I’m ruined

Today we were off on a new adventure to the town of Pisac. We had organised for Edgar (yes him again) to pick us up at 9am. He sent us a text assuring us he would be there at the agreed meeting place which was a good idea considering the debacle with the pick up the other night from the train station. So here we were waiting at the pick up point. Anyone would have thought we were ‘working for a living’ considerning how many cars crawled up to us curbside opened the windows and offered us a lift. They always toot too to get your attention. No thank you, your services are not needed. The corner where we were waiting could be described as organised chaos if you were being really kind and just chaos of not. Single lane roads coming merging with a two way road. We saw one bingle where one car decided to reverse to get out of the jam straight into another. Talk about an aggressive driver – that was the one who reversed into the the other. He moved forwards to block all the traffic especially the car that he hit, got out of the car and then proceeded to hurl abuse at the poor guy who was totally innocent. The other cars having their paths even further obstructed did what comes naturally – hands up who guessed honk the horn! (Total aside here while I remember it, we have not seen one woman driving at car during our time here!)

 After this event came to a natural resolution (neither car was damaged), Val and I were talking about how despite the traffic it was quite good that there were no 4WDs. I was pacing around the intersection when a black Land Cruiser clipped the curb and nearly hit my foot. He honked at me. Ten minutes later still no Edgar, no messages and no calls. Then a guy came up to us and asked us if we had booked him from the airport. Ahh, no. Then he said “Edgar, Tipon?” Yes.  So it turns out this new guy Jorge (George) was here to pick us up and take us to where we going. He said he phoned us and there were no messages or missed calls on Val’s phone. Jorge was actually Edgar’s brother and was a tour guide. We walked to his car and guess what he drove. The black Land Cruiser. Anyway we were a bit annoyed that we hadn’t been told we weren’t getting Edgar as we specifically asked for him due to his driving skills and had not been informed of change of plans. Never mind as we had changed our plans with regard to the route we wanted to take to Pisac. We wanted to go to Sachsayhuawen instead of Tipon. So we were heading up the hill out of Cusco when the Land Cruiser konks out. Jorge tries to start it. Not going to work. We were on the bend of a hill so not a good place to be broken. He slowly goes down the hill backwards and pulls over. Not telling us what was happening he rings Edgar. Then he says “OK you stay here in the car and I will be back soon.” Nah, not staying in a locked car on a hill near a corner. We got out and sat on the opposite side of the road in the sun (you need to be in the sun first thing in the morning believe me) and we waited for 15-20 minutes for him to return. Can you believe he had run out of petrol!!!!!  Why wouldn’t you fill the car if you were going on a journey with paying customers (USD100 at that). Sure Pisac is only 24km from Cusco the short way but we were initially planning to go the long way. Edgar seemed a nice enough guy but maybe he was more interested in collecting green backs than the finer details of the service. Car filled and we were finally on our way. 

Jorge was actually a nice guy who was reasoanbly conversant in English. The interesting thing with his English though is that there seems to be a tour guide track where his English is just spot on and he can explain things very well. Outside of the that, if you asked him a question or tried to make conversation, it was somewhat limited. And so we went to visit four historical Incan sites, the first being Sachsayhuawen and the last being Pisac. Who cares about the other two. Here I was yet again in some ruins but this time with a guide. Jorge filled us in on all sorts of details about the site that sits on the hill above Cusco and seems to have been primarily used for religious ceremonies where they honoured Mother Earth and as a guard station due to its commanding views over Cusco.  Some of the information we were given was different to what you can read from reputable sources. Shock me. Yes there is no doubt that the Incan stone work that you can see up there is magnificently engineered but once you have seen it …….  For me the best thing about being up there was the view down into Cusco. The Plaza de Armas is quite distinguishable from up there and we could see there were more processions.  If you had to assign a colour to Cusco the only colour you could choose is terracotta. From this view, La Catedral is on the bottom of the frame on the left and the Jesuit Cathedral that competed with the cathedral is in the middle of the frame at the bottom.  See the bell tower on the middle left edge of the frame, we are staying 5 minutes walk to the left of that. 

After two uninspiring stops at more ruins, we arrived at the small town of Pisac and headed straight up a winding hill to the ruins. The most spectacular thing about this place was the terraces that went down into a step valley. The qolqas (where the grain is stored) sat high above on the top of the hill. Over in the distance we could see where the Incas (remember they were the royalty and the upper administrative classes) were mummified and buried in caves on a nearby hill. Nearly all the caves have long since been pillaged by grave robbers. Jorge blamed the Spanish but I’m sure there were some opportunistic locals at some time in the past. From this point we could look down and see the some of the town and the Urumbamba River. 

Now here I am now having scrambled up and down numerous stone steps, seen numerous terraces made from stone walls, seen a number of reconstructed stone storage facilities and houses and a number of sun gates which the tour guides get so excited about. I’m ruined. I don’t want to see anymore ruins! The way the Incan Empire is promoted is a somewhat romantised version of the probable reality. It sounds as though the Incans were glorious and wonderful. In truth it seems that they conquered existing agricultural communities and supplanted their own rules and customs/rituals on those they conquered. And they were very effective in what they did since their empire extended from Equador down to Chile. I read that each new Incan king could not inherit the lands of his predecessors and hence had to conquer new lands. One way of insuring your dominance continues. I had wondered after being at Machu Picchu, why they built where they did. I have decided that the Incans had three reasons for building on really steep hillsides rather than in the rich alluvial planes – a) sun exposure – they built to the north so on the hillside they maximized sun exposure for their crops, b) perhaps saved them from flooding in the rainy season and lastly c) they need to be on hills for visibility in order to protect them from attack. And on further reading, despite what the guides may tell you, life was not that peaceful under the rule of the Incas and rivalry and warfare between areas was not uncommon. The other thing that fascinates me with the way in which the Incan way of life is romantised here and seemingly revered, is that fact that all they really were good at doing was building structures that can withstand earthquakes in seemingly impossible places and subjugate others. However, they never developed an alphabet and as a consequence have no rich literary or artistic tradition. When you compare with European societies of the same time, the Incans were really quite ‘primative’. I can’t really see much about their society to romantise it. So I have had enough of hearing about the Incans and their ruins. I am ruined out. 


