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  • Writer's picturePru Warren

History? Or Current Events?!

Cuzco—8/30/22 @ 7:30pm

If you spend the day doing something rhythmic (riding a horse, sailing a boat, there are probably other examples) then just before you fall asleep you’ll feel like you’re doing that again. The motion gets to echoing in your brain and maybe it’s there for hours afterwards but it’s only when you relax and start to drift that you realize you’re still feeling the motion.

I seem to be on a combo of train and bus. And I’m not even almost falling asleep. (Well—I AM, but not intentionally!) Today was mostly a day of travel. Twig and I have discussed this: Lesson learned. If you’re going to multiple sites (even on a Lindblad trip) that require many days of nothing but travel, then you might wear out simply from living by a schedule. The Lindblad guides are extremely good at adding information and charm to long days when there is nothing in particular to point at, but after a while, you’re just waiting to get from here to there.

On the other hand—we were driving through the Andean highlands (at 13,000 feet! Thank God I was sitting lumpishly in a bus!) and we passed the kind of gas station that might have been a going concern OR might have been a nice place before the apocalypse; you know the place? And I had this burst of gratitude at all the thinking I didn’t have to do. Should I stop here? Would they try to sell me a llama? Would they try to sell me to someone else? What kind of gas does this car take, and on which side of the car? What’s the Qechua word for gas? Maybe I don’t need to stop here; how far until the next gas station, and can I get there without becoming stranded in a part of the world where simply getting out of the car would make me dizzy? Is there a Tiger Mart out back? Is there a toilet out back? Is the toilet all the out-back? OH MY GOD.

We drove past that place (which I’m sure was perfectly nice) in the space of a few seconds in our large and comfy Mercedes mini-buses AND I WAS HAPPY.

On the train ride back from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo (a word I’m not going to get tired of saying for a while) (And don’t forget to Spanish-up that double-ll; say Oyantaytambo, if you please), I was sitting opposite a couple who spoke Spanish. We’d exchanged limited pleasantries and I showed them when I saw something and they showed me when they saw something.

The woman pointed and I turned just in time; she’d spotted some cloud forest bird on the electrical wires running along the single tracks. It was green-ish blue with green-ish yellow. Was it a parrot, or did I only hope it was a parrot because that would have been a shape I could identify? Unknown. But she, her husband, and I were all thrilled with the sighting. It was a secret; a private glimpse of the cloud forest. We were past it before I could get Rusty or Twig’s attention. Mine and mine alone (of the English speakers in my quartet!). A little present!

I suppose I should have been bored by the view by then; we’d come along these tracks two days prior…but it’s hard to be all “same old, same old” when the view out the window fills the vision all the way up to the “Ventana de Emergencia” stenciling at the top. And then fills the skylights, too. Those mountains are so astonishingly huge.

And yet they were tamed.

I envision (as clearly as a movie) two guys standing on the small fringe of flatlands along the river. They both have their hands on their hips. The boss man turns to the other guy and says “I don’t know—what do you think?” And the other guy squints a little and frames the cliff in front of him and says “Yeah—I think six or eight terraces for farming and water retention. Shouldn’t be a problem.” And the boss smacks him on the shoulder. “You’re my guy, Tupac.”

(That hunk of grassy green over the river? That's terraces. Just sitting there, unheralded and amazing.)

Yes, Tupac is an Incan name. The Inka of all Incas (for thus was the emperor titles) was Inka Pachacuti. That’s not his ORIGINAL name, but it’s the name he became known by, because it meant the one who tamed the world. He was the one that set the massive, world-changing engineering projects into motion, and he was the one who did the major expansion of the Inkan empire. He was The Guy.

When he died, one of his sons became the Inka; that was Inka Tupac. (Pachacuti was the 9th Inka; Tupac was 10th, and the Spanish lopped off the head of number 14 after he paid his own ransom of an entire room filled with gold and two rooms filled with silver. Once they had the ransom, they killed him anyway. Those conquistadors were without honor, and the Incans, who valued honor, were not prepared.)

Where was I?

