. Embracing an adventure, we jumped on a local bus to the San Jeronimo area ready to use our limited Spanish to locate the memorial. With my parents success talking to the police, we tried the police station first. Unfortunately the person we spoke with didn’t know about it and suggested we go to the airport. Since she was our age, I realized we probably needed to find someone who was alive during the plane crash. After walking for a bit, we passed a man who looked over 45 and stopped and asked him. He knew of the crash and pointed us up the hill and said it was close to the square. We headed towards the square and found a man sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree. He too knew of the crash and pointed us further up the hill.
A few more people pointed us along our way until we found ourselves on a dirt road heading up the hill and in to a slightly more rural (ie. newly settled) area. There was a woman standing outside one of the houses and Danielle asked her “Hola! Estoy buscando para un memorial de accidente de avion. El accidente hace cuarenta-cinco anos.” She nodded that she knew of the crash and the memorial. It was up a bit further, but she said to wait and she would get her “padrino” since he would know more. A man came out with her and explained where the site was and after a minute suggested we jump in his truck and he would drive us. It was a very short drive, but we were thankful for their generosity and for the few minutes they talked about the crash. He stopped in front of one lot and we could see a stone cross in down a path next to a small house. Thanking them profusely, we waved good-bye and headed to look at the memorial.
The memorial stood in the corner of the lot, next to a small wood house. Chickens, guinea pigs, and cats roamed the yard where grass and weeds grew liberally. This was not a well manicured plot reserved for those coming to pay respects or to meditate on the past. There were no benches or stone paths or fish ponds. What we found was a memorial to a tragic memory nestled next to the home of a family who likely lives a challenging life. I’m always a bit curious about the way we spend so much time, energy, and money honoring and remember the past and often neglect to focus on those living. This was a stark reminder that in the midst of our search for a bit of family history we should not get lost in the past, but continue to live our lives loving and caring for those around us. Even in the midst of the bramble, animals, trash, and old gas pumps in the yard, there was still tenderness and respect as a light piece of linen was draped over the cross.
With two of our goals accomplished, we enjoyed the rest of our time in Cusco before flying to Lima. Our final goal was to connect with an family friend of my great-aunt Tilly, Dr. Rebecca Kunyoshi, who Nancy had stayed with before she headed to Cusco. My parents had received a Christmas card from her in December, but had not been able to get in contact with her to let her know we would be in the area. The address my parents had for her was only a few blocks from where we were staying in Lima, so I went over one afternoon and rang the doorbell. There was no answer, but the next morning Danielle and I strolled over and tried again. This time the door was answered and we met the woman who had hosted Nancy 45 years before. As she was not expecting us, we didn’t stay for long, but we did get to sit and chat for 15 minutes. It was a pretty amazing to spend time with someone who I’ve never met, but has long had a strong connection to my family.
It’s a unique enough adventure to go to Cusco and Lima, but even more so to be able to be there and have a feeling of connection to my family history. I’m so thankful for all of those that pointed us along our way to these special places.
Finding the Memorial
While I enjoyed the adventure of discovering the site of the memorial, I do think others may appreciate a bit of help in the exact location. The coordinates of the memorial are -13.538838, -71.879042 and these two maps may be helpful for those interested in where it is generally in Cusco.