Oh when the Saints …

The train out of Agues Calientes ended with the driver we had organised not being at the train station in Poroy to meet us. We had a hunch that he might be late as Edgar (the guy who took us to Ollantaytambo) told us that the trains are often late. Nah, not ours. Peru Rail arrived 1minute early. The sun had well and truly gone to bed at 7.04pm and we had to look around in the dark to find someone with our names on a board. I scouted, Val scouted. Nada sign. To get out of the station area we had to go through a gate that was not fully open. I went out and Val genuflected introducing her knees to the pavement whilst praying someone was there to meet us. Nope, no-one outside the gate with a placard bearing our names either. It’s interesting how you can make a quick decision in times like these. We were in a town some 15km from Cusco, in the dark. Passengers were thinning out quite quickly as were the numbers of taxis drivers hoping to make some Soles with a ride to Cusco. Decision time. We both agreed without even having to discuss it that we were going to take a taxi and not risk hanging around waiting for someone to show up. Bad luck for the guy who either didn’t show or didn’t hold up a sign in such a way that we could see him. 

We hadn’t travelled out at night other than walking the local streets. Towns take on a different appearance at night. Being tourists we really live in a different world to the locals. Under the yellow glow of street lighting everything looked so much more impoverished. The streets were dirty and dusty. The days rubbish was left out on the streets in plastic bags and these were potential food sources for the many street dogs. The dogs all looked dirty and dusty. Territory wars were more obvious once there was food to defend or challenge for. Yet again I was reminded of some of the outer suburbs of Nepal. Perhaps I make unfair comparisions with Nepal, and it is rather a situation indicative of many developing nations. We tourists live in a bubble of illusion.

The alarm clock the next morning was fireworks at 6.30am. This has happened most mornings that I have been here and are associated with the festivities. Could only mean one thing, more parades today. But this day was special. The Saints, who you might remember have been doing secret saint business in La Catedral, were due to leave and return home for another year. In order to experience the day to its fullest we went off to 8.30am Mass. La Catedral is like so many catholic churces of Spanish origin – somewhat cold and uninspiring. But the presence of the 15 Santo and Santa surrounding the area where Mass was held really made the cathedral come alive. There they were lit up and surrounding with numerous vases of gladioli and the similarity with the Buddhist deities and the offerings places at their feet was not lost on me. They really had a presence as they towered over you. San Jeronimo, in his glorious red and gold robes topped with a red cardinal hat (see below) had eyes that glowed or perhaps even glowered. Very powerful. The locals who came into the cathedral to see their saints stood in reverence before them crossing themselves in the way that Catholics do. Some would touch the pedestals presumably to receive the blessings of that saint in much the same way the Tibetan Buddhists do when in front of holy objects. Mass started promptly at 8.30 with the priest making his appearances and delivered Mass in front a standing room only congregation. Some priests back home would no doubt be envious.  No photo was the rule here too. 

The striking thing for me when attending the two Masses I have been to is the symbolic similarities between what I saw here and what I have experienced in Tibetan Buddhism. Both have a very clear idea of holy objects that are viewed with devotion and veneration. Both have symbols representative of what is considered the ultimate devinity. Both have some form of teaching of their own particular gospel. Both have some form of offering made to the holy objects namely incense and flowers. Both have some form of blessing that is delivered by the priest or lama/guru in the form of being touched by a holy object or being offered holy substances. Both hold processions of holy objects.  Both require a sense of belief that goes beyond normal conventional understanding. They are both different but maybe, just maybe, they are actually the same. Same same but different?

Like most other days I have been in Cusco, there were heaps of people around. What was interesting for me this time was that before I went away I found it really exciting. This time, having been away from crowds of people, it was all rather overbearing. So what did I do? Sought refuge in the most beautiful cloister I have ever been in. I walked past the Templo y Convento De La Merced and since the gates were open and it stated that it was a museum, I went in. In truth as I said it was partly to get away from the crowds. One of the great tragedies as a tourist is this restriction that I have mentioned before on not being allowed to take photos in religious places.  Some things are so beautiful they need to be shared. I was told at the entrance that, once again, no photos of the paintings and only in the cloister. No problems. 

Some things in life take your breath away. This was one of those. The moment I walked behind the thick heavy doors and they were closed behind me, the stillness was palpable. Yes the paintings in the first room were interesting but that wasn’t it. The cloister! The roof of the bottom floor was intricately carved timber. The walls covered in massive religious paintings. The garden something out of an English country gardening book. I’ve not seen anything like this before. And a sense of all pervasive peace. Ahhh, time to sit and just be. And no, that is not a Tibetan nun although you could be forgiven for thinking so. 

There were many rooms that comprised the ‘museum.’ Golden objects that including a huge crown and a holy monstrance that was encrusted with jewels. Hooley Dooley – this place is rich in monetary values not just spiritual. An old chamber painted directly onto white render painted likely back when the cathedral was reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. And the choir stalls …. Mary sitting there.  No, no I didn’t take these. Not me. 

