, , , ,

It’s always instructive to leave what is familiar and visit what is only partially so. The lens of vision shifts. What is important in one place is peripheral or even unknown in the other. The spine of tradition, custom and expectation is not the same. So visiting Peru has been for us. Even what we expected turns out to have been based on U.S. colors and language.

Once here, Machu Picchu, for example turns out to be something other than we had thought. While as throat-catching as many had described, it turns out to be just a small part of a much larger story; the stone work there paling compared to similar sites at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Saksaywaman and other places. Some are extensions of active, bustling towns, others are in remote, archeological areas. There is so much stone work, of such unbelievable proportion and fineness of work that the mind labors to grasp it — as it does to understand infinity, or the numbers of stars. Except for Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain” in Quechua, none of the quarries were near the installation sites. The distance from the quarry to Ollantytambo was some 10 km, and came to be known as the “river of blood” for the bodies mangled in getting the stones up and down the ramped trail.

All of the sites with the fitted stone work were places of high importance, such as summer/winter solstice holy sites, or palaces built for the Incas or other places of worship. (Inca means King, so to use it for a whole people –the Quechua– is a very odd, historical error.)

And of course, while some modern Peruvians know of, and are proud of, the work of their ancestors, most live in the world of the everyday, going to school, buying and selling, driving modern vehicles, farming, herding and all the work of a culture which spans from ox-pulled-plows to internet cafes.

The second day we were in Cuzco –which for Quechua proud people is actually “Cosco,” as we were told within minutes of arrival, “the core of the world;” more than the “navel” as some would have it, but the vital center — the Transportation Union strike which took place all over Peru, closed down all truck, bus and taxi services. While our guide tried to walk us through the aptly named Church of the Triumph [over the Quechua] an enormous rally was held outside on the broad steps leading to the also aptly named main square — Armed Plaza.

School was out. No internal combustion creatures in the streets made them safe and pleasant for walking. The strikers, although striking for wages and safety, carried signs against the sale of natural resources and despoliation of the environment.

We weren’t able to completely escape the frenzy of Michael Jackson’s memorial. Even Peruvians pay attention to that. Bars in the area around Cusco’s main square play hip-hop, loud and late — some of it in Spanish. Euromerican trash hang out late into the evening disturbing those who live there, wearing bits of Quechua apparel, which does nothing to disguise their essential tourist being. It’s impossible to walk through the area without being approached a dozen times to buy hats, finger puppets, photo opportunities with native dressed women and baby alpacas. And why not? The wage of a primary school teacher is something like $25 a day; for the porters on the Inca trail carrying 50 pound loads, earn $15. A meal for two in a regular-folks place is about $8. Even the poverty proud German and American backpackers are millionaires in comparison.

We were lucky to have a guide as knowledgeable as he was Quechuan proud. Quechua was his first language and he laughed and teased with vendors and artesans he introduced us to. From weavers to makers of corn-beer, he knew them intimately and observed the proper customs, pouring a bit of beer on the floor and asking Mamapacha, the mother earth of the Quechua, for her blessings before drinking. We learned of the fine placement of enormous stone to catch the first rays of the sun at winter (June) and summer (December) solstice. He showed us shadows cast by knobs and outcroppings of stone to represent the Condor, representative of the upper world, the Puma of the middle world — of humans and animals– and the serpent of the lower world representing wisdom.

And without rage but with strong feeling he spoke of the Spaniards and all they had destroyed — carrying away stone from important sun shrines of the defeated Quechua to build the first church — Iglesia del Triunfo– and the main Cathedral, placing sectors of it over other important native holy places.


There has been a notable revival of Quechua life and pride throughout the region. Streets have been renamed from Spanish to Quechua, often reaching back to the known past to find names appropriate to plazas and streets from the days before the conquest. A flag, said to be from the time of the great Inca imperial expansion in the 1400s, is seen from many balconies and public places.

Memorials have been erected in public places.

To the 500 Years of Honor and Glory and the anonymous victims of the invasion and the heroes of the Andean Resistance — And they Will Not Kill Us

So far there has not been a wholesale revival of the Quechua language in the schools as the Basques have managed to do in northern Spain.

Along with the renaming and deeper knowledge of life before the Spaniards, a strong effort is underway to save and pass on the traditional spinning and weaving arts. As elsewhere in the world, the lure of modernity’s bright colors and loud music is strong on the young. The work hardened hands and earth encrusted feet of their parents make the big cities and the world beyond seem like escapes to comfort and security, and so they go. Some come back though with other news and create new courses in the Universities about the pride of old culture, and start nonprofits to train and give accounting to the greater world of the wonders of the native arts.

We were treated to a demonstration of how llama and alpaca wool is washed in plant-soap and died in colors from stem created blues to cochineal (a parasitic bug on prickly pear cactus) red. The spinning spindles are in many hands any time there is a spare moment, waiting for a bus, watching a baby, herding the family alpaca.

There is much to be done along these lines. Machu Picchu itself is believed to be only 30% excavated. Old animosities remain within the country and between Peru and its neighbors. Modernity sings its guileful song. We have been very impressed with all the folks we’ve met, in stores, or sitting on park benches, out in the country or in the city. I’m not sure I’ve ever met so many people with such sweet dispositions, marked in their sense of good treatment of others, and tireless in their work, whatever it is.

Our guide, Lucio, returned the favor. His preferred clients are North Americans, Brazilians and Mexicans — all interested, well mannered and educated, he said. Those he wouldn’t accept, after many bad experiences, were Israelis — decompressing after military service, in bars and looking for drugs and sex — and Argentines — who he claimed never to have met one who treated him with respect.

So, with this, we head to the Amazons for 4 days of river and jungle life, hoping to up our bird count and pass my best friend Bob!