The Colors of Cusco
After 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 don’t know where to look first.
My friend Johann and I are whisked by the tour company to the hotel Q’ArmenQ’A, where no one speaks English. I use my broken Spanish, though many people we meet don’t 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 can’t be sure. At the first site I do buy something â€” 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 cafÃ©s, enjoying this yellow beverage made from coca leaves, illegal in their homelands but available here, a constant reminder of the world’s 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 can’t 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 instead.
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 shop’s 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 we’re 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 can’t 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.