A place to find peace. It was so nice that I insisted Val come back to see it as she hadn’t been during her stay in Cusco last year. Val has a very different view to me on such maters and if I say that she was really impressed, that speaks volumes about this place. I may just return in my last three days there. 

The religious activities of the day were not finished though. The big special bell of La Catedral tolled, fire crackers were lit and counch shells sounded. Oh when the saints, oh when the saints going marching out (of the Cathedral).  A big crowd but nothing like Corpus Christi. This time you could walk in front of the saints if you wanted. One obvious thing with these saints is that they have large wardrobes. A few were wearing the third set of clothes I have seen them in. I suppose their attendants who sleep with them in the cathedral have to have something to do since they are not privey to discussions so can’t take minutes. Round the Plaza de Armas they went, nodding to the Jesuit Cathedral and to each other as they passed. Then they returned in to the Cathedral together for one last goodbye in time to go home the following morning. 

One of the memories that will stay with me is looking through grills into a sectioned off area of the Convento de Santa Clara. It was a small chapel with not much light coming into it. Suddenly, revealed right in front of me was a nun in a full habit including whimple with the light shinning on her face seemingly in quiet contemplation. And then looking around, there were two more sitting there with blissful looks on their faces. Its hard to imagine such a life or is it? The idea of a contemplative life ……

Machu Picchu

Once you embark on a journey to Machu Picchu you are sucked into the mouth of a giant mouthbrooding cichlids fish called Tourism. For those of you who don’t know what a cichlids fish it is on one that holds it brood in it’s mouth opening it to suck them in and then again to spits them out. Yes that is what happens here. To get here  is the mouth opening sucking all the little tourist babies into it’s clutches.  It starts with the way you get here. It has be one of two ways – the long way by foot trapsing over stoney paths through the cloud forest or the much easier way via train. There is no other way as the road does not reach Agues Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. The two train companies cater only for tourists; you cannot catch the more colourful local trains. Have to keep the tourists from the locals. Sure the train you get is likely more comfortable and you get little luxuries like trolley service which includes a snack and a drink. However the down side is that you pay up to $100 for the 100km trip. $1 per kilometer. What a bargain. I was excited to walk down to the train though as it meant I was embarking on a journey to a place that I long ago decided I wasn’t going to get to. Once you get to the train station the whole thing is a highly polished affair. The staff of Peru Rail are in the most immaculate uniforms that would not be out of place in a five start hotel. You are checked on in a systematic way where your tickets and passports are checked. The journey begins with the toot of a horn and you feel the carriages couple in that clunking way.  Ah, the romance of a train journey. 

Arrival at Agues Calientes has you entering the town through …. the market. See I told you that everywhere is a commercial opportunity. You have to walk through a couple of 100m of the same stalls selling the same things for the same prices as you see in every other town that has a tourist population with wallets that have the to potential to open. That sets the flavor of the town. I say that as this whole town is set up towards tourists traveling there for only one thing: Machu Picchu. There is no other reason to come here. It is nothing more than hotels and restaurants all geared up to cater for the daily influx of tourists. Oh, there is a hot water baths hence the name Aguas Calientes but there is really nothing else. Locals do live here but they are mainly involved in the industry of tourism whether it be the rail service, the hotels, building more hotels, Machu Picchu or just possibly the hydro-electric station up the line a little. 

The fun thing with Agues Calientes the actually the train line. There is the posh tourist station and then there is the local station. The line for the local station runs right through one of the two main streets. It is so close to the buildings (houses or shops) it’s actually quite fun. The first inkling you get that it is coming into the station is possibly the blaring of a horn. More telling is a deep rumbling that intensifies as the train gets closer. As it gets even closer the building starts to gently shake. Residents of Christchurch would not like it and would be down on the floor and under a bed as soon as they hear it. It really does resemble an approaching earthquake. “Stop, drop and roll away from the cracks.” Nah, its just a train. 

I make it sound as though AC is an unappealing little town. That’s not quite true. It is built on the confluence of two rivers and is surrounded by steep hills that just rise out of the base of the river. We were lucky enough to have what was possiby the best hotel room in town – we were right on the river with windows on two sides enabling us to look up and down the river. Just stunning if you ignore the plastic bags.  The other thing that being on the riverside allows you to see is the back end of buildings. Rough finishes, half finished or bits of reinforcing protruding out of columns awaiting the next addition making this building one higher than its neighbors. I know at the beginning of the this journey I mentioned how much Cusco reminded me of Kathmandu. AC reminds me of one of the numerous towns set up for the trekking industry located along one of the many rivers. Not much difference expect for two things. This town is CLEAN. The streets are regularly swept by armies armed with a broom and dust pan and there are so many more shops and restaurants. It is what Nepal could be if it ever got its act together. Actually make it three things. The third thing is the dogs. 

