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Sep 1994


Notes from Cuzco


The Heart of the Inca World, Peru

(This article was published in Destination Elsewhere, March 2005.)

It was six a.m. when the AeroPeru jet arrived in Lima. The night had seemed real long partly because an elderly senora let her head collapse on my shoulder every few minutes. She had earlier told me, almost apologetically, that Lima was not for tourists anymore, that it had lost its former charm, that it was now truly Lima la horrible. She then warily inquired whether Nueva Delhi was better or worse. I told her it was much the same which seemed to infuse her with a warm feeling for me, a silent solidarity of sorts. It not only encouraged her to unleash motherly advice on how to tackle Lima but just before disembarking she insisted that I take a small bottle of homemade Peruvian Chili sauce as a gift. Not a bad start, I thought.

Waiting for the connecting flight to Cuzco, I wandered in and around the terminal. It was a dull gray morning, typical of season. Billboards across the parking lot advertised Inca cola, insurance plans, banks, beach resorts, and detergents. Beyond them lay the city and its people, vividly depicted by the Dutch filmmaker Honigmann in her recent movie on the Peruvian love-hate with their temperamental automobiles—Metal and Melancholy. I opened my mouth and breathed in deep, attempting to verify what I had read: one can taste the air in Lima. But the foul lingering taste of airline bacon and black coffee camouflaged all others.

The flight to Cuzco went over snow-capped peaks of the Peruvian Andes. A restless kid next to me, perhaps eight or nine years of age, drank copious amounts of Inca Cola and with his toy camera kept leaning over to shoot pictures through the scratched oval window. In ninety minutes we were at Cuzco. From the air, the town appeared cozy and inviting—orange-brown shingled rooftops snuggled up close in this once remote high valley of the Andes. Outside the airport I hopped on a cab and left for the city center, the Plaza de Armas. Along Avenida del Sol, the chief artery of the city, the driver picked up a friend, a travel agent of sorts. 'Ah, de la India,' he said, praising my meager Spanish language skills. Getting quickly to the point, he pulled out a crinkled brochure and pointing to several pictures offered to set up a day-long tour of the Urubamba valley, departing an hour later. I decided to go for it.


I found a cheap hotel on the main plaza, right across the impressive sixteenth century cathedral. The Sunday morning sun still cast long shadows through the vanishing fog. A handful of elderly Indian men occupied the benches, elderly women with importunate eyes sat behind heaps of alpaca-wool sweaters, some boys and girls went about selling trinkets to any tourist they could find. Spanish style balconies, built upon Inca stone foundations, peered over cobblestone streets. Cuzco's high altitude made me mildly dizzy and my nose began to trickle blood.

The tour van left Cuzco with ten people. It paused often on the narrow mountainous route to peer at Inca terrace farms or some other nice vista of the valleys—all tourist cameras would swing into action. Our first destination, an Indian crafts market in the village of Pisac and a prominent stop on the local tourist circuit, was a small conglomeration of orange-pink adobe huts, nestled in the valley of a minor tributary of the Urubamba river. The Indians of this area depend on outsiders for much of their income. Many still shield their children, turgid bellies and runny noses, from cameras believed to strip them of their soul.        

The village center was awash with color—multi-layered, multi-patterned Indian ponchos, panpipes, gaudy quilts, and countless trinkets. It was Sunday and an evening of ritual celebration lay ahead of the Indians. After spending an hour through the narrow alleys, the local vegetable and meat markets, we returned to the van. We stopped for lunch at an open air restaurant where I started talking to an attractive woman from Spain, perhaps in her late-thirties and who with her high energy, outrageous humor and joie de vivre reminded me of the women in Almodovar movies. She had worked for two years at a construction site in Colombia and was soon leaving for Ecuador to begin work on an offshore oilrig. After a bit of small talk she began philosophizing about men in her deep husky voice. She told me of her father's curious advice to her—date a Latino but marry an American. She had modified that a bit and was now dating two men, she said with a wink: a Colombian and an American, but she still liked to travel alone.

Our next stop was Ollantaytambo—the ruins of an Inca temple on top of a hill, presumed a fortress by the Conquistadores —Pizzaro and his men lost a major battle here but returned later with reinforcements for a decisive victory. The steep terraces below the fortress are both spectacular and a natural defense. When the guide began his canned speech on the glories of its past inhabitants, their myths and legends, I slipped out to explore on my own.

