Tuesday, 22 April 2008

After arriving in Ollantaytambo, we were met by a van and driver who drove us the remaining distance, two hours, to Cusco. We insisted the kids turn off their games as we drove, we’d be encountering some new scenery since we were taking a different route than the one we’d taken on the way out. This time we traveled high up into the mountains, and at the top we found ourselves in the midst of flat, rolling green fields, totally unexpected. Fields of lupines and flowers every color of earth and green stretched in all directions, it was really beautiful. We passed through many small towns, passing people with wind-chapped cheeks, bundled in warm clothes. We passed a series of salt flats, where people have been mining the salt for ages, letting the water evaporate and harvesting the salt. In many of the hillsides we noticed words or symbols, giant-sized, made with either rocks or from clearing the brush away and covering the ground with lime or chalk. Sometimes this graffiti was for a particular school, sometimes a political theme, sometimes religious. The closer we got to them, the more we realized how really big they were.

We eventually arrived back in Cusco, barreling down skinny streets. I kept waiting for our tires to hit the curbs on either side as we rattled down the cobblestones. We checked back into the hotel we had left just a few days earlier, smelling the now familiar smell of donuts. Our hotel has a wonderful smell, and we wonder when they serve whatever it is they are cooking that smells so delicious. We headed into town to find some dinner, finding a heavenly Mexican food place, a little taste of home. Things were a little different, the nachos we ordered had fresh cheese on top that wasn’t melted, and the beans had the consistency of chunky pudding, but it was all very, very good. So good we all ate too much and had stomach aches.

We sat next to a long table full of kids who were spending six months in South America, in a Spanish immersion program. We talked to one girl who explained they were in a gap year, between high school and college, and were participating in a program where they stayed three months in Costa Rica, then went home, then came back to travel around Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru. They seemed like they were having such a blast, getting to know each other and sharing their amazing experiences together. They were roughing it, staying in pretty rustic places and doing some camping, but they were young and free. What an opportunity. I wonder if our kids will travel like that some day.

We came home, ate the “good night” chocolate that was left on our pillows, took the showers our dirty hiking bodies desperately needed, and watched some Gidget before bed. We’ve got one day to explore Cusco, then we’re off again. We’ve got four nights in four different beds on the agenda, and we’re going to need our energy. I ate another piece of chocolate before drifting off to sleep.

 

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

This morning we partook in the most delicious omelets, Nate got to know the omelet maker personally and remembered to say “muy bien” when he went back for seconds. We met Ronald for a half day tour of Cusco, making time to find another cheap laundry just steps from the hotel (we saved at least $50 by leaving the hotel), and a DHL to send home our last package of souvenirs and extraneous weight. We visited some nearby ruins, Sacsayhuaman. Try saying that three times fast. Try saying that just one time. The highlight of this visit, for the kids at least, was the sliding rocks. I had read about some rocks, well worn from the bottoms of tourists sliding day after day, year after year, and that’s what the kids asked about each time we arrived at a new Incan ruin. “Is this the one with the slides?”

We had finally arrived. The ruins themselves were pretty impressive, the Temple of the Sun sported the unique rockwork indicative of the Incans, different sizes perfectly fitting together like a puzzle. A large, perfectly round reservoir was once used for holding water that would later be funneled into the nearby town of Cusco. Ronald explained that Cusco was known as the “navel” of the Incan world, the bellybutton, the center, their lands radiating out from this central location. Most of the important palaces and people were found in the town of Cusco, and the Temple of the Sun, the most important temple, was perched on a hill above the city.

The sight was surrounded by a big, open field, the kids ran around like puppies as we made our way from ruin to ruin. There were big overhangs and shadowy tunnels to explore, we finally reached the sliding rocks and the kids slid as long as we let them, running up the smooth surfaces for another try. The rocks were worn smooth by glaciers scraping their way tens of thousands of years ago. They reminded me of the black rocks in Central Park, also worn smooth by glaciers, even though these rocks were gray limestone.

The boys’ pants are precarious, both have small tears in the rear, and we fretted that they’d get a big hole just three weeks before going home. Benji’s already had a sizeable hole in the knee, I vowed to sew it when we got back to the hotel. We hoped to find some sort of colorful Peruvian patch sometime today. They survived the sliding without ripping anything, and we made our way to an old cave. It was cool underneath the earth, we touched the stone where they once prepared mummies, it was ice cold. On another stone the Incas once performed sacrifices. Ronald explained in great detail how they took their curved knife and slit open the llama’s belly, then reached in and grabbed the heart, offering it to Pacha Mama, the earth god. The boys listened with wide eyes while he described how the blood would run down the altar, back into the earth, feeding their earth god.