Most third world countries have an abundance of street dogs. The difference between the ones here and anywhere else in the world, especially Nepal, is that these dogs on the most part are friendly. People are kind to them. Many wear collars suggesting they are either loved or have been loved in the past. And so many of them wear clothes. I kid you not. Many have a jumper or even perhaps a pink dress with frills on. Obvious owners can be hard to find. The other stand out feature with these dogs is how many are of pedigree origin and yet seem to live on the streets. I have seen labradors, schnauzers, a Mexican hairless and even spaniels all of whom seem to have a life on the streets. Lots of fluffy things too with matted hair. While it obviously hard living on the street, none of them appear to be emmaciated or in obvious ill health. We were told that the restaurants feed them the food left over at the end of the day. True? Who knows. Me, being a sucker, has to stop and pat most dogs as who doesn’t love a pat. On one occasion I made a special friend. Val and I were sitting in a cafe at the end of the one of the main streets where the foot traffic is considerably less than elsewhere. This little dog with an overshot lower jaw resembling something like a spaniel/chihuahua cross caught my eye. I made that classic clicking sound one makes when trying to attract a dogs attention. She turned and came straight up to me probably in the hope of food. She looked at me, wagged her tail and then licked me. Won over instantly. I picked her up and put her up on my lap. She just turned around, leaned into me and put her head under my elbow. Gone. And there she stayed on my lap curled up sleeping. She only woke when I dangled bits of cooked chicken breast in front of her nose. Yes it was ordered for the purpose of feeding her. Her interest was in the chicken only turning her nose up with chips. Obviously not too hungry. She seemed to enjoy the company more than the food. I saw her again the next day at the other end of town. I was greeted with a wag and lick but then she was off on secret dog business. 

Enough about the town of AC, what about Machu Picchu? That cichlid fish called Tourism continues to suck you into its mouth. You have to buy an entry ticket before you can go into the site. You can either buy them online in advance, with what turns out to be a premium, or you can buy them in the ticket office in AG. Supposedly only 2500 people are allowed on the site in any one day but this does not include the 400 who are allowed to climb Huanya Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains. At USD50 for a basic ticket only, it doesn’t take long to see that like the temples at Angkor, one site is a cash cow for the country. And I haven’t even mentioned the bus ticket that you need to buy unless you want to walk up a 8km winding road or up 1750m worth of steps. The bus ticket will set you back another USD15. Just add up how much money is spent by tourists on a daily basis. Did mention that the ticket office takes Soles only, no cards. One way of guaranteeing cash flow. 

Being a bit of a shutterbug, my main interest was getting up to Machu Picchu for the best light. Morning or afternoon was what I continued to agonize over.  Morning has the mists and them breaking up with the rising of the sun, afternoon has the best light for an overview of the city from the Guard House and less people. Decisions. The prospect of rising mists won the day. Whatever you read about visiting Machu Picchu, it says going in the morning is better for missing the day tripping crowds and the lines for the buses aren’t that long. Ummm, clearly no-one in town had read the same websites as me. The line was at least 500 people at 6.10am. The irony is a lot of people go this early as they want to get the sunrise. You don’t get any sunrise up there. Not only is it likely to be misty but the sun comes up from behind a mountain at least an hour after the sun actually rises. Hint for those who want to go there – if you travel as a solo passenger you can get on the buses more quickly as they leave with no seat empty when it is busy and they always seem to have one seat left. The good news is that despite the size of the queue the wait is not too long as they buses roll around every 5 – 10 minutes.  I was on the bus 30 minutes after going the long line. 

It is a 20-30 minute journey up a road of 13 switch backs to reach the site. The road is wide enough for two way traffic but the down hill bus always gives way to the ascending bus before entering a corner. Forunately for someone like me, the bus goes slowly enough not to suffer any ill effects from so many winds in the road. When you are up on the site, you can look down on the buses and they seem smaller than matchbox cars. 

As I had expected and hoped for, it was indeed misty up there when I arrived about 7am. There were times when I couldn’t see anything of the site and there were other times when they parted just enough to give a sense of mystery to the place. It is after all supposed to be somewhat ‘mystical’ and a Peruvian power place. Why? Who knows. Maybe it is exactly because who knows. Like the other ruins, no body really knows much about this place other than it being built by the Incans and being on a trade highway. The rest is conjecture. Even of the history, I was interested in the know and what I saw. Morning mist, that’s what. 

As the sun rose the mists lifted and the site was revealed. There is no doubt that Machu Picchu is an impressive place. Unlike Ollantaytambo is was easier to get an idea that this place was a living breathing village with distinct areas that had their own purpose. There was the agricultural area with its terraces and grain storage areas (qolquas), living quarters and areas set aside for religious events. It is a big site and can take a good 2-3 hours to walk around. Three if you have a guide who is explaining every little detail about something they can’t be sure of. Did I have a guide? I bet you can work that one out for yourselves. I wanted just to wander and capture what I saw. I was lucky enough to be here before the changes come into being on the 1st of July – no one can enter the site without a guide. Why this is happening who knows as the whole site is so well controlled with people stationed regularly ensuring you go in the right direction and don’t access areas that are off limits. I would hate having a guide as you might have guessed. I just want to capture what I see, even if it is looking through the trapezoidal window Leave the other stuff for other people. 

Who doesn’t want a photo of a llama. They grace the site with their presence but in practice they are the ideal way to cut down on the lawn mowing bills. They tend to ignore tourists who don’t do the same for them. I got acquainted with Gina and Lucy. You might think I made up their names which would be totally reasonable, but I didn’t. Check out their ear tags.

All cynisicm aside, Machu Picchu was certainly worth going to. Some people visit twice in one day or fork out more dollars to do it all again the next day. Personally I wouldn’t do it unless I just didn’t get any images that worked for me. Yes, it is spectacular and visiting does leave you with more questions that answers. Why on earth did they build on such an inaccessible mountain top? How on earth did they construct it given its location and the size of some of the stones that make up the site? These are just a few. These very things that make up the glory of Machu Picchu may well be their undoing too. It is now firmly on the tourist map and UNESCO (it is world heritage listed) consider it to be underthreat simply due to its success. The Peruvian Government scientists state that Machu Picchu is sinking 1-2cm a year due to, wait for it, people jumping up in the air to taking the trophy selfie and they have banned jumping up and down. Damn, I missed my chance. They are also introducing a new ticketing system as of 1 July this year whereby you have to buy a ticket for the morning or the afternoon. Nobody is quite sure how this will work. The many daytrippers from Cusco don’t arrive until after 10am which will force them to buy an afternoon ticket. They will have to come back down on the last bus ticket at 5pm and then catch a train which is 4 hours back to Cusco. The change will seemingly force them into staying a night in Aguas Calientes. You have to wonder exactly how these changes will benefit the site as they are reportedly going to be selling the same number of daily tickets. Perhaps the cichlid Tourism might just choke on one of its babies. 

