It must have been on one of those mornings while walking along the trecherously steep lanes of San Blas with their speeding rusty deathtraps and lack of sidewalk that I began to realise all was not well with this great Andean city. It could have been the scene of a backpacker ogling the plain, grey Incan walls on Hatunrumiyoc or the tortured expressions of a toothless beggar lurking in the shadow of the Templo de la Compañia de Jesús. Maybe it was the brightly colored pebbles and voodoo dolls on sale at the Witch Market or the advertisement for a lobotomized skeleton being displayed at the Inka Museum. It could have been while brushing off agressive-looking girls handing out flyers for massage or staring up at the twisted statues of Christs-in-agony clad in makeup and bouffant wigs that first sent a shiver down my spine. Like all great tales this imperial city too has a darkside and while trying your best to avoid it, in the end it will draw you in adding to the mystique that is Cusco.
lovers infront of the Sagrada Familia
The city is a paradox. Crumbling away in it’s pained beauty it’s impossible not to fall in love with it; like Isfahan, Delhi, Lisbon and New York easily joining the list of my greatest cities on Earth. If you ever walk through the main square Plaza de Armas sit on a bench and absorb the incredible Latin American streetscapes going on around you to a backdrop of church bells and hawkers, shoeshiners and beady-eyed cops, monks, nuns and struggling artists with their briefcases of tumbling canvases their watercolours seem to contrast sharply against the mammoth grey stones the relics of the Inca and the foundations of every building. Look around you and realise you are in the Bamiyan, the Palmyra of the 16th Century. A city blown to pieces by an incoming people with a surreal ideology and a concept called Christianity these invaders had a penchant for gold. Later Raqqa-esque horrors were played out on this very square when the rebel leader Túpac Amaru II was tied to four horses before being ripped apart and later beheaded his limbs sent to the four corners of the empire as a warning. The fort looming in the distance, Saksaywaman, was stormed and destroyed too by the marauding carriers of the strange flag. It was easier for them to destroy it claiming such megalithic wonders could never have been constructed by the peoples of the Andes but had obviously been made by the hands of demons. That glint of gold above the fountain blinding you on the main square, that is a recent addition, a statue of the Incan Sapi Pachacuti and a source of friction within the city of now. Some say it ruins the Colonial vista of the Plaza de Armas while their opponents argue the statue has a right to be there a representation of the Incan history and the former city. Then there is the Iglesia de El Triunfo, named in celebration by the Spanish of Incan defeat. Walk the other way along Mantas towards La Merced and stare in awe at it’s 25 kilo sparkling jem encrusted monstrance then wonder about the origins of it’s gold which seem rather conveniently shrouded in mystery. You might leave with a sour taste in your mouth.
I was born like a lily in the garden
and like the lily I grew
and like the lily I will wither and die.
detail of the Sagrada Familia
walking in Cusco
award for the world’s most beautiful street signs goes to Cusco
typical Cusco, just beautiful, Incan foundations under Spanish buildings
Cusco was already a legend before the Conquistadors arrived. A mystical place full of palaces and gold the streets were planned out in the shape of a puma, an animal sacred to the Inca. Even today climb to the top of Pukamuqu and stare down towards the roofs of the old city and tilting your head you might be able to make out the shape of the predatory mammal. The view from here is incredible with it’s sea of sloping roofs of glistening ochre that seem tangled up in the wires of telecommunications and electricity of exhaust fumes and neon, the redstone church towers act like lighthouses to guide the lost and the pretty squares the islands of life. There in the space the reserved Peruvians move carefully like yachts on a stormy ocean their sails are bright, rainbow coloured and vibrant the souls they confine distant and mysterious.
Quechua and Colonial
Cusco Cathedral and a section of Iglesia El Triunfo
One morning I walked across Cusco invigorated by the fact that I was finally over altitude sickness. As I walked while listening to Gato Barbieri’s song “Túpac Amaru” on my iphone I felt both so far from home yet relaxed as if I was lounging through my own neighbourhood on a summers day. Infront of the Cathedral there was a hive of activity. It’s huge sluis-like seaweed-colored doors were thrown open and awash with humanity flowing out into the square while others worked their way upstream and towards the shimmering cove of candlelight and perfume while a sermon blared out from huge speakers. A beggar with pleading eyes knelt at the door and tried her best to block the pious flow but seemed to spend most of her time trying to conceal the coins that were being tossed into her lap literally by the second. To the congregation it seemed she had nothing when infact I worked out she was probably earning more than the parishers. Cusco Cathedral was quite simply gorgeous. Often described as less ornate that the other great church on the square it was the theatricals of the Cathedral that had me in awe. Definitely my favorite church in Peru with it’s blackened Christ cloaked in centuries of soot from burning rose petals it in turn was being watched by large doll-like statues like Barbies from the dark ages turned out in kaleidescopic colors and costly textiles adorned with flowers, jewels and dripping with rosemary beads reminding me of the cities flamboyant style of art, the Cusco School, or from modern times like a drunk Liberace who had haphazardly got caught up in a display at the Vatican. A sucker for the camp, movies of the thirties and the repartee of Quentin Crisp with his fleeting fads it was only destiny that I would be drawn to the high drama of the Cathedral like a moth to a flame.