I could imagine how it must have been, a mummy brought along to survey the whole sacrifice ceremony, resting in a niche in the wall, and the Incan rulers sitting on stone thrones carved into the wall of the cave, observing. As we walked through the cave, a young boy, maybe ten or eleven, followed at a distance, holding a bundle of sprigs. As we made our way out, Ronald told us to smell the leaves the boy held, they smelled like a chocolate mint. We gave the boy a couple of solés and took a sprig with us. I wondered why the boy wasn’t in school, was his mother selling souvenirs nearby? What would his future be, hanging out in old Incan tombs, hocking chocolate mint leaves to tourists? Maybe he had a cold, and would be back in school the next day. Or maybe he was done with primary school, and his parents didn’t have the money to send him any further.

Our next stop was the big cathedral in the main square of Cusco. It was shady and cool in the interior, large paintings hung from the walls, the ceilings were high, statues of Mary and Joseph and Jesus were everywhere. These weren’t statues made from stone, some may have been carved from wood, most of them looked a little like mannequins in very fancy clothes. Ronald told us about the earthquakes that have damaged the cathedral, we could see cracks in the walls, and some of the giant canvases had cracked gold frames around them. The doors to some of the tiny side chapels hung crooked, shaken loose from the earthquake.

An earthquake featured largely in the popularity of a particular statue of Jesus found at the cathedral, a statue they call “dark Jesus”. There was a major earthquake in 1650 and the Jesus statue was brought out into the streets, in the hopes that he would quell the damage. The tremors did, indeed, abate, and this miracle was attributed to the Jesus statue. Many came to worship the statue in the days and years that followed, lighting large candles at his feet, until the smoke from the candles turned the statue black. He is treasured among the inhabitants of Cusco, brought out each year during an Easter Week parade and followed by huge crowds. Before the statue is taken back into the cathedral, at the end of the parade, the men carrying it kneel down so that Jesus bends forward, blessing the crowds. “It is very beautiful, to see the old women kneeling and crying at the feet of this dark Jesus,” Ronald told us. I would love to see that celebration.

We admired the choir stalls, adorned with elaborate wood carvings of saints. They reminded us of the choir stalls we’d seen in Europe, and indeed, the cathedral was built by the Spanish, influenced by European cathedrals. What was unusual was that, carved into the arm rests of each chair in the choir nave, was a small figure of Pacha Mama, with a naked breast and a pregnant belly. A blending of the Incan religion and the Catholic one, in an attempt to lure the Incans to this new Christian religion, to tie the two together.

We admired a painting of the Last Supper by Zapata, a member of the Cusco school of painters. In the painting the disciples and Jesus feast on a roasted guinea pig and regional fruits. While most of the disciples stare either at Jesus or at the sky (presumably to God) in rapt devotion, Judas stares straight out of the painting at you. No matter where we stood, it seemed Judas’ eyes followed us, he clutched a money bag under the table. The kids stared at that painting a long time. Other works of art that intrigued me was a statue of the archangel Michael, wearing a bowler hat, and a statue of Jesus being crucified. What captured my attention were his knees, bleeding and sore. I never thought about Jesus’ knees, how he must have crawled on the ground under the weight of his cross, under the strain of the flogging he received. It was a statue that would make you cry if you looked at it long enough.

After stepping back into the sunshine, blinking our eyes to adjust to the light, we headed to the ruins located directly across from our hotel. A church had been built by the Spanish, directly over the Incan ruins of several temples, where they worshipped the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, and lightning. It was very obvious which walls were Incan and which were Spanish, the Incan stones fit perfectly together with no mortar. The Spanish used concrete to fill in the gaps between their stones. It was a strange blend of the very ancient and the not-so-ancient, a pretty place with sunshine and art work. Some Christian, some representations of things the Incas once worshipped, shadows in the Milky Way in the shape of puma and llama and rabbits.

We said our goodbyes to Ronald after walking across the street to our hotel, we had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. We found a great place for lunch, where Clay and I had some “authentic” Peruvian dishes, mine was a combination of pumpkin, fava beans, cheese, and some other ingredients. Clay has enjoyed rocotto relleno, a red pepper stuffed with cheese and meat and their quinoa grain. We returned to the hotel where we were lazy, and eventually bored. I told Nate to remember how this felt, this bored feeling, so he wouldn’t complain next time we drug them out of the hotel for another city tour. It hasn’t been often that we’ve been bored on this trip, sometimes it’s a good thing. I did sew Benji’s pants, I like to call them his Frankenstein pants now, because the large, uneven stitches remind me of the stitches on Frankenstein’s head.