Ollantaytambo Рa little gem. 

What a little gem of a village. This village is nestled in down below the old Incan ruins. From the moment I arrived I fell in love with this place. You leave the main road and wind up a cobbled road of a couple of switch backs through and after a short time you are in the Plaza de Armas. No chance in missing this is a tourist based town as all the buildings except one around the Plaza are either selling tourist souvenirs or food for tourists. The only shopfront not engaged in tourist based commercial activities is the Church. Despite this it just had a charm to it that was palpable. And our hotel room. Leave aside the fact that it was the warmest and sunniest room we had been in for some time, the view was to die for – straight up to the Incan ruins. Of course I planned it that way. I reckon we had the best room in town. 

The reason why people visit Ollantaytambo is really for the ruins. The ruins were built by the last Incan king and didn’t get finished as the Spanish finished his rule first. He didn’t go down without a fight though as he actually was the one king to win the first round. No luck the second time. The ruins were never finished. The standout of these ruins were the terraces which you can see in the above photo. To the left of the terraces is a set of stairs and let me say it is no little jaunt climbing these. They certainly set your heart a flutter. The thing I find with these ruins is that so much of what you hear about them is probably conjecture. Not much in the way of records was left by the Incans (they used knotted strings) so I am pretty sure that a lot of the reported subtle details of everyday life is likely be lost/myth/guess work/whatever.  I don’t believe what tour guides say as you may have gathered from my previous blog. In truth, I don’t really care about what this wall part of or why this stone was put here and who supposedly bathed under this water spout. I was exactly the same with the temples of Angkor. Rather I like to see it as it appears to be, what is left and how it looks. Or perhaps how the light is playing with what is there. So if you are looking for photos of the ruins, better look somewhere else.  I can show you that the stairs down from the second set of terraces to the living areas were steep and that you can get a nice view of the village from up there.

The llamas enjoy grazing on the terraces. 

One of the standouts of this town for me was the mountains. Ollantaytambo sits in a valley flanked by mountains. No snow on them but they were just beautiful. Many are jagged and appear to rise straight out of the valley floor. The way they attract and play with light is just fabulous. They never look the same. What was interesting was how blue the light was. There are a lot of ecualyptus trees around so whether it is the oil released by them or just mountain haze, I don’t know.  

For me the other major charm was the actual village and its people. The village is reputably dated back to Incan times. All the houses are set on stone foundations on cobbled lanes – four running north/south and 6 running east/west. The four are wider than the six but none have cars on them. Perhaps the odd motorbike or three wheeled mototaxi (the Peruvian version of a tuk tuk). A pleasant change. The four also have irrigation channels running their length. I couldn’t find out if this was the houses water supply which would be interesting considering many of the dogs play in the channels. The houses have remain in the family and are passed down from generation to generation.  
When walking in the lanes, if you are lucky you will see an older woman (or less likely man) still wearing traditional clothing walking along the lanes. In the later part of the day, young girls or teenagers dress in their traditional colourful clothing for, you guessed it, tikkipiccha. They don’t have a cute animal in tow though like their counterparts in Cusco. 

THe morning before we left, I had to go out just one more time. We found the local produce market the day before but it was winding up. Local markets really are the place to see locals just doing what they do. Some are weary of tourists as we all come with a camera (well most of us anyway). Some will look away and some just ignore the camera. The problem is the colour of the Peruvians is just too hard to go by, it is just so intense. And photogenic. 

Morning mission accomplished and time to head back for a quick breakfast before leaving this pretty little town. Ollantytambo is one little place that will etched in my memory.  Next stop Agues Callientes and Machu Picchu. What was it that I said at the beginning of this blog about ruins?

Into the Sacred Valley.

Time to leave Cusco and it’s parades to go see some of the other parts of the Sacred Valley. I was a bit nervous doing this given my propensity to get decidely unwell on winding roads, so I left with a bit to trepidation. In order to somewhat reduce the effects of my malfunctioning vestibular system we organised for Edgar to pick us up and drive us to Ollantaytambo. He picked us up at airport and seemed like a very careful considerate driver and when meeting with him to discuss what we wanted to do he certainly demonstrated an understanding of motion sickness and the need to not take corners as though he was on a race track in a F1 car. Any worries I may have had proved to be totally unnecessary. Whether that was due to the pills I took before hand, his driving or just plain luck – don’t know, don’t care. The memories of a certain bus trip from Ronda to Cadiz last year remained just that. 

