25 June 2011

Inti Raymi

‘This day is the great celebration. We must all rejoice. Our hearts come alive with joy, inspired by a pure air. Oh my sun! Oh my sun! Shine on us now, oh my sun! Oh my sun! Oh my sun! Send us now your warmth and let the chill disappear. Oh my sun! Oh my sun!

So sing all the performers in this re-enactment of the Inca mid-winter solstice celebration, immediately after the sun appears over the horizon – well, that’s when they’re supposed to sing it but, these days, this part of the ceremony actually takes place at about 2pm.

Every 24 June since 1944, a theatrical representation of the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) has been held at Saqsaywaman, the Incan archaeological site 310m above Cusco. These days, it is the second largest festival in South America and attracts visitors from all over Peru, South America and the rest of the world. Today, Lynn and I and thousands of others climbed the steep streets and even steeper steps to watch the festival and welcome back the sun.

This was the culmination of a week of events and festivities in Cusco, from dancing in the streets, to parades of floats, street fairs and eating. We skipped the first parts of the day’s ceremonial events, which began with a salute to the sun by the actor playing the Inca emperor, at Qorikancha, the square in front of the Santo Domingo church which was constructed on top of the ancient Temple of the Sun. Next, the Inca emperor was carried on his replica golden throne, in a procession to the Plaza de Armas where the coca rite took place – chewing of the sacred leaves, more invocations to the sun, much vigorous dancing.

The procession then proceeded to the ancient fortress of Saqsaywaman. All the performers in the sacred rituals – the Inca emperor, the high priests, the court officials, nobles and soldiers of the imperial army – were dressed in colourful and elaborate costumes. At Saqsaywaman, in front of the huge waiting crowds, the emperor climbed to the sacred altar where all could see him. There were speeches by the emperor, the priests and representatives of the Suyos: the Snake for the world below, the Puma for life on earth, and the Condor for the upper world of the gods. There were energetic dances by the various troupes who accompanied the procession. There was much chanting, like that above, to welcome back the sun.

In a very realistic stage act, a llama was sacrificed and the high priest paraded around the sacred altar holding aloft the bloody heart in honour of Pachamama, the earth mother. Apparently, this is done to ensure the fertility of the earth which, in combination with the light and warmth from the sun, provides a bountiful crop. The priests also read the blood stains to predict the future of the Inca empire. I wonder if they foresaw the coming of the Spanish?

In the rite of the sacred fire, stacks of straw were set on fire and the celebrants danced around them to honour Tawantinsuty or the Empire of the Four Wind Directions, and in the rite of Sankhu, the emperor, his priests and officials sampled a ritual food made of maize paste and the blood of the sacrificed llama. The ceremonies finished with everyone dancing in jubilation – and those of us with numb bums and cramping leg muscles from sitting for several hours, finally able to stand up.

It was an incredibly colourful celebration. Equally interesting was the crowd, squashed together on every available piece of ground, eating the picnic lunches they had brought along or the food they bought from the various vendors constantly jostling through the crowds, chatting to family and friends. We made friends with some young Peruvians sitting next to us – 17-year-old Christopher kept trying out his English on us, and they insisted on taking photos of each other with us before we left.

It was this big!
Also interesting were the poisonous spiders! After we’d been sitting on our scrubby, dusty hillside for about 30 minutes, we noticed the girls in front of us jump up in alarm, quickly brush down their clothes, and chatter excitedly to each other while looking around the area where they’d been sitting. Eventually, they sat back down. Another 30 minutes later, I noticed a rather large spider run up the tshirt of a guy near us, over his backpack and down onto the ground again. Not long after this, the two women to my left started talking and pointing at something on the ground – presumably the spider had resurfaced. But this time, I asked the woman closest to me what it was. She replied in rapid Spanish, then, realising I didn’t understand, mimed a spider with her fingers, jabbed one finger into my leg, then slid the finger across her throat. The message was obvious – this little critter was poisonous! Luckily, he wasn’t feeling hungry today – or maybe the sun god had listened to the prayers of the emperor and his priests and brought good luck to us all!

24 June 2011

Waterworks everywhere

This is at Tipon, a small village on the main road southeast from Cusco. It’s about 25km outside of the city, and on the way to work – Oropesa is just a few kilometres further on.

Today Tipon is famous for its cuy – that’s guinea pig, to you and me. Peruvians eat guinea pig on special occasions – Mother’s Day, birthdays, Saints’ Days, etc – and they come out from Cusco especially to eat Tipon’s cuy as it has a succulent reputation. No, I haven’t eaten it … yet. I’m not much of a meat-eater anyway, and the problem with cuy is the way they serve it – intact, with the poor little critter lying on its back, feet in the air, grimace on what’s left of its face.

In the past, Tipon was yet another of the many extraordinary Incan sites – and it’s still impressive. According to the brochure that came with the entrance ticket, ‘this wonderful complex of hillside farming terraces, long staircases, and water channels carved in bare stone is one of the royal gardens built under Inca Wiracocha’.

