Peru, home of coca chewing campesinos, ponchoed street vendors and pan pipes, pan pipes, pan pipes (…make them stop, please…). Land of mystery, archaelogical treasure trove charting the rise and fall and mysterious disappearance of ancient civilizations, culture and counterculture. Without any written language to record their story – not out of backwardness but to preserve power within the elite – all we have to tell the tale is the edifices and art forms they left behind, their tombs and mummies, the rest is guesswork, hearsay, myth and legend. The pyramids of the Moche, the enigmatic lines in the sand of the Nazcans. Are they spaceships? And then came the Incas, those great expansionists by which all other pre-Hispanic cultures are measured – the quintessential sun-worshippers with their palaces, temples and sun-gates, rulers of an empire that stretched from Columbia to Chile, with its epicentre – in the shape of a puma, the zigzag fortress of Sacsayhuaman its head – Cusco – in Quechua, the navel of the world. Invincible.
And then came the Spanish. Francisco Pizzaro, with only 170 men but with superior firepower and horsepower, taking advantage of Messiah prophecies and exploiting a dispute about succession to the Inca throne, played them like a set of pan-pipes, looting, pillaging, destroying, conquered and subdued the empire within three years. And then came the Church to “save” the savages, destroying temples and building churches, gaudy and obscene, busy with saints, sinners, heaven and hell, hideous crucifixes, demonising local deities and inventing saints, adopting the ca’nt beat them join them policy, coopting and incorporating pagan rites. The locals waiting in vain for the sacreligers to be smote by the sungod, slowly assimilating, becoming hispanic, Peruvian. And here comes Uncle Sam, flexing the muscles on his evergrowing arms, to save the world from itself.
The white man’s insatiable appetite for the coca must be stopped, the monkey on his back must be slayed, destroying a tradition of millenia, the humble coca farmer, harvester of a panacea for all ills, feeling the wrath of the DEA, quotas, restrictions, capital crime, capital punishment. And here come the gringos, tourists by the busload (How they snap and stare!). The indigenous women, with their bowler hats, their flouncy bouncy dresses, tresses of petticoat, frock, smock, woollen tights and poncho, their culture eroded, mere contrivances posing for photos, reduced to selling beads and jewellery, batteries, film, and water to the new invaders. Screaming Agua! Agua! (Water!! Water!!) Compra! Compra! (Buy! Buy!) like so many deranged commodity traders. The Uros people of Lake Titicaca on their straw islands, their customs unchanged for a thousand years, escaping the ravages of the Incas and the Spanish ï¿½ but not capitalism, their homes now floating shops, infested with tourists, lights, cameras, action. Their boats, their islands of straw and llama hide bouyed up with empty plastic bottles. Coca Cola now the foundation of their society!. The wheels come full circle: the first visitors to the americas mesmerising natives with beads and the natives now selling them back, the tourists destroying the culture they come to see…
So here we were – in the footsteps of the Incas, the Spanish conquerors and the great Che Guevara who developed his ideals of pan-american unity when he chugged here on his motorbike 50 years ago ï¿½ in Cusco, our mission: the Inca Trail. How we huffed and puffed in our all-weather gear, as our porters with nothing but a wad of coca leaves in their cheek and their torn sandals, made our breakfast, washed our dishes, packed our tents, put them on their heads, balanced a kettle and teapot on top, and zoomed by. We soon discovered the benefits of chewing coca, whatever about a cure for altitude, hunger and sickness, by midday I could have had a root canal and three fillings without feeling a thing! And finally, after 4 days of a sometimes gruelling, always intriguing and ultimately exhilharating hike, we reached the summit, just as the clouds were being burned away by the morning sun to reveal in all its glory, the crown jewels deep in the mountains, hidden from the Spanish and not discovered until less than a hundred years ago ï¿½ the archaelogical poster boy of the Americas – Machu Picchu.
You are instantly transported back in time. Here was a people who communed with the world at a much lower level, their gods tangible things that mattered: inti (sun), kilya (moon) and pachamama (mother earth). They understood their environment, the passage of time marked by the sun and moon: Their crowning achievement: Intihuatana, the hitching post of the sun. The sun harnessed, tied down, controlled. Domesticating llamas (brawn, bone, hide, milk, meat, manure) and cultivating thousands of plants to fill their storehouses, the harvests of a harsh landscape were their currency, gold and silver mere adornments. Standing on this spot you cant help thinking that humanity has taken a wrong step somewhere (Ok they sacrificed a few virgins but then they did have pretty decent weather – maybe we should try it at home). This is a real wonder of the world…if you do nothing else, ever, do this.
So back in Cusco, exhausted, ragged, beginning to take on the features of Krusty the Klown, time was ripe for a haircut. As I’m beginning to lose hair at an alarming rate (everywhere except my ears) each successive haircut is a fearful experience. I sat in the chair in the 3-foot-square graveyard for hair, somehow conveying a “short back and sides, easy on the top” in this quechua-spanish-english mishmash, this hybrid dialect, this desperanto, waiting, trepidating, joking about the kings of yore with horses ears and their long list of unfortunate barbers who had to be dispatched deep in the woods, their sad story to be told by wind instruments hewn from their bones…luckily for all concerned there was still a smathering left and all live to fight another day.
The last thing on the menu for Peru, of course, to try the local specialty, cuy (rhymes with gooey but isnt), the common (or laboratory) guinea pig. Now, I dont normally go for rodent, even cutesy ones, but I thought Id make an exception here, because unlike other establishments, this place tastefully served said dish in a pepper sauce and even more tastefully, chopped off head, feet and tail before serving. The people opposite me, possibly vegetarians, fled for their lives with looks of hatred when they saw me, for all the world, tearing a hamster apart. The verdict: For me, rubbery, hard-to-get-at meat, but a unique dining event nonetheless. For the cuy, a little consumed by the experience, but probably no worse than having a gallon of the latest shampoo conditioner combo shoved up your arse.