Right. Terracing hillsides. Yeshi the tour guide told Twig yesterday that although we could see two sets of terraces on the thirteen switchbacks down from Machu Picchu, in fact THE ENTIRE MOUNTAIN was terraced, but the ministry of culture won’t let the rest of the forest be cleared. So it’s just not that unusual to be rocking along on the train (or driving past gas stations in Mercedes buses) and pass evidence of Incan terracing. Not exactly all over the place, but DAYUM.

(I don't know if this VERY organized land was built on Incan terraces or if they just saw a good idea and used it; do we care? It's very cool.)

Once on the buses, we stopped briefly outside of Ollantaytambo (sing it with me!) to take a photo of a hotel at the top of a cliff. They’ve got three “capsules” fastened to the rock wall. Guests pay $500 a night to climb up the cliff and stay in the capsule with a view of the Milky Way at night. Then they can zipline down to ground. We all agreed; maybe NEXT time. Right. THAT'S likely.

Back in Cuzco, we got to our hotel at last. We’re in the old quarter—and when they say old…SHIT. THEY ARE NOT KIDDING. Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire (or as they called it, Cuzco was the navel of the world). In order to show their dominance, when the Spanish took Cuzco (by force; the only battle the Incans actually won, you’ll be glad to know, was at OLLANTAYTAMBO!!), they proved their authority by ripping down all the palaces of the nobility.

And there were a LOT of palaces, because the Incas believed that their emperors might be dead but that’s no reason not to honor them—so all Inkas were mummified. All their real estate holdings remained in the control of the mummies. All their households were active. And the mummies would vote in political matters, because each mummy had spokesmen who acted on behalf of that dead Inka. (And you thought US politics were tough!)

So the Spaniards had FOURTEEN royal palaces to raze. (Remember, they killed off the 14th Inka after dicking him on his ransom.) Plus various other nobility. Cuzco was wall-to-wall palaces, all of which had foundations of unparalleled Incan engineering. So the Spanish knocked stuff over, but it wasn’t easy to do. They left all the foundations and built stuff on top of the existing footings.

And the hotel I’m in RIGHT NOW has walls on the first floor from PACHACUTI’S PALACE. I mean—come on! How cool is that?? I’m assuming that I’m in the basement; Pachacuti himself probably never walked these halls. (And Pachacuti didn’t much walk as much as get carried around in palanquins.) But his household did! The upper floors didn’t survive the conquistatores, but the foundations are still rock-solid.

In fact, when an earthquake hit Cuzco about a hundred years after the Spanish declared themselves the moral and righteous leaders of the locals, ALL the Spanish buildings fell right down. What was left standing? The Inca buildings, which had been built to withstand earthquakes. But go on, Don Pedro. You keep telling yourself you’re in the right place.

We did an afternoon of touring in Cuzco. More time in the bus…but how could we NOT? (Well, Rusty didn’t go; he took a long nap in his luxurious room over the ruins of Pachacuti’s palace. But Twig and I went!) We started at Sacsayhuaman, which was a massive (MASSIVE temple complex on the hills over Cuzco, where there were temples to lightning, storms, and rain. The lightning was glorified with a trio of powerfully long walls, terraced one above the other above the other. From the air—if you were a condor, say (or a god)—the walls would look like a huge lightning bolt in the earth.

The stones were simply extraordinary. They were made of limestone which, we were told, is less dense than the granite used at Machu Picchu—so the workers could handle stones many times larger than themselves. Each stone was shaped to fit exactly up against the ones next to it, and symmetry was avoided, since it made damage from earthquakes less likely. And no mortar was used; that was sort of where the Spanish went wrong. Space between the stones would have shaken apart. These stones have stood this way through major earthquakes. They support each other. Plus, as we learned at our second stop, there’s some clever Lego action going on inside these stones.

(Twig and I don't look like we come from the same DNA, do we? But I love her madly; she's a fantastic travel companion, and a great sister!)

We drove into the city and toured the cathedral, which was wild. Yeshi told us a story I didn’t quite get. Somehow, they ended up building their cathedral between two other churches, with a Jesuit church on the adjacent face of the public square. It was a church cluster, and no one would give ground. So we went in one church, walked through to the cathedral (from the transept), and from there into the third church (also on the transept, but NOT quite parallel to the first church). It was damned odd.

