In December last year, I took a flight from Lima, Peru’s coastal capital, to Cuzco, the once splendid high altitude capital of the Incas. Cuzco, now a booming and rampantly commercial tourist town, is the starting point of a trip to the famous Machu Picchu. The journey by bus, a steep uphill climb into the mountains, takes over twenty hours, but by flight it is a pleasant hour and a half. The Andes slice through the nations of western South America – Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile – to leave remarkably different terrains. In Peru, to the west of the Andes is a thin coastal strip that is mostly dry desert; this is where Lima is. To the east – surprisingly for the uninitiated visitor – is the dense jungle of the Amazon and the border with Brazil. The Andes themselves are not monolithic; the succession of mountains, rivers and high valleys gives way in the south of Peru to a high plateau called the Altiplano, where the surreally blue waters of Lake Titicaca are to be found, along the border with Bolivia.
Like the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, which saw the early rise of complex societies, western South America too has for millennia seen a series of kingdoms and empires. The largest, best known and last of these empires was the Incan one, which stretched for few thousand miles along the length of the Andes, from Columbia to Chile. The Incas’ was an unabashedly high-altitude culture: Cuzco, their grand capital, is at an elevation of 12,000 feet. The mountains were an artery through the empire. Roads, suspension bridges, supplies along the routes, and a system of runners who ran the length of mountain range at breakneck speeds to relay messages: all this kept the empire well connected.
From the air, Cuzco revealed itself as an extended sprawl in a high valley. The houses were closely spaced, and had sloping, red-tile roofs. In atmosphere and style – the high setting, the medieval look, the predominance of tourists and their revelry, the narrow streets of stone rather than asphalt, the dark American Indian faces of the locals – it reminded me of San Cristobal de las Casas, the southern and Mayan part of Mexico. A tall, young taxi driver who spoke fluent English took me to my hostel. He was savvy, knew a few Hindi words, and after much fumbling with the CD player, finally managed to play a popular Punjabi song. He was one of many young men I met during my travels who had smartly aligned themselves to make an impression on tourists.
My hostel was at the steep upper end of what was called the Choquechaca Street, away from the bustle and noise or the Plaza de Armas (the main square). It was run by Peruvians in their early twenties. Like their traveling guests, they too had the air of vagabonds. They worked irregular shifts, partied hard, and never gave the impression of permanence. There was Jose, who had a family in one of Lima’s shantytowns; Christina, also from Lima, who had abandoned her degree and now was attached to a bearded, dreamy Australian wanderer in Cuzco; and Luigi, a short, frail man, from the town of Iquitos, at the remote eastern end of Peru, reachable only by air or water. Luigi’s flirtatious way with women, the slightness of his physique and even his classically American Indian features – high slanted cheekbones, dark-red complexion – bore an uncanny resemblance to my roommate in college, from Mirzapur in North India.
The nations of the Americas fall into two broad categories. In some, American Indians have been marginalized and their numbers have reduced to an extent that they remain largely invisible. The United States, Argentina, and the Caribbean Islands fall in this category. And then there are countries, like Mexico (southern Mexico especially), Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia where indigenous populations form a significant majority.
In the Andean highland cities of Peru, the Quechuas, whose ancestors built the Incan empire, are the largest group. And it was the Quechuas that I saw in large numbers in the main square of Cuzco. I had arrived the day before Christmas. It was cold even though it wasn’t winter in Peru. The high altitude, which I hadn’t adjusted to, made the short walk to the main square strenuous. The square was abuzz with preparations. Indigenous women, their children in tow, had come to sell their wares in what was going to be a huge market. The older women had plaited hair and their attire was distinct: bowler hats and skirts; and many layers of clothing to protect against the cold, which made them look stocky. There was a long queue on one side of the square. Food and soup were being distributed in ladles to the poor, especially children: the largesse of Christmas.
