¡Hola a todos!
Cusco has thus-far proven itself a city of startling contrasts, quite capable of dismaying and delighting in equal measure. It has become quite a normal, daily occurence for me to stroll from my hostal down into the bustling heart of the city centre, solicited for anything from massages to drugs of all kinds and even sex. In each case I am to be the paying client of course and every instance needles me afresh, sometimes infuriating me (no, I do not want coke and I am most certainly not your “friend”). The backdrop to such unhealthy verbal exchanges is of utterly contrasting beauty: the modern city sits even now upon gargantuan blocks of stone, all that remains physically visible of the Inca culture of old. Winding side-streets twist away, suggesting all manner of adventure awaiting beyond the next turn. The air is alive with the sounds of traditional Andean music being piped out from a vast array of touristic shops and bars, tinged with smells of freshly baked bread, mixed with the less savoury odour of detritus, all too often human in source. Traffic hustles along beside me, taxi drivers tooting their horns in what strikes me as a rather desperate effort to garner clientele, with varying degrees of success: occasionally a pedestrian turns toward the sound, hails the cause for this surprising disturbance of the peace and in whisked away, often looking utterly bewildered at this swift chain of events, as if a taxi-ride was the last thing that they desired at that moment in time.
Cam, Seb and I arrived in the midst of this maelstrom of activity late upon the evening of our epic hike through the barricades, completely spent, and made straight for the first available hostel for a well earned rest. We rose understandably late the next morning and set about becoming acquainted with our new destination: it did not take us long to discover that we had arrived in Cusco at the perfect time; in less than a week, the city was due to celebrate ‘Inti Raymi’, the age-old Incan religious festival of the sun, when the whole empire gave themselves up to pious veneration of their chief god and creator of all things, a physical embodiment of what science now informs us is simply a huge ball of hydrogen and helium, burning at incredible temperatures, miles upon miles of distance from our planet. By some brilliant stroke of good fortune, this festival was scheduled to take place upon the whole day of the 24 June, the final free day I was to enjoy in the city before embarking upon the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu, to arrive in the famous last city of the Incas in time to celebrate my 23rd birthday. The date of the 24 June I found strange; surely this most sacred festival to the sun would be better placed, more significant, if celebrated at the southern hemisphere’s mid-winter solstice, which falls upon 21 June; after all, the Incas were fastidious in their desire for symmetry of all kinds, temporal as much as physical. The answer I discovered much more recently and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the reason for the unexpected date lies with the Catholic Church. The festival was indeed held upon 21 June originally but, after the arrival of the Church in the entourage of the conquering Spaniards in the sixteenth century, this date was changed: the Church, desiring as ever to convert the local populace to the new religion with as much success as possible, re-scheduled the ceremony to correspond with an existing Saint’s day in the Catholic calendar, that of St John the Baptist. I suppose that I should simply consider myself blessed that the saint’s day does not fall upon the 25 June; I was thus able to attend the principal festivities along with my friends.
Seb had discovered, while chatting with some fellow travellers in Arequipa, that the festival catered for every price range: those with deep pockets could cough up ninety US Dollars and pay to sit in a seat within an exclusive area cordoned off from the general public and as close as possible to the action unfolding in the main arena designated for the celebration, the sacred Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman, standing high above the modern city, a sentinel to an age long since past. The plebs, meanwhile, made do with grass-space on the slopes rising away from the arena; space that was free of monetary cost at least but, required a significant sacrifice in the form of a very early wake-up call (courtesy of the alarm on my mobile phone) in order to stake a claim to a patch of grass before the arrival of the crushing hordes. So it was that we found ourselves rising with the dawning sun (showing no sign of nerves on this, its big day), transacting some hasty purchases of food to comprise a spartan lunch and ever vital water before climbing the steep slope up from our hostal to the summit of the hill upon which Sacsayhuaman sits.