On the way back, an unusually reticent German, Klaus, sat next to me. He appeared to be in his early thirties but beneath the bushy black beard, he had the grave expression of a defeated old man, not placid, not quite disturbed either, almost numb. He was traveling through Peru on his way to meet his ten-year-old foster child in a small Bolivian town. A bit of small talk revealed that four years ago he had crossed the Sahara in a jeep. I inquired if he'd made plans for dinner. Getting off on the main plaza in Cuzco, we walked along a side-street looking for a restaurant.

It was soon apparent that Klaus was nursing emotional wounds, the kind afflicted by relationships gone sour. A couple of beers and he let go of his emotions like a fragile embankment in times of flood. Mucho pain y remorse. His girlfriend of nine years had left him for one of his friends. It was partly his fault; he should have seen it coming; he could have prepared himself. He loved her dearly and planned to marry her. It was hard to find someone like her again. Even his work had suffered since. I listened, feeling like an ambler who suddenly finds himself in a No Trespassing zone. It is perhaps easier to offload such matters on total strangers far from home. He became mellow many beers later and before parting even gave me a warm hug on the main square. I hurried back to my hotel and slipped into bed. A light outside the frosted glass window kept me awake until I covered the window with a towel; soon, I passed into deep untroubled sleep.


The Machu Picchu train was scheduled to leave Cuzco at 6:20 a.m. I got up at five and was on a window seat at six in the second-class compartment. The station was crowded with travelers and with vendors selling coffee, omelets, sugar coated nuts, meat pies, and warm soda. The train began rather reluctantly and went through several poverty-ridden Indian settlements of greater Cuzco. The Indians here depend largely on subsistence farming and small crafts, and lead cramped lives, neglected and persecuted for centuries by 'upper-class' Peruvians of coastal cities, closer in blood and culture to Madrid. Their gods too slowly faded from memory as the bony, bloodied, and benevolent savior-on-the-cross acquired new followers. Their dwellings were stark: tin roofs held in place by stones and metallic waste. Across from me sat a local woman dressed in rags, an infant in her lap suckling milk from a yellow-green stained bottle.  

The train plodded along for almost four hours and 110 Km to Puenta Ruinas, the station nearest Machu Picchu. The landscape, gentle rolling hills at first, became a sinuous valley along the Urubamba river, suspended between high and vertical mountain walls. Farmhouses would occasionally appear in small clearings, chickens and sheep indicating habitation. The train stopped at larger villages, the locals would hop in and out with their assorted belongings—sacks of fresh produce, oil canisters and other supplies.

A few buses waited for the tourists at Puenta Ruinas. They went up an unpaved six-kilometer path, winding along the steep mountainside. The lost city of the Incas was slowly revealed, the ruins spread out on the top like a decomposed carcass of a giant guanaco. This was once the exclusive abode of the Inca nobility and priests. The train in the valley below became smaller and smaller, a baby serpent caught in a brief encounter with the sun. It was hard to comprehend why such an isolated site was chosen for this settlement—the flattish top of a steep mountain, surrounded by deep green valleys and then more mountains—a mysterious, disquieting place. Eastwards, inside the inhospitable Amazon rainforest, more spectacular ruins, as yet unexcavated, are believed to exist. Terrace farming supplied food to this community of one thousand elite who lived by the solar calendar for centuries, until the Spaniards ended it all. The Inca civilization of twelve million people, built upon formidable organizing prowess and administrative efficiency, which extended from Colombia to northern Chile and which achieved the rare and enviable feat of providing sustenance to all its members, succumbed to the craft and cunning of 180 semi-literate Spanish swordsmen with a reputation for savagery and love of gold. Hard to comprehend? The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has offered an explanation, 

Are the conquistadores' firearms, horse, and armor enough to explain the immediate collapse of the Inca civilization ...? It is true that gunpowder, bullets and the charging of beasts that were unknown to them, paralyzed the Indians with a religious terror ... Even so, the numerical difference was such that the Quechua ocean would [only] have had to shake, in order to drown the invader. What prevented this from happening? What is the profound explanation for that defeat from which the Inca population never recovered? The answer may perhaps lie hidden in the moving account that appears in the chronicles of what happened in the Cajamarca square the day Pizzaro captured the Inca [emperor] ... 

