Monday, December 20, 2004

Roast Guinea Pig.....(slurp!)

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Several of the most spectacular Inca sites have been identified as royal estates of Pachacuti.[the inca title for the man who had created the empire and was the son of the sun Inti]. They lie in a 100km stretch of the Urubamba drainage between Pisac and Machu Picchu also called the Sacred Valley of the incas.

We took a bus to Pisac which lies about 30km north from Cuzco. The slopes leading down to the settlement of Pisac are graced with splendid terraces that cascade hundreds of metres down slope. The ravines to the west are filled with scores of looted tombs, a mute witness to the pillaging of the empire. The bustling sunday weekly market had kicked life into Pisac early that morning and its center was swamped with every form of craft imaginable – llama finger-puppets, panpipes and various people lined up with dressed up alpacas and vicunas that you could take a picture with to send home.

More interesting for me however, was the varieties of food they had displayed inside the market. [What is a market for if not for food I ask you?] We found enclosures where guinea pigs were raised. The small edible animal (called Cuy) is considered a delicacy and is served at special occasions and ceremonies. (In the cathedral in the main square in Cusco is a large painting of the Last supper that was commissioned by the Spanish and painted by an Andean artist. It shows a roasted guinea pig on the table with a small jug of Pisco Sour – a nice Andean touch). We passed up the ‘Cuy’ but did try empanada and boiled Quechua corn that was delicious. There were huge sacks displaying different varieties of tubers such as potato, ulluco, talwi, oca and mashwa. It’s hard to imagine that the potato and tomatoes were a discovery of the ‘New world’. What would our cooking be without them?

From Pisac we proceeded on to Ollayntaytambo, 40km downriver and the best surviving example of Inca city planning with narrow cobblestone streets that have been constantly inhabited since the 13th century. Canals running through the streets function to this day providing fresh water and carrying away affluent. The stone at the site was quarried 6kms upstream high above the opposite bank of the Urubamba. Climbing up the steep terraces to the Temple of the sun we could see examples of unfinished stonework that gave us an idea of the work that must have gone into making the finished structures.

Sexy woman :)

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On a rocky outcrop above Cuzco lies Sacsayhuaman [or sexy woman for an easier pronunciation], the grandest military architectural complex of the empire and one of the archaeological wonders of the Americas. On the side facing the city there is only one wall on a rugged mountain slope. On the other side which is less steep, there are three, one higher than the other. Originally founded as a sun temple, it is a combination of religious architecture, fortress and ceremonial complex. But what makes the walls of Sacsayhuaman so remarkable? Was it the magnificent 3 tiered zig-zag fortifications? Was it because the terraces between the walls were wide enough for three carts to pass side by side? Or was it the fact that 4000 workers quarried the stones, 6000 hauled them in place while the remaining 10,000 dug trenches or laid foundations? Early witnesses provide some vivid descriptions:

“These walls are the most beautiful thing that can be seen of all the constructions in the land. This is because they are of such big stones that no one who sees them would say that they have been placed there by the hand of man. They are as big as pieces of mountains or crags…….[one of the stones was found to be 300 tons] These stones are not flat, but worked very well and fit together….These walls have curves so that if one attacks them one cannot go frontally but rather obliquely with the exterior”

The fort of Sacsayhuaman saw one of the bitterest battles between the Spanish and the rebellious Manco Inca. The Spanish had to put up a desperate attack to finally put an end to the rebellion forcing Manco Inca to retreat to the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and later to the jungle at Vilcabamba.

Navel of the um....universe!

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We landed at Cuzco, the sacred centre of the Inca empire, a small city of thatched roof houses nestled in a high mountain valley. Terraced fields, networks of canals and baths, hilltops, carved rock formations, temples, plazas and many other structures radiate outward from the center of Cuzco. Not surprising that the Incas called their capital the ‘navel of the earth’. During the Inca times, the city housed the empire’s royalty and nobility including all the service personnel that the elites needed to keep their lives running smoothly.

It is hard to imagine what the city may have looked like during the height of inca power, since much of its architectural features were affected during the clashes with the Spanish. The main temple at the Plaza des Armas for example, was converted into a monastery or church of the Santa Domingo. The story goes that the Spaniards looted the temple (which was called Coricancha – quechua for the golden courtyard and the most important shrine for the Inca. All the major celestial beings were worshiped here and this was where the important royal mummies were kept) and made away with mind-boggling quantities of gold. Luckily their greed was not able to budge the massive and impressive stonework. A perfectly fitted, curved 6m wall can be seen from outside the site. While much of the church of Santa Domingo was destroyed by the 1650 and the 1950 earthquakes, the inca walls survived both of these with hardly a crack! The stone blocks are so precise that for the most part you cannot tell where one block ends and the next begins. Still, what remains with you is a sense of sadness and outrage at what the Spanish did to the Inca temples. A beautiful reminder to the bigotry and the sheer brutality of those times!

Fall of the Inca empire

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In the early part of the 15th century, the smallpox epidemic had reached Peru (from Central America) and killed more than 200,000 people. The Sapa Inca (Inca chief) consulted his people and performed religious rituals. But nothing worked. Thousands of Incas caught smallpox and died. Eventually the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac caught smallpox as well, and died without naming a clear heir: some said it was his 25-year-old son Atahuallpa and others said it was 21-year-old Huascar — Atahuallpa's younger brother by a different queen. The empire plunged into a bloody civil war.