Our first stop along the route we chose to travel was a gorgeous little hilltop town, Chinchero. Its higher than Cusco at 3700m and you notice the difference walking up steps to the old church but there really is nothing to worry about. The church is just gorgeous perched once again on the base of an Incan temple and over looking Incan ruins. The Spanish conquerors really did know how to crush the heart of the people. Our driver Edgar told us that the church was built in the 1500s and the roof was made from Ecualyptus trees. Ummm, really! Considering Australia wasn’t settled until 1788, explain how that works? Leads to the whole question of what guides tell you. No matter where you are in the world guides seem to have a single view of point of the history they recite to their audience. And it is not always the same story that is told. Maybe more on this later as I digress again. I would love to show you the interior of the church but here in the Cusco region they do not allow any photography inside the churches. Reportedly this is due to many of the magnificent art works on display being originals and they don’t want anyone to copy them. So we are told. What I can tell you is that this church like many others is cold inside. Where it differs is the beautiful frescos painted on white stucco and this gives a sense of lightness in what would be another dark stoned cold church. Oh you will be pleased to know that some of the saints were here having a chat too. So it turns out that the saints must be enlightened after all and have the capacity of spontaneous appearances simultaneously in as many places as they choose. Perhaps all religions do end up at the same point after all, just different terminology. 

One of things of note with Chinchero is the abundunance of commercial opportunities. As with any other tourist destination in the world, the streets leading to the main attraction are lined with vendors all selling the same products and eternally hopeful they will be the lucky ones for whom the wallet opens.  No different here on the way to the church. Out on the main roads in the newer part of town is a different enterprise but again no different with many people peddling the same product. This time it was traditional weaving demonstration and sale of traditional products. We were going to bypass these places for while the demonstration is free, the subtle pressures for a wallet opening is palpable. We were just about out of the danger zone when Val spotted one and asked Edgar to turn the car around. She wanted to stop at this place even though she has seen the demonstration before. Maybe it was the five ladies sitting outside in their traditional clothing spinning wool, don’t know, but in we went. To our surprise we were greated with a delightful woman who spoke English and offer a cup of coca tea (a delightful blend of mint and aniseed taste). It really was quite information and amazing to see how these women ply their very skilled craft. What they use for wool dye is astounding but not as much as squashing live beetles that live on cactus plants to produce cochineal dye and how adding other products such as lemon changes the intensity and tone of the red. It can even be used as lipstick and lasts 200 kisses. I didn’t try that out. They use the old waist looms and how they can remember let alone organise their fingers to weave the pattern is beyond me. Umm, the wallet did open so I wasn’t immune. Needless to say it was a photo opportunity for me. 

Wherever there is stop for a point of interest, there is a commercial opportunity.  More ‘traditional’ clothing and more opportunities to tikki piccha with llamas. Sombreros were the flavor of the day where there was a place to pull over and look down into the Urubamba Valley. But who can resist a llama? This one was given the name of Australia. So we are told. 

It is a beautifl drive. The peaks of the Andes in the distance, sadly missing snow. There are some visible glaciers but Edgar told us there is normally a lot of snow on the peaks. Sad. It is currently harvest time out in the field with either wheat, quinua (spelt the local way) and potates.

The place that I really wanted to visit en route was Salineras de Maras. In case you can’t guess what I am referring to it is the salt ponds perched seemingly impossibly on the edge of a mountain. These ponds have been used to harvest mineral salt (not sea salt you know, it much better than that as it has other minerals like calcium) since before the Incan times (pre 1300s). There is just this one spring only about 30-40cm wide that has been successfully channeled to create an amazing sight. The hillside is literally covered with the ponds which are flooded and then left for the water to evaporate under the relentless Andean sun leaving behind salt crystals. The water is very, very salty to taste but different in taste to what we would call salty water. Val put her hand in the water which almost immediately dried. Her camera still has a bit of a salty powder on it. You have to pay 10 Soles (about $3.50) to get in there but all the proceeds go back to the community as they run the whole show. Boy they must make a packet as the place was packed when we visited. Would it surprise you if I said we had to run the commercial opportunity alley to get to the ponds. Only extra thing they sold here was packets of salt. Never mind as it really was stunning to see and something I’m unlikely to see again. Spot the two people in the fourth image to get an idea of the size of this place.

Not long afterwards we arrived at the small village of Ollantaytambo which is dominated by mountains and Incan ruins. You will have to wait to find out more about this place but here is a teaser. This is the view from my window. Why the delay? Well it is a simple as my iPad has just about run out of charge. The joys of the modern world whilst visiting the ancient. 

The meeting of minds – Corpus Christi

If you are lucky enough to be in Cusco in June you are left in no doubt that Catholism is a big deal. The Plaza de Armas (central square) is the only one in South America to have two cathedrals almost adjacent to each other. Ignore the fact that the Dominicans who were here first built The Cathedral and the Jesuits wanted to build a more ornate one and the Pope had to adjudicate between the two as which one could the most elaborate. By the time word came back from Papa in Rome, the Jesuits had almost finished theirs so it didn’t matter than Papa said The Cathedral had to be the more ornate. Back on track, most of the month of June is dedicated to Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) which occurs some 60 days after the Resurrection.  

Corpus Christi is celebrated in Cusco by way of the 15 saints who, let’s say, look after the welfare of Cusco and its inhabitants. Each of these saints lives in their own place of residence (i.e a different church) but get together in the Cathedral every year the day before Corpus Christi to get reacquainted with the body of Christ. How do they get to the Cathedral you may well asked. Well they are carried on the shoulders of the devout through the city streets. They leave their churches amid the tones of church bells, conch shells and even have rose petals or confetti showered on them. A band follows them down the street filling the air with joyous noises alerting those mortals around them adoring of their presence. Leading them through the streets are those loyal devotees who have given their time and likely money in organizing for them to travel to the Cathedral for the week. It’s the poor porters that one has to have the greatest sympathy for. The Saints are not little and the pedestals on which they stand are rather large and ornate, perhaps even solid silver in the case of a few of the Virgin Saints. These poor porters heave and struggle under the weight especially as they go down the church steps. One can only hope they get full atonement of their sins for their efforts. Since San Pedro (Saint Peter) is one of the 15, perhaps he gives all the porters a key to the pearly gates for their hardships.  

