The International Writers Magazine: PERU
Colors of Cusco
Eric D. Lehman
Funerary Masks Representing Jaguars Tumbaga
(Pre-Columbian Gold) Moche Period (100 to 600 A.D.)
Diameter: 10 - 12 cm Stolen from the Sipan archaeological region,
a short plane ride skimming the tops of clouds over the green
peaks of the Andes, we level out at eleven thousand feet, not
far above the valley of Cusco, Peru.
The city fills the broken brown bowl, slums crawling up the hillsides,
gangrene caused by the scar of the airport landing strip. We land
shakily on the new tarmac and I finally get a proper view of the
mountains, which look like some god grabbed the highlands of Scotland
and stretched them to tremendous size.
We had touched down
in the sprawling metropolis of Lima the previous night and had been
allowed a few short hours of rest at a hotel on the back streets near
the airport. Dogs barked incessantly and I thought I heard gunshots
far off. The dirty streets were still empty when they dragged us out
of bed, but now the surprisingly clean and well-kept Cusco teems with
life, so much I dont know where to look first.
My friend Johann and I are whisked by the tour company to the hotel
QArmenQA, where no one speaks English. I use my broken Spanish,
though many people we meet dont even speak that tongue, only Quechua,
the native language. I make do with gestures and guesswork, while Johann
shrugs and laughs. In the comfortable, clean room, we fall immediately
asleep until noon. After showers, repacking, and BBC World News, we
tumble downstairs to meet our tour group for the day.
The bus wheels sluggishly around Cusco as it picks up tourists at various
hotels. While we wait, the red and green townsfolk try to sell us ponchos,
water, little knickknacks, everything but their children. Some young
girls are selling lambs, or possibly pictures of themselves with the
lambs, or possibly their entire farms, we cant be sure. At the
first site I do buy something film. I forgot to load the camera
and I need it, because the town of Cusco is colorful and beautiful,
packed with tiny squares full of statues, art, and fountains. Bright
signs shout noisily and hidden courtyards peek out shyly as the bus
labors over the cobblestones. Modern-dressed folk and villagers in traditional
highland garb mingle on the sidewalks and in the market squares. Americans
and Europeans slurp coca tea at cafés, enjoying this yellow beverage
made from coca leaves, illegal in their homelands but available here,
a constant reminder of the worlds multiplicity.
The first site the bus actually stops at is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo,
which was built directly on top of an Inca Temple of the Sun. The earthquake
in 1950 freed much of the Inca stonework and with foresight the people
left it that way. The stonework itself is very impressive, but the church
is merely mediocre and Johann and I talk with the guide about the current
feelings toward both the Spanish and the Inca Empire. No conclusions
are reached, and the guide remains carefully neutral.
By the time we leave the Iglesia the January rains have begun in earnest.
The huge cathedral on the Plaze de Armas is next. The main cathedral
is flanked by two smaller churches, all packed with the gaudiest, brightest,
and most intricate set of statues I have ever seen. Most of them take
the form of Mary and Jesus in various poses. It is under construction,
however, and we cant get a full sense of its splendor. To aggravate
this feeling, we are rushed through by the guide, due to too much time
picking up the slackers earlier. I mention this to Johann, separating
us from the other sightseers, and he wryly points out our similarities
We are really in Peru to see the Inca ruins, which are next on the itinerary.
The brave tour bus struggles up the mountains surrounding Cusco to the
ancient stronghold of Sasayhuaman. The blocks of stone in the immense
walls are gigantic, some topping out at three hundred tons, much larger
than the ones used to build the pyramids of Egypt. It begins to rain
harder and we put on brightly-colored ponchos, matching the hundreds
of other tourists in this rainbow garb. Johann and I try to study the
amazing stone fittings, but are again rushed through the ruins, breathing
hard in the thin air. But we escape briefly to slip up a stairwell and
get a more panoramic view, which is unfortunately dulled by the thickening
gray rain. Below on the muddy field, groups of ponchos hop over puddles
and make a muffled din, looking suspiciously like a plague of frogs.
The bus stops at a local shop, where some of the turistas buy alpaca
wool. Johann and I sit down in the snack bar and sample the shops
coca tea, savoring the way it reduces altitude sickness, opening our
breathing passages. Already we have become used to the bitter vegetable
flavor that assailed our taste buds when we first were handed the drink,
at Lima International Airport immediately on arrival. Johann notes that
were probably already addicted. The guide calls us outside and
notes with relief that the rain has stopped.
The road to the Inca water shrine of Tambomachay ends in an alcove of
wet green hills. Dozens of tour buses crowd the tiny lanes built for
llamas and are instantly surrounded by Quechua women and children selling
hot corn. Our guide tells us that they live in caves up on the mountainside
and I can see more of them working on the hillside far above, bright
clothing hung on lines to dry, staring down at the interlopers who have
made them dependent on commerce. Were they happier before these vacationers
brought them shiny soles to pay for their goods? Perhaps it is only
romanticism to think so, and poverty does not change with the seasons.
Back down the slopes at the Qenqo shrine, sacred place of the puma,
we explore a creepy sacrificial altar, dark water pooling on it like
blood. Eucalyptus trees dominate the landscape, destroying native plant
life with their sturdy malevolence. Johann draws a comparison to the
bloody Spanish invasion, and we discuss the confluence of cultures then
and now, and how the modern world seems to be homogenizing everything
into one global superculture. Is it economic independence that helps
people, rather than globalization? Or does unification mean an end to
war and prejudice, an end to the marginalization of minority cultures?
I cant help but think that whether globalization is finally good
or bad for the human race, something important is lost during this process
of sterilization and consistency.
The mighty ancient city of Ollantaytambo rises up on the hill behind
the town, but it will have to wait for another day. The bus takes us
instead back into the winding streets of Cusco, past dead museums and
tourist sites, past living homes and restaurants. The confluence of
cultures, the modern and the ancient, collide here in these storied
streets. Will the variety and diversity of human culture live on in
places like this, or will it become merely a tourist attraction? Perhaps
globalization will bring an end to human suffering. I only hope the
earth does not become a stagnant pond of croaking frogs.
© Eric D Lehman March 2006
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