Francisco Pizarro’s 3rd visit to the new world could not have been better timed. When he and his companions (168 in number) entered in to the plaza at Cazamarca where the Inca prince Atahualpa was camped with his 80,000 man army, the encounter was not a complete surprise to either people. Atahuallpa knew about the progress of Pizarro, but the war with his brother Huascar occupied all his attention. To Atahuallpa’s everlasting regret, he judged Huascar to be the greater threat. The Spaniards, after all, were only 160 men.

Pizarro sent one of his priests, Friar Vicente Valverde, to speak to Atahuallpa. Friar Vicente explained that the Spanish ruler was a friend of God and called upon the Inca to renounce their gods. Atahuallpa asked Friar Vicente what authority he had for his belief, and the friar told him it was all written in the book he was holding.

The Inca then said: "Give me the book so that it can speak to me."
Atahuallpa held the book next to his ear trying to listen to its pages.
At last he asked: "Why doesn't the book say anything to me?"

And he threw it on to the ground with a haughty and disdainful gesture. Father Vicente shouted that the Indians were against the Christian faith and gave the order to attack. The Spanish emerged with their guns from the porticoes around the square and fired in to the massed crowds of unarmed people.

Why did Atahuallpa walk into the trap? [Text excerpt: "Guns, Germs, and Steel," by Jared Diamond]
In hindsight, we find it astonishing that Atahuallpa marched into Pizarro's obvious trap at Cajamarca. The Spaniards who captured him were equally surprised at their success. The consequences of literacy are prominent in the ultimate explanation.
The immediate explanation is that Atahuallpa had very little information about the Spaniards, their military power, and their intent. He derived that scant information by word of mouth, mainly from an envoy who had visited Pizarro's force for two days while it was en route inland from the coast. That envoy saw the Spaniards at their most disorganized, told Atahuallpa that they were not fighting men, and that he could tie them all up if given 200 Indians. Understandably, it never occurred to Atahuallpa that the Spaniards were formidable and would attack him without provocation.

In the New World the ability to write was confined to small elites among some peoples of modern Mexico and neighboring areas far to the north of the Inca Empire. Although the Spanish conquest of Panama, a mere 600 miles from the Incas' northern boundary, began already in 1510, no knowledge even of the Spaniards existence appears to have reached the Incas until Pizarro's first landing on the Peruvian coast in 1527. Atahuallpa remained almost entirely ignorant about Spain's conquests of Central America's most powerful and populous Indian societies.

Pizarro too arrived at Cajamarca with no information about the Incas other than what he had learned by interrogating the Inca subjects he encountered in 1527 and 1531. However, while Pizarro himself happened to be illiterate, he belonged to a literate tradition. From books, the Spaniards knew of many contemporary civilizations remote from Europe, and about several thousand years of European history. Pizarro explicitly modeled his ambush of Atahuallpa on the successful strategy of Cortes.

Atahuallpa was arrested and put in his cell. It was then that Atahuallpa — now understanding that the Spanish wanted gold — came up with his plan to ransom himself for it. For the Incas, the Spanish desire for gold was both curious and fascinating. For them, gold had an aesthetic rather than a monetary value. They used it for decorating their shrines, for the images of their gods, but not for bartering. Atahuallpa believed that if he paid up, they would go away. It never seems to have occurred to him that these few — fewer than 200 — might be the precursors of thousands, who would come to settle permanently in his land, and that one payment of gold would not be enough.

Once the ransom was paid, Atahuallpa was executed and Manco Inca established as a puppet Inca ruler.

Brief Inca history

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Although the Incas numbered only about 40,000, their empire stretched more than 2,500 miles along the west coast of South America encompassing over 10million inhabitants. The empire arose quickly in the 15th century and lasted only 4 generations. The fall of the empire makes for fascinating reading. In brief:
Francisco Pizarro and his band of 160 men landed in Peru at a time when the Inca empire was ravaged by small pox and a bloody civil war. Taking advantage of the situation, he was able to take Atahuallpa (the Sapa Inca) into custody, and later have him killed. Pizarro then triumphantly marched into Cuzco after appointing Manco Inca as the puppet ruler of the Incas.

Across the Equator

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Fast forward several years and I found myself on a plane taking me on my first trip to the southern hemisphere. It was late evening when we crossed the equator and the stars made their first appearance in the sky. ‘What would the night sky be like?’ I wondered. Wouldn’t it be strange to not have the familiar sight of the pole star (polaris)?’ What would it be like to get my first glimpse of the southern cross – the constellation that played a huge role in the Inca mythology and beliefs?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The journey begins

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Sometime ago browsing for books in the local library, I chanced upon a book which listed the 50 best hikes in the world. Out of curiosity, I opened the book and was drawn to a picture taken in the mountains of Peru. The picture was of the peak of Jirishanca, a peak towering up to one sharp pinnacle point across a chasm of precipices. At the bottom of the picture was a beautiful green meadow and a very tiny little tent. I amused myself for a while making imaginary trips to the places photographed in the book. I cast myself in the role of a modern day female Tintin starring in my own mini Adventure series. ‘Tintin in Tibet’ and ‘Tintin and the Prisoners of the Sun’ did much to get me inspired. Back to the real world though, my plans were vague but the idea of taking a length of time off from work to travel was born.