The vertical and totalitarian structure [of the Inca empire] was, without doubt, more harmful to its survival than all the conquistadores' firearms and iron weapons. As soon as the Inca [emperor], that figure which was the vortex towards which all wills converged searching for inspiration and vitality, the axis around which the entire society was organized and upon which depended the life and death of every person—form the richest to the poorest—was captured, no one knew how to act. So they did the only thing they could do, with heroism, we must admit, but without breaking the thousand and one taboos and precepts which regulated their existence: they let themselves get killed. And that was the fate of the dozens and perhaps hundreds of Indians stultified by the confusion and loss of leadership that they suffered when the Inca Emperor, the life force of their universe, was captured right before their eyes.

Those Indians ... lacked the ability to make their own decisions ... incapable of taking individual initiatives, of acting with a certain degree of independence according to the changing circumstances. It was this difference ... that created the immense inequality between [the two clashing] civilizations. The individual had no importance and virtually no existence in the pyramidal and theocratic Inca society, the achievements of which had always been collective and anonymous ... state religion that ... turned the Inca into a beehive: laborious, efficient, stoic. But its immense power was in fact very fragile; it rested completely on the sovereign-god's shoulders, the man whom the Indian had to serve and to whom he owed a total and selfless obedience ... assuming an attitude of passivity and absolute respect ... the ideal citizen.

Such a civilization was capable of fighting against the natural elements ... of consuming rationally what it produced, heaping together reserves for future times of poverty and disaster ... and able to evolve slowly and with care in the field of knowledge, inventing only that which could support it and hindering all that which in some way or another could undermine its foundations ... It was not capable, however, of facing the unexpected ... When, after the initial confusion, resistance attempts started breaking out here and there, it was too late. The complicated machinery regulating the empire had entered a process of decomposition. 

[Infighting over succession led to civil war between competing factions: the Indians, unclear about their collective interests fought all but the invader. Non-Inca Indians with a grudge against their Inca masters began to collaborate with the Spaniards. In a couple of decades, European diseases like smallpox, measles, flu and typhoid—to which they had evolved no resistance—literally decimated the Inca population.] 

The first prominent European to have exposed the subsequent oppression and enslavement of the Indian by the European in the name of God, King and Natural Reason was the Dominican missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas. His lifelong activism against the injustices of his countrymen in the 'new world' is documented in his monumental Historia de las Indias which he wanted published "only after forty years have passed, so that, if God determines to destroy Spain, it may be seen that it is because of the destruction that we have wrought in the Indies and His just reason for it may be clearly evident." Later, when he was the bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala, he issued his famous Confesionario in which he forbade absolution to be given to those who held Indians in encomienda (serfdom).   

I spent a couple hours wandering around the sprawling ruins: the Sacristy, ceremonial baths, bedchambers, courthouses, the Intihuatana—'hitching of the sun' in Quechua—a carved rock pillar used to determine time of the year, and observation decks for the heavens above. After a quick lunch at the expensive cafeteria onsite, I took the bus down to the train. The compartment was packed when I got in and for the next four hours, I hung on to the rails, fighting the urge to collapse on the floor. Cold beer with the menu del dia  in a Cuzco restaurant, and I was hallucinating of cozy beds and warm bodies.


The next day I got out early and settled on a bench in the main plaza. Hundreds of pigeons had descended in a feeding frenzy from the cool trappings of the cathedral walls—one group around a baffled toddler, proud mother in tow with breadcrumbs. Souvenir shops, provision stores, travel agencies, and restaurants were beginning a new day. Several kids accosted me, some threatening to burst into tears, as they implored me to buy something from them. Luisa, a frail twelve year old, was selling picture postcards. Visibly pleased when I bought four postcards for two Soles, she sat next to me and started talking. She had four brothers and two sisters. Her parents had died when she was four—now she lived with relatives. She went to school three days a week. While she was talking another girl approached me. Flashing her big black eyes, she unleashed a mighty emotional sales pitch that soon turned me into a proud owner of a crude necklace. When she left Luisa told me that I had paid too much, the necklace was really worth much less. I smiled and asked her about the postcards. She insisted that two Soles was the fair price but she couldn't hide her innocent-mischievous smile as she began fiddling with her long braid, legs crossed and swinging. 