The site is at an altitude of 3500m (11.480ft), and offers stunning views over the village of Tipon and the surrounding area. The narrow dirt road up to the site is a little hair-raising for the acrophobic, especially if you’re travelling in a rattly local taxi with questionable brakes!

Its twelve terraces are bordered by highly polished stonewalls and it has vast agricultural terraces that diminish in size as you ascend the site. Most remarkable is the irrigation system, which is still used by the local farmers. Stone-lined conduits feed both the spring water and the rainy-season run-off throughout the site, along open channels, over vertical drops and through decorative waterfalls. It is a striking example of the Incans’ mastery of irrigation and hydraulic engineering.

21 June 2011

Road trip to Chinchero and Moray

Yesterday – Sunday – Lynn, a volunteer from Scotland, and I caught a local bus to Chinchero, a small Andean village about 30km from Cusco. The bus wound its way up the steep hills of Cusco and onto the Anta Plains, where Chinchero sits at 3762m (12,343 ft). It is ‘big country’ – there are wide-ranging views of the richly cultivated rolling plains, fringed by the distant snow-capped Vilcanota mountains.

I bought a bag from this smiling saleswoman

My Lonely Planet guidebook says Chincero was known as ‘the birthplace of the rainbow’ to the Incas, which is entirely believable if the colourful textiles manufactured by the local women are any indication. Every Sunday the locals hold a market where you can buy examples of these beautiful textiles, produced from sheep and alpaca wool, dyed using traditional natural products, spun and woven using ancient techniques and tools, and made up into wall hangings, table mats and runners, bags, blankets and rugs.

Of course, we shopped! The haggling was good-natured, the prices excellent, and the salesmen and women happy to be photographed.

We then wandered around the village for a time. It seemed relatively unspoilt by the tourists who visit: there are no signs in English and the locals still go about their daily business dressed in their traditional costumes. The houses are mostly made of adobe (mud) bricks, and have the trademark bull-and-cross ornaments on their roof tops. There are also remnants of the village’s Inca and Spanish colonial heritage, including a magnificent series of Inca stone terraces and a picturesque church.

The Inca ruins were very impressive. The agricultural terraces, some of which are still in use by the locals to grow crops, are attributed to the Incan Tupac Yupanqui, who may have used Chincero as a kind of country retreat some time in the 1480s. The colonial church dates from the early seventeenth century and was built on the foundations of an Inca palace or temple. Sunday mass was in progress when we walked past, so we couldn’t enter to view the apparently beautiful floral and religious paintings on the ceiling and walls, but the paintings in the foyer were certainly lovely.

We ate lunch in a café overlooking the market and were surprised to be greeted in perfect English by the Peruvian hostess. Turns out most of her family now live in the States, including her Texan Peruvian niece, who we also chatted with. The family had returned home for the recent funeral of the family’s grandfather and were just helping out those of their family who run the café.

Next, we hired a local cabbie to drive us for about 20 minutes on ‘dancing’ dirt roads to another Inca site, Moray. Here, the Incas created a strange series of concentric circles by excavating down as deep as 150m (490ft) and removing huge amounts of earth and rock. There have been various theories put forward to explain the site; the current favourite speculates that Moray was a kind of agricultural experiment. The depth and orientation of the circles means there is a 15°C fluctuation in temperature from top to bottom, so the Incas may have been studying the effects of the different climatic conditions on the crops they grew. To me, the terraces didn’t seem wide enough to grow crops easily, though there certainly was a big difference in the temperature as we descended. As with other Inca sites, there are ‘siempre muchos gradas’ (always many steps)!

From Moray, and on the return journey to Chinchero, we had a splendid view over the golden pastures – it’s harvest time here – to nearby Mount Chicón. It’s an impressive 5530 metres (18,143ft) high with several glaciers splayed around its two main peaks.

From Chincero, we caught a tourist bus back to Cusco. It was a comfortable end to a magical day. Getting out of the noisy dusty polluted city to the silent wide-open spaces of the high country was so very refreshing, and both Chincero and Moray were fascinating.

11 June 2011

There's a bull on my roof

Well, actually there are two bulls, a cross and two ladders on my roof ... but that’s not uncommon in Cusco, where many houses have similar small items decorating the middle of their roof ridges. These are, apparently, traditional house blessings, placed on the roof when the house is first erected to enhance the well-being of the resident family, and the various items placed on the rooftops vary greatly from town to town, from one home owner to another.

The bull has, of course, featured in myths and legends around the world since ancient times; witness, for example, the biblical ‘golden calf’, the constellation Taurus, the stone-age cave paintings of bulls at Lascaux in France, the bull-leaping ritual of the Minoan civilisation, and the Hindu god Nandi, to name just a few.

According to one source, there is an Inca legend which states that Amaru, the snake god, emerged from a lake and was transformed into a bull, an animal renowned for its strength and willingness to assist the locals with ploughing their fields. Cultivating the fields brought fertility and wealth, hence the local association of bulls with the fertility and wealth of the household.