Iglesia Compania de Jesus
Martin de Porres
Across the square on the steps of the Andean baroque Templo de la Compañia de Jesús an angelic cloud of white cloth hovered. A group of girls in Communion dresses milled around looking bored the way you would waiting for a delayed train a Clapham Junction. The girls seemed oblivious to the pride that surrounded them, their family and friends wiping away tears of joy. The perplexed expressions of the girls is one of the things that remains with me the most from Peru. Like a Punjabi girl leaving her parents home for the last time on her wedding day I wondered if here too these girls too were expected to portray expressions of heartbreak or maybe they just wanted to be at home dressed in jeans while scrolling on Facebook I’m not quite sure. As mysterious to me as ancient Andean rituals those bored girls will be a conundrum forever unbroken. Nearby was an altar of Martin de Porres, a Saint who had lived in Peru and was said to have performed miracles. Even a quarter of a decade after death the legend goes that his corpse still smelled of sweet flowers. Devoted he had suggested his elders sell him when their monastery was experiencing financial difficulties describing himself as nothing but a “simple mulatto”. Today he is the patron saint of the mixed races. A lesson in humility for us all.
sad girls and crying relatives at Communion
the 8.57 delayed again…!
My favorite square was the Plaza Regocijo with it’s lush greenery it seemed quieter than the Plaza de Armas but just as magnificent. I walked into the nearby Convento de San Francisco and seeming like the only visitor there wandered around impressed by the cedar altar and stone cloister while marvelling at the ornate paintings from the Cusco School, those ornate garments and floating angels taking me to the ethereal. In a far-flung corner of the Convent I noticed stone steps leading down through a hole in the floor into what could only be described as the pits of hell; nothing but an eerie black void you would expect more in line with Amityville than a religious building. I decided to walk down the steps anyway just to flash my camera to see what was down there and to my horror while fumbling with my camera settings in the dark I could hear something shuffling around me scraping metal on stone. The hairs on my neck stood up and I ran back upstairs questioning my sanity for even wanting to go down there in the first place. It didn’t help that I then stumbled into an alcove to be confronted by a skeleton peering out of an open coffin with bones decorating the wall. I half expected the mummified grandma on a rocking chair like that scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wondered what sort of weird rituals were going on there at night as the bones had candles around them but decided I didn’t want to hang around to find out. It reminded me of the last time I was that scared while walking alone around an empty Auschwitz in the middle of winter (I know, what was I thinking?) when approaching the small wooded area where the ashes from the crematorium were thrown into the grey pool of water I could sense children whispering and giggling as if playing hide and seek behind the trees and the feeling of eyes watching me filled me with dread. Auschwitz is huge but as I walked and sometimes ran to find the exit I never looked back once.
beyond the creep factor – it was time to leave
I had once read somewhere that in Latin America images of the suffering of Jesus are to our eyes disturbing, mangled, crushed and over-the-top and the reason being that there the people suffered more than we could ever imagine, their depictions of suffering increasing tenfold. In Europe we suffered too but still there in Cusco the churches did have an intensity and the people a religious fervor far more than where I live. As if struggling for answers and reassurance they seemed to hold onto God more than what we do. These days in Europe churches are closing at an unprecedented rate and sadly children are being tucked into bed with ipads instead of prayers.
Suffering. As the bus climbed up into the shanty towns and made it’s way out of the city I peered out from the window down towards the Centro Histórico absorbing my last glimpses knowing I would never see it again. Suddenly like being struck by a bolt of lightning I saw a middle-aged man squatting down in the busy street using the gutter as a toilet while looking broken, ashamed and helpless. There is something really sobering and upsetting about such a scene. As if seeing your dad cry for the first time my raw instinct was to burst into tears, for him, for humanity.
I had felt so gullable believing a local who told me people had it good living in the houses on the hill. I had slept well on my boxspring mattrass in a protected bubble living the life of a gringa believing that the Peruvians had it good. How ignorant I had been. As the city slipped away behind the snowcapped mountains I realised I knew nothing of those beautifully soft spoken people, of their suffering and of Cusco itself.
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Such beautiful writing. I can almost taste the words.
I always look forward to read your travel stories as you’re very descriptive about the things that you saw, your experiences and emotions, and the people that you have met or observed. Thanks for sharing, and yes, anticipating the next post on the Peruvians! 🙂
Thanks Kat I should have my next post published in about a week! Gx
Displays of skulls and bones, those of monks and friars in convents are frequent in Latin America and in Italy. Rome has elaborate displays meant to remind us that we are dust and will return to it when our end comes. A lesson in Christian humility, like on Ash Wednesday.
You might want to make it a bit clearer that those girls in “wedding” dresses were attending their first Communion, not getting married!
Thanks i’ve corrected it!