It was there, in the fading light of the day, that the strangeness of where I was struck me. All around, in the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains, were the outer settlements of Cuzco. The city was much larger that I had thought. The square itself had once had been surrounded by palaces of the Inca rulers; in their place now stood imposing ocher-colored cathedrals and churches. Church imposed over a Pre-Columbian place of significance: the trend repeats over and over again in Latin America. But here, high in the Andes, with the indigenous Quechua filling the square on the eve of Christmas, the violence of that 16th century clash felt especially real.
The Spanish arrived in Peru in 1533, twelve years after conquering the Aztec empire in Mexico. They took Cuzco fairly easily in the beginning, but then the Incas fought back ferociously. From various vantage points the Inca army hurled red hot stones onto the roofs of houses, setting them on fire. The whole of Cuzco burned and for a while, it must have seemed, as the Inca army slowly circled in, that the outnumbered Spaniards would lose the city. They didn’t. They survived narrowly and fought back. The cathedrals in the main square of Cuzco are testament to the eventual victory of the Spanish.
In a side street, I had seen intact examples of Inca walls: large and smooth interlocking blocks of stone, without mortar and which fit like a puzzle. Their minimalism, their lack of adornment, only elevated their beauty. They hinted at another sensibility, much of which had been lost.
But the Quechuas I met insisted that it wasn’t a simple case of one culture dominating the other. Catholicism merely provided the outer shell beneath which the animist ways of the past still carried on. Even in the cathedrals, there are subtle but unequivocal hints of indigenous influence: a rendition of the Last Supper has a guinea pig, an Andean delicacy, as the main dish and not lamb; the virgins are cleverly portrayed in the shape of Andean mountains since the Quechua worship the mountains. But at a more mundane, day to day level, I had no sense – and no time to explore – how the two ways were being reconciled. And I often got the sense that the question was moot, that enough time had passed since the conquest for a kind of unselfconscious synthesis to emerge.
It was dark now and on one of the high hills surrounding Cuzco was a luminescent statue of Jesus – Cristo Blanco, or White Christ. I was struck by it: it was as if the light was coming from within, as if the statue itself were a fluorescent piece.
Two days later, I made the ascent up the steep hill that led to Cristo Blanco. The hill was immediately adjacent to my hostel. The path took me through haphazardly set one story houses along the slope. On the way a drunk, unhappy man helped with directions; another man asked if I was interested in riding a horse; and a woman could be seen beating up and shouting at her husband for having cheated. A little later I met Doggy, the large stray that for some reason unfailingly retired at the hostel for the night (though no one there “owned” him), but during the day roamed the corners of Cuzco, with a total lack of fear of other dogs. I saw him a few days later in a completely different part of the city. He seemed to possess some of the conquistadorial spirit of the 16th Spanish invaders of the Americas, who time and again rushed headlong into conflicts and toppled empires despite being hopelessly outnumbered. Doggy in fact was at that moment fighting an equally spunky dog. It took the stones of passersby to separate the two.
A hundred odd feet below Cristo Blanco is Saqsayhuaman, the remains of an Inca fortress. Unlike the smooth walls I had seen in the center of Cuzco, these were much larger, coarser structures, but no less impressive. They were ideal fortifications. They seemed like arbitrary and natural agglomerations of boulders until you noticed how carefully they had been assembled. Yet again there was no mortar holding the different pieces together. The Inca army, in an effort to recapture Cuzco from the Spaniards, had used Saqsayhuaman as their base. In fact, if John Hemming’s meticulously researched The Conquest of the Incas is to be believed, their attack had followed the same steep path I had taken from my hostel.
It was a short ascent from Saqsayhuaman to the large white statue of Christ. Most of Cuzco, which sits in a valley, could be seen from here, the various shades of the red of the roofs and the white of the walls mingling together, as if a carpet of those colors blanketed the valley. Christ is portrayed as he is other parts of the world. His arms were raised in a gesture of welcome. This positive image contrasted with slumped posture of a hooded man who sat at the base. His face was not visible; he did not move for the entire duration of my visit. Nearby there were large crosses wrapped in fine cloth, with designs woven onto them. At night, a powerful set of lamps on the platform shone white light onto the statue, and this gave the impression of luminescence I had been so struck by.