However, another source I found, a fascinating blog about ‘water bulls’ and other Patagonian monsters, says that domestic cows and bulls were only introduced into the Americas by the Europeans, after Columbus’s 1492 discovery, so the symbolism of the bulls would appear to have a Spanish colonial origin.

The cross and ladders that frequently accompany the bulls on the roof tops, or sometimes appear without the bulls, are obviously Christian symbols, the cross of the crucifixion and the ladders from the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. Presumably these are present to ward off evil spirits. According to one local, the cross is usually made of iron to stop the negative energies of lightning, though I’ve also seen many examples of wooden crosses.

Small water jugs can also be found on some rooftops, perhaps another fertility symbol. Other arrangements may include more than two bulls (if the homeowner raises animal or cattle), jugs with flowers (if the homeowners are farmers) or miniature ceramic musicians (if the homeowners are musicians). In the left photo above, you can see a saw, so perhaps the homeowner is a carpenter! These examples also show the dates the houses were erected, as well as roosters and other assorted items.

The bulls, cross and ladders on my roof, then, appear to be an example of the blending of the Catholic religion and native beliefs. The bulls are known as toritos, and are not just found on rooftops. I also have two ceramic bull sculptures decorating my apartment. These are toritos de Pukara, named after the Pukara region between Cusco and Juliaca, which is famous for its luck-bringing ceramic bulls. According to the Globetrotter Travel Guide: Peru, ‘Most are made in the village of Santiago de Pupaya, and the torito is linked to the centuries-old festival of Senalacuy, when cattle are herded together for branding and the most handsome bull is selected to sire next year’s calves. Ochre spirals are painted on the chosen bull’s hide, chilli peppers are rubbed under his tail and nose, and the unfortunate bull is then urged to canter around the village while being pelted with flowers and fruit.’

I'm glad I'm not one of those bulls! I'm also glad my house is blessed with wealth, though, fortunately, the fertility blessing is not something that concerns me these days! 

04 June 2011

Home sweet home

The arrows point to my front door and living room windows
I’m enjoying life in my new abode, a one-bedroom apartment here in Cusco. It’s in a small complex of 5 apartments, intended for tourist accommodation, so is a little more expensive than the local apartments. But it’s in a really handy location for me, only 5 minutes’ walk from the hotel where the volunteers stay, only 10 minutes’ walk into the centre of town, and 20 minutes’ walk to the bus stop for Oropesa. There are lots of good restaurants in easy walking distance, plus my local laundry is just around the corner (about $4 for a weekly load of washing), and there’s a great bakery, a chemist’s shop and a couple of small grocery shops just down the road.

The owners live here too; Mama and Papa in one apartment, and Javier, who runs the apartments and an eco-tour business, in another. There also seems to be another branch of the family downstairs, maybe another son and his wife. They are obviously prosperous – Javier drives a 4-wheel drive and the guy downstairs rides a Harley Davidson. I often bump into Mama as I leave in the morning, and we exchange greetings – well, I say "Hello", and "How are you?”, and “I’m fine”, but when she continues on in rapid Spanish, I just nod my head and smile a lot.

The rooms of my place have brightly painted walls in green, orange, red and cream, which are cheery. The block is divided into two parts, with a gap between, and the section slopes steeply downwards so, although my front wall is partly below street level, my living – dining room has lots of windows to let in the light.

The views out the side and the back
Peruvians are big on security (for good reason – I’ve had a phone stolen and someone took two old shovels from work yesterday), so most houses have bars on the windows, or are surrounded by tall walls with only one doorway to the street. Here we have a steel fence along the street front, with a gate that is triple-locked, my front door also has a triple-locking system, and there are bars on the road-side windows in my living room.

The place is cold – there is no heating. This is typical of Peruvian houses, as is the lack of running hot water. I have hot water for the shower, of course – it’s heated by some kind of electrical system, which sounds dangerous but doesn’t seem to be. Cooking is by gas, though I haven’t actually cooked anything yet, just heated water for the endless cups of tea I’m drinking. Eating out is so cheap that it would actually be more expensive to buy groceries and cook. I usually have a bread roll, a couple of slices of the delicious local cheese and tomatoes for breakfast, then eat out for lunch and dinner.

It’s good to be sleeping in a double bed again after three weeks in a very narrow single at the hotel. I kept waking up in the night – I think I was afraid to turn over in case I fell out! My bed is hard, but I like that, and it’s extremely cosy, with two thick duvets – necessary for the cold night-time temperatures. The last couple of nights it’s been down to 1° and next week’s forecast to be even colder.

The apartment has wi-fi, so my internet connection here is actually better than it was with my old dial-up system at home, and there’s cable TV, so I’m watching the same programmes as I did at home: the CSIs and House, plus lots of new ones. The programmes in English have sub-titles, which help with my slow attempts to learn Spanish, and many are either dubbed with Spanish voices or are made in Spanish.

The only thing I miss about my Auckland apartment is the sea view – but that’s not something I can fix in landlocked Cusco. And the high snow-covered peak at the end of the Cusco valley makes up for the lack of ocean – I love mountains, too!