Wandering around, I noticed a restaurant—Govinda. Run by ISKCON, it appeared rather incongruous with its brand of austere, Eastern vegetarianism in this former Inca capital. Boys and girls in tidy uniforms—blue pants and skirts, white shirts and blouses—walked to the local school. Within minutes the school bells broke into a resonant chime. Taxis—yellow Volkswagen Beetles—went around with a muffled hum. A staccato of pleas arose from the busier pavements littered with handicrafts. Expressions of changing needs—home appliances, electronic gadgets, and cosmetics, were visible in many stores. A rusty metal board, nailed into a crack in the stone wall of Inca times outside a dark cavernous doorway had this announcement:  Aqui—Nintendo—Aqui.

The main cathedral attracted a steady stream of visitors all day. Built by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, it had since acquired significant Inca influences—Jesus on the cross, bleeding profusely, looked like a benevolent, troubled Indian; the fairies were Indian, the wood carvings had serpents and pumas. There was also an Inca version of The Last Supper: an Indian-looking Jesus with disciples drank Chicha, a local corn brew, with Cuy—roast guinea pig, feet, snout and tail attached, tummy side up—an Inca delicacy.

It was mid-afternoon by now. A watchful nanny led school children across the streets in a single file. I decided to hop on a tour to a few archaeological sites around Cuzco. One of these was Sacsayhuaman—'satisfied falcon' in Quechua—on a hill overlooking the valley of Cuzco. The scale of this site, made of large stone blocks, each cut with precision to closely fit other curves and edges, was astonishing. The guide, a short elderly bespectacled man who spoke little English, bashfully referred to it as Sexy Woman and appeared extremely tickled by it. What amused me more was the thought that tour guides here probably cracked this joke all the time yet tried to sound spontaneous and original. With some help from the guide and a generous stretch of the imagination, piecing together avenues and plazas, I could discern the outline of a puma in the Inca plan of the city. Nearby, a giant majestic condor with claws tightly clasped in metal wires flapped its wide wings helplessly in an effort to fly, a gleeful family of four posing beside it, many others waiting their turn.

On the way back I ran into Lisa, a thirty-something from Laredo, Texas. She was plump, lively, and loquacious, given to raucous bursts of laughter, often at her own jokes. She was traveling with another woman, taken ill that morning in her hotel, from Quito to Cuzco. She was going to an Indian dance that evening and invited me to come along. I had time to kill so I went. It turned out to be a show for tourists but nevertheless an energetic fusion of flamenco and Inca traditions.

I suggested a restaurant for dinner. Earlier that day I had noticed Cuy on its menu. We ordered a round of beer and started talking about her life and work in Laredo. She worked in the state department of health care for migrant workers. She was surprised that I had been to Laredo, a nondescript border town with an unfinished, unsettled look, not the clichéd melting pot where people acquired new identities but rather reinforced there own. She told me about her family in Wisconsin and her difficult father who wanted her to forget about college and refused to pay for it. She took a loan, went to college and on an exchange program visited Mexico, where she fell in love with a local restaurateur. When they considered marriage, her father, devastated by the prospect, disowned her. Finally, the thought of living in Mexico didn't appeal to her and she came back. That was eight years ago but still seemed fresh, a vivid recurring dream, perhaps because she was still looking for Mr. Right. Her body clock was ticking and it worried her. She was pensive now, troubled by those years of loneliness. The Lisa Theory maybe true after all, she said, forcing a laugh. Over the years, her father had mellowed a bit but still thought it was she who brought him his gray hair. 

My main course looked exactly like what I had seen on the plate before Jesus that morning. Lisa turned queasy, and when she realized what it was, became agitated. Had I absolutely no regard for animal rights? Had I not gone beyond the furthest limits of gustatory adventure? I weakly protested that if it was okay for Jesus it sure was okay for me, but to no avail. I succeeded in changing the topic only after she'd completed her diatribe and taken a picture of me dissecting my food. I wondered what she'd do with it and politely laid claim to a portion of the royalties. By then she'd lost all appetite for her broiled trout. Overcome by a vague sense of guilt and a nameless discontent with the texture of my meal, I made synthetic conversation for the rest of the evening. I was flying to Arequipa next morning and soon it was time to return to the hotel.

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