In all seriousness though, it really is quite something to see. I knew when San Blas was going to be leaving his church so I made sure I was there to witness it. There was a Holy Communion in the church (which I attended too if you must know and it was really quite lovely) before his departure and the porters received a special blessing before their journey. I followed his procession down narrow steep streets. One  thing that really stuck in my mind was, here are some 20 men struggling with this heavy saint on their shoulders and the boys who go in front carrying a great table on which to rest the saint, stopped as one of them tried to answer his mobile phone. Some of the words expressed didn’t seem too saintly. 

After having watched San Blas’ journey, I headed to the Plaza de Armas only to be treated with Santa de los Remedios. I headed further up the road towards an other plaza with a church or two and through the 50,000 people who were there, so were other saints. (San Sebasti√°n, Santa Barbara and her sister Santa Ana). Plaza Francisco had come alive with hundreds of people who where all there celebrating eating the traditional food including cuy. And for those of you who don’t know what cuy is – guinea pig. 

Further up the road to Plaza San Pedro, more saints leaving the churches where they had been resting on their journey to the Cathedral. Santa Catarina appeared totally regal whilst  San Pedro looked replesdant as he overlooked the city. The costumes of some of their devotees weren’t half bad either. 

Santa Belena was the last to arrive.

The next day is Corpus Christi.  An outdoor mass was held on the steps outside the Cathedral with the 15 saints overseeing proceedings. Santa Belen was in her rightful place keeping an eye over the Archbishop. She is so pretty and if I had to have a favourite it would be her. Following the mass, the Corpus Christi is driven around the Plaza in an ornate silver challis allowing all.   to get acquainted with the body of Christ. When this is returned to the Cathedral the 15 Saints are then carried around the Plaza by their faithful for all to receive blessings from them. San Jeromino, San Christobel (they like him as he likes to dance and have a good time) and Santiago (of the Camino fame) were all crowd favourites. And what a crowd there was.

I was able to get many of these images as I had reserved a first floor balcony in one of the cafes over looking the square for the grand sum of 40 Sole ($13) so I could see the parade with an uninterrupted view. I actually ended up sharing this balcony with a family one of whom was 91 and didn’t look a day over 70 (thanks be to the blessing of God), another old woman from Cusco who had never had a balcony view before, a couple of other women members of the family and another member of the family came to join us who was none other than a priest. And even better, Val arrived from Spanish school so we had a running comentary through the parade. 

Back to the parade. Once the saints had done a circuit of the Plaza, they returned to the cathedral where they reside for 7 days. Over the week they hold important meetings discussing the issues that will present themselves with Cusco in the next year. Reportedly the men saints are more pessimistic full of doom and gloom compared with the female saints who take an optimistic view on life. The important matters only happen in hushed tones at night supposedly not to awaken their human attendants whilst during the day, the saints are all rigid as they listen to the prayers of the local visitors. Oh to be fly on the wall. After 7 days they return to their homes for another year. I shan’t be there to see next year’s event but I might just hang around the Cathedral next week to see them leaving for home. 

Every day is a parade

It’s hard to believe, but its true. Every day is a parade. Each day brings a new display of colour and the sound of pounding drums. The combination of the two makes it all very difficult to resist. The music and drums just draw you in and it doesn’t matter how many times you see the same dance performed (and lets face it there are only so many folk dances), they never fail to delight. Who can resist a festive atmosphere and the crowds certainly enjoy the occasion.  One the days where schools are performing the stands are filled with cheer leading squads who raise as much noise as possible in support of their dance team. It was obviously a competition as the attention to detail was incredible. Each team had to perform their routine about five or six times for a total of about 10 minutes each time. By the time they got to the last performance many were clearly buggered, sweating leaning forward gasping for breath, aching blistered feet but when the signal came, they would rally again for one last time as though it was the first time. Some dances are more spectacular than others and without a doubt my favourite was one where the men dressed in the most amazing grass head dress (and reportedly heavy) that reminded me of a grass version of the Jewish Shtriemel. The girls wear brightly sequinned skirts heavily pleated skirts that fly up in the many spins and twirls.  The variety of costumes really needs to he seen to be believed. Really if you have to describe it, it is all about the colour and the costumes. 

While these parades are based on traditional folk dances, there was one group that was a break from what we had gone before. There is a major Incan festival called Inti Rymi celebrated at winter solstice. This is a modern day version of the Incan celebrations of Sun God (Quechuan = Inti Raymi) was apparently ‘reconstructed’ the ceremony from historical records in 1944 and has been celebrated since. The Cuscoans certainly have a lot of pride in their Incan heritage placing a lot of importance on Inti Raymi.  Usually on Inti Raymi there is a whole day of ceremony that is held across three different sites in Cusco, but he also made an appearance at these parades associated with the most important festival of Corpus Christi which is quite ironic considering the ruling Catholic oppressors. It would be easy to think of this whole Inti Raymi festival as being ‘fake’ but that could never be said to a Peruvian. Regardless, the Incan king and his entourage were impressive. No doubt back in the time of the Incans, his presence would have been spectacular. 

But the festivals don’t stop here. I haven’t even covered Corpus Christi yet! Spectacular in a totally different way. 