Aerial views over Cusco reval that the ancient Incan shape of the city forms a passable impression of a puma (an animal sacred to the Incas, as I mentioned in my blog concerning the Colca Canyon) in which Sacsayhuaman forms the puma’s head. Quite how the Incan architectures and builders of Cusco were able to execute this stunning design so successfully remains a mystery but, it surely forms yet further evidence of an advanced, skilful society worthy of the merit that they continue even now to receive from academics, locals and tourists alike. The boys and I had visited this important site the previous day, partly to scope out potential seating areas for the morrow and partly to sate our curiosity towards such a celebrated archaeological location. The ruins consist of some fine examples of the enormous stonework so characteristic of Incan architecture, individual stones often rising beyond three meters in height, sometimes rearing over twice my length from shoe-sole to scalp; impressive indeed. In some rare examples, the walls had survived so that some stones still sat just as the Incas had constructed them, parading seamless joins. The Incas were able to fit their stonework together without the use of cement, relying instead upon exacting fits between individual stones so faultless and careful in their construction that a knife-blade cannot be fitted into the joins between them. Such a technique also made for extraordinarily firm foundations that have defied countless earthquakes to survive in part even to this day. It is a tribute to the skill of the original Incan architects that even in such devastating earthquakes as that of 1950, when large sections of the modern city of Cusco were utterly destroyed, the Incan foundation stones below remained unscathed, enduring to carry forward still an advert to the strength of the Incas of old.
We arrived at Sacsayhuaman with the hour still early and found ourselves among the first pilgrims forming the audience upon the hill. We searched around and swiftly settled upon a small embankment, perfect for sitting atop and dangling our legs down. We purchased a plastic ground-sheet from a passing tout and settled down with our food, water, cards and tourist programme, purchased to aid us through the day’s significance. The space around us began to fill up; slowly at first, then swiftly, as a torrent of water bursting through a faultline originally no wider than a hair. A couple of late arrivals asked if they could squash in next to us upon our coverted ledge. We were happy to oblige them a spot and it was then that we recognized the male of the couple as a chap who had helped us gain entry into the hostal we had resided in on our first night in the city, when Seb was searching for a pair of misplaced shoes. This couple introduced themselves as Mike and Jenna, a pair of Canadians from Vancouver, who were in the final week of a ten-month epic cycle trip that had taken them from their home city down through the western states of the US, on into Central America and through, down the Andes all the way to Ushuaia in Argentina, the most southerly city in the world. Needless to say, I was captivated and spent the next few hours making fast friends of this joyful, witty twosome. So generous and friendly a pairing were they that I hope very much to meet up with them both when I finally arrive in Vancouver sometime towards the tail-end of the year, with the offer of a camp-bed, should I need it, while I search out likely accommodation and work in their beautiful city.
So it was that the time passed swiftly to the commencement of the ceremony, at close to two hours past midday (we had arrived on the scene sometime around nine o’clock that morning). Our guidebook for the day’s events had prepared us well and so it was that we sat happily through the first two of the day’s four ritualistic ceremonies. The first, the ritual offering of the ‘chicha’, comprised of the Incan priests pouring libations to the sun-god upon the ground, asking for the continuing good health of the Inca (it was only the male leader of the empire who actually held the title of ‘Inca’) and the empire, of the continuing success of the crops and for a good harvest. This had been preceded by a large procession involving all of the day’s protagonists, from Inca himself, accompanied by his official wife and multiple religious priestly advisors, through his warriors to his humble subjects. The procession began at the eastern edge of the city and progressed through the town, including the main square, up to Sacsayhuaman, located in the far north-west of the city and thus mirroring the sun’s own symbolic journey from east to west across the azure sky. The costumes and iconography on display in this procession was quite breath-taking: subjects dressed in their colourful best for their Inca, dancing their way along the route into the arena, where they keep up a steady, rhythmic motion before prostrating themselves upon the earthen floor in ready expectation of the arrival of their leader. Warriors marched forebodingly upon the sacred path, their spears and shields glinting in the burning sunlight, to come to rest forming a guard around the circumference of the arena. Priests, staff in hand, swayed along in time to a music of their own making, a tune known to and heard by themselves alone. A group cleared the way for them, using twigs and branches as impromptu brooms with which they swept away any lingering malicious spirits,a symbolic process that struck me as very reminiscent of western culture on the night of Halloween, when villagers and townfolk would once band together and sweep such evil spirits from their habitations and urban centres on the eve of All Saints’ Day, thus cleansing their living spaces in preparation for the holy day to come. Finally, the Inca and his wife themselves came into view, carried aloft upon thrones, with supporting poles resting upon the shoulders of selected bearers, strong men all. This couple were replendent in their sumptuous robes, the Inca’s wife shimmering in an ankle-length dress of emerald green, the Inca himself mighty in his cloak of ruby-red and golden crown, carrying a golden sceptre.