Yeshi told us about why religious figures in Peru are fully clothed: It’s because the locals were okay with converting to Catholicism (since the Spanish were in the habit of torturing and then killing those who didn’t agree with them)…but they added their own touches. For example: They wanted all the religious figures to be richly dressed in robes that fanned out from the shoulders down; this was to represent the shape of the mountains that had once been their gods.

The crowns worn by the saints were fashioned into suns and moons. And local artists created what Yeshi calls “black Jesus” and “black Virgin Mary.” They painted Last Suppers in which the main dish on the table was guinea pig.

I asked Yeshi; she said there are special dry cleaners to keep the garments clean, and entire organizations to change the clothes. She didn’t know if they pulled a modesty curtain or not… Black Jesus, she said, has over TWO HUNDRED ROBES, which are kept in the Sacristy. He changes his outfits every Thursday, because he’s a fashion plate. And beloved.

Signs made it very clear that no photos were allowed, but I have risked hellfire and damnation for YOU, to show you one Christ crucified who, you will see, is definitely wearing a prom dress. Now I will go to hell. See you there?

Our last stop was the Temple of the Sun, contained entirely within a nunnery. Of course. For some reason that no one could explain, this was the one place the Spaniards didn’t strip to the ground before building their convent. There were entire temple rooms within the cloister of the nunnery, and the sun temple itself (which is an arched space in the outer wall where the sunlight would shine on a golden statue on the solstice. Or maybe the equinox. Whatever. It was astrologically significant.)

Also here were some of the stones that hadn’t yet been used, carved and displayed to show how the stones fit together. Lego. How cool is that? No mortar needed. The Spanish never even came close.

Exhaustion had set in, but we had an hour and a half before the mandatory covid testing at 7pm at the hotel, so Twig and I set off through the city to find the “Gato Market,” which sells all things Peruvian. Twig wanted some salt; we’d seen a salt mine glistening in the sun as we drove through the highlands. Ooh, I’ll buy some for Rusty, too! Then we found slabs of chocolate, which are (a) great gifts and (b) excellent noshing if I can’t resist before people get gifts. I bought a jag of ‘em, son. And had to wait a grueling five…seven…ten minutes while the charming little girl at the cash register tried to figure out how much the salt was. By the time she found the answer, I could have been paying a king’s ransom; I would have handed over my credit card just to get out of there.

(In fact, the whole bill, including many bars of chocolate, was only $25 total, so worth the wait!)

Back at the hotel, I detoured into the swank gift shop and got two llamas for my friend Robin (don’t tell her if you see her), who asked for a llama. (Or maybe they’re alpacas. Yeah. That’s probably right.) Most of the houses in the highlands have two small bulls on their rooflines, with a cross between them. I asked Yeshi about it. She said before the Spanish, highlanders decorated their rooflines either with two llamas or two pumas as symbols of prosperity and protection. Once the Spanish came and introduced cows, the roof decorations became bulls, and the cross was added. I’m returning to the Pachacuti tradition; two llamas, thank you!

I also bought myself a stunning scarf, supple and sleek, of 70% baby alpaca and 30% silk, in shades from cream through lemon to orange sherbet. I’d show you but it’s so lovingly wrapped up that I can’t bear to haul it out.

Then we had covid tests. Rusty, Twig, and I went to our respective rooms where we ordered room service and grinned at the glorious bed in our posh Pachacuti guest rooms. Tomorrow we have to have checked luggage outside our doors by 6:30 (yes, in the damned morning). I’m hoping to meet Rusty and Twig for breakfast at 6:45, and we leave for the airport at 7:30. Tomorrow is another day of travel; we fly from Cuzco to Lima and from Lima to Iquitos, where we take a bus (another bus!) to the town where we pick up the Delphin II, the river boat that will float us down the Amazon for three days.

You know what they have in abundance in the Amazon? OXYGEN!! No more gasping! No more dizziness! One assumes not an overabundance of stairs! I AM SO THERE!

And now? Bedtime. Smooches, darling!

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