“You take picture”

You really only have to be in Cusco for five minutes to realise what THE tourist game is for memories of your time in Cusco.  Around the main tourist areas (the streets of San Blas and just behind the Cathedral on Plaza de Armas), you are met with women, young and older, in bright ‘traditional’ clothing accompanied by either a baby lamb, a cute white fluffy alpaca or a bit of a scruffy llama (pronounced Yama, which is not to confused with the Lord of Death in Tibetan Buddhism). I say ‘traditional’ clothing for the style is traditional however the colours are so garish from the brightly dyed cheap Chinese synthetic wool and sequins (forgive me if I make an incorrect assumption of origin of product). These women reportedly come in from the neighbouring villages with their animals solely for the purpose of having portrait sessions commissioned by tourists who always have a camera at the ready. The fee is considered to be a donation but in reality this is how they make their living. I read a blog by CuscoEats where the author, who is a Cusco local, asked another local what these women were called. Tikkipiccha was his reply as this is what they sound like. 

As soon as I saw a photo of two of these chilotas in their beautiful clothing sitting with their little lambs that was taken by Val last year, I was hooked and wanted my own series of images. Clearly the cholitas have identified a very markable product. Who can resist them?  As soon as the cholitas spot you, they have you lined up as a target. The approach is usually one of two ways; just a simple “take picture” as they make a point of showing you their gorgeous animals (less subtle than the way new mothers actively draw your eyes to their newborn – if you don’t believe me try it. Look the mum in their eyes and watch what they do next. Before you even realise it you are looking at their baby) and then suggest that you take a photo.  The other approach they use is once you stop and look at their lamb, they hold it out to you and then suggest that you need a photo of you with them and the lamb.  Both of these approaches have a reasonable success rate most likely with those who have just arrived in town.

As I mentioned earlier, the fee for a photo is a ‘donation’.  Its hard to know what to ‘donate’. How do you ever know what is reasonable? One shop keeper told me when I was trying to get change to I could tikkipiccha was “One Sole.” This shop keeper was really quite emphatic in that was the fee and emphasised this with a firm gesture of a raised single index finger. “One Sole.” All very well and good to say that but try getting away with it. I had one occasion where there were two women, one with an alpaca and the other with a young child firmly latched on her left breast (I didn’t realise this at the time). I took the photo and gave them 4 sole as there were two of them. My response from the breast feeding mother was that pitiful whiny pathetic tone you get world wide when you have clearly insulted them with your lack generosity when you haven’t, “But the baby, more for the baby.” Some are far less aggressive and seem happy to accept whatever you offer them.  From my experiences over the last few days I have found that cholitas who come in pairs or wear the really bright clothing with the round hats are more likely to try to get you to take a photo in the first place or try to extrapolate more sole from you. The older women with the plain clothing and gorgeous exaggerated bowler hats are more content with what they can get. 

Its fun watching the whole thing play out. I was sitting in Plaza San Blas yesterday for some time waiting to the patron of saint of San Blas to begin his procession to the cathedral for Corpus Christie (more on that to follow in another post). San Blas is the main area for tourists. Its packed with great little cafes, hotels, hostels and commercial opportunities so it is a natural place for the cholitas to gather for their commercial opportunity. The women would position themselves on a corner or where they could see the tourists coming and make their approach. The tour groups are a big potential source of income but interestingly they offer a lower success rate. Once they realise their charms have failed and there will be no tikkipiccha they just sit and chat waiting for the next opporunity.  That’s when the more ‘authentic’ images happen. 

If there was nothing happening, they would simply go somewhere in search of new opportunity

So was I immune to this process you might ask. Of course not. I have already indicated that I knew what I wanted. Some I have paid my donation, others not. Not everyone got the same donation as it depended on how much change I had in my pocket or perhaps what is worse if you subscribe to equanimity, how I felt about the person. In truth older women were more likely to score more as were those whom I noticed had not had much traffic. 
While it is an income for them and a collection of images for me, I read another blog last night (can’t remember the blog and didn’t keep the details) where someone has questioned potential issues with the welfare of these animals. The author raised suggestions that some were not kept in the best conditions or baby alpacas taken away from their mothers causing stress to both animals.  You also have to wonder how the alpacas and llamas tolerate walking around on the cobbles, sitting on the streets or being constantly patted by strangers (the white fluffy ones are best for that as they are soft and cute).  What you do notice is that most old them are patient animals. I have not seen one misbehaving. The llamas in particular seem to have far away looks in their eyes or maybe they are just meditating on emptiness. In case you are wondering, they do get fed as the cholitas carry food for them in the local Peruvian version of a rucksack on their backs. 

I now have to go out to get my balcony table for Corpus Christie.  I wonder if I will once again succumbe to the charms of the cholitas and those gorgeous lambs in bonnets for the long lashes of an alpaca on my way to Plaza de Armas. 

Who doesn’t love a parade

You may remember from last year that I was lucky enough to be in Jerez in time for the Horse Festival. Well this time my trip to Cusco was planned around the festivals. The month of June has Cusco’s two major festivals – Corpus Christi and the Incan festival Inti Rami.  Both of them are yet to come but there is an amazing array of daily parades in the lead up to Inti Rami. 

On my first night here we went for a walk into the Plaza de Aramas which is the local square so typical of what the Spanish so successfully created in most town or cities which are the heart of each of these towns. A major route into the Plaza de Aramas was closed off to traffic and the streets lined with spectactors. The sounds of brass bands complete with drums filled the air with the sounds of festivities. Each marching group was identified by their own colourful uniform, the boys with bells on their legs and accompanied by their own band to whose tune they would dance up the street.  A very festive atmosphere, despite there being more clothes than can be seen at Sydney’s Madri Gras. It was impossible to be anything other than happy. What a welcome to Cusco.