The first ritual completed, we moved onto the second, which involved the lighting of a fire, symbolic of the heat afforded to the Incas by the sun year on year and entreated now to continue in this habit. It was during this ritual that the crowd around us first began to show signs of restlessness, some viewers clearly more interested in commencing upon their own visual entertainment, encouraged by others seemingly bored with the awesome spectacle unfolding below. Women began to square up to one another, enraged by the merest clipping of a resting hand or leg as another moved slightly, seeking to gain a clear view of the scene. Others moaned that their views were blocked, most likely by thoughtless, unreasonable foreigners – fortunately, I was neither able nor willing to concentrate upon such trifles, engrossed as I was by the ceremony (it was only later, while talking to Cam, that I was made aware of this ill-feeling). The frustration and passivity of the crowd was soon to boil over: we had barely concluded the third of the four rituals, the most important and iconic of all. In this, a llama is selected from a small number, penned in close to the central stage. The llama selected must be the purest in colour, often black, and it is sacrificed to the sun, its heart, trachea and lungs ripped out and inspected for signs of illness or disease. Should the llama’s entrails prove healthy then this is, of course, a positive sign of the year ahead – I am sure, backed by my cynicism towards such affairs, that just such a llama was selected, without fail, by the Incan priests every year, perhaps to the surprise of no-one. These days, no such actual sacrifice occurs: a live llama is still used but, it is left unharmed, the entrails displayed by the chief priest being little more than vibrantly coloured cloth.
As the priest held up the entrails for all to see, I became suddenly aware of yet another commotion unfolding behind me: it transpired that some genius had started to throw material down upon the heads of those below and in front of him/her. These victims had responded in kind, and with gusto, and we now had a small melee on our hands. Out of nowhere, a rubbish bag full of waste food materials crashed into Cam’s exposed back before deflecting upon my resting leg: it was heavy and painful – if such a weight had landed upon the head of a bystander, a child for instance, the resut could have been far worse. It was at this point that mild anxiety first tugged at me, coupled with a frustrated rage that these people could not control themselves in a civilized fashion to see out the remainder of this fantastic festival. The food fight went hand-in-hand with a tide of bodies seeking an early, unimpeded exit from the festival and incurring the wrath of those still trying to watch, their views obscured by the endless stream of figures slowed by the sheer weight of numbers crushed upon the upper slopes. It was during this chaotic finale that the final ritual ended and with it – and a few closing remarks – the festival drew to a close. It was also during these final moments that an elderly gentleman dragged himself up the lower slopes of the hill towards us, puffing heavily as he came. Drawing level with our sitting-place, he stopped quite abruptly, before keeling over onto first his knees and then his back. Well, the crowd, fuelled by impetuous Latin blood, positively exploded at this point; people crowded in upon the poor soul from all sides and tuged at him, some offering salts to bring him round, one woman practically smothering his face in her blouse, seemingly without useful cause – there even appeared one young hero who proposed, with visual effects, to perform CPR: CPR, upon a patient still clearly breathing unaided! Fortunately there appeared next to us a strident young man who informed us all that he was a practising student of medicine. This gallant fellow was able to hold the baying crowd at arm’s length while we awaited the arrival of paramedics, who soon materialized to whisk the ailing man away: a shocking conclusion to the day’s festivities. We consoled ourselves that all had been done that was possible and reasonable, that the man stood as good a chance as possible of recovering and that he had indeed shown signs of doing so even before the arrival of the medical staff.
It was at this juncture that we all decided to quit our seats and make our way towards the exit and back down the hill into the city centre for a well-earned, cool drink of beer and some pizza to share among us all. Mike and Jenna accompanying us, this we enjoyed in a quiet little restaurant overlooking the main plaza from a first-floor balcony, while exchanging further stories of our respective journeys to that point. We reflected at leisure upon the sometimes quaint, sometimes infuriating customs and habits of the locals that we had encountered upon our trips and came finally to evaluate the day at Sacsayhuaman itself. Although the crowd had been startling, at times dangerous and more than a little annoying, we agreed that the day had been a great success, bar the unhappy episode with the elderly gentleman. The sun may well boil down to a complex scientific equation but, it is certainly interesting to become engrossed in past, alternative imaginings for such a central influence in all our lives. We left that restaurant to go our separate ways (having exchanged the customary e-mail contacts of course), Mike and Jenna to enjoy their final fews days in the city before travelling on to Lima and their flight back to Canada; Cam and Seb back to our hostal and I on to a rendezvous with my trekking group to meet and discuss the final details before embarking upon the Inca Trail the following morning. How exciting!
¡Saludos a todos!