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In October 2011 our little group: Sonia, Craig, Wendy and Richard visited Peru. We flew into Lima from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. After a night in Lima we flew to Iquitos.
Iquitos is on the Amazon near its head where it is narrower; it’s only a mile across here! Further down river you can't see the other side. A small tributary that joins here is navigable and wider than the Nile. The scale of these rivers is staggering.
Before the British 'liberated' some rubber plants and set up cheaper plantations in Malaya this was the centre of the rubber industry and huge fortunes were made, particularly after the development of vulcanisation and then the motor car. Rubber barons imported slave or indentured labour as the locals were considered too lazy. Thus it is an ethnic melting pot, native women having been taken as wives or mistresses by many other ethnic groups. There were some very fine houses in town during the rubber boom, including our hotel, but many are now in ruins.
The Hollywood version of narrow streams with dart blowing natives and wild animals along the banks is far from reality - although there are plenty of smaller streams and isolated lakes. Piranha, the famous animal eating fish, come in several varieties, some more dangerous than others, and they are mainly found in lakes, not in flowing rivers. They are more eaten than eating.
People here eat everything that moves and a lot that doesn't. For example alligators and large snakes are also more eaten than eating. There are, however, big cats; known to eat a child or two, that seem to avoid the local table; and redress the balance. The puma in particular was a god, or the avatar of a god, to the Inca and probably to earlier cultures.
The natives do blow darts, poisoned with frog venom, when hunting but they have forborne the eating of missionaries for some time. As in New Guinea and many other parts of the World, eating powerful enemies was a way of obtaining power for one's self. In South America it was common to hold a captive for many years as part of a tribe and even let them marry before their ritual killing, often by the women. At this point they may then be eaten. Maybe it beats refrigeration!
Iquitos and the surrounding area, for several hundred miles, is only accessible by boat or plane as it is entirely surrounded by large rivers and there are no bridges. A very interesting feature of this isolated place is the tricycle 'motorkars'.
These are made from converted, recycled, motor bikes. The rear suspension is removed and a seat mounted on two motorbike wheels, using similar trailing arm suspension, is attached. A roof that gives the whole the look of an early Ford 'flivver' shades the driver and passengers. A bike chain goes back to an intermediate shaft and then a second chain runs from this to one rear wheel only, avoiding the need for a differential. The other rear wheel is not driven but the whole thing has similar traction to a bike, with a heavier load over the driven rear wheel. It’s not perfect but cheap, light and quite serviceable. There are many hundreds of them, a lot of motorbikes and a few cars trucks and vans.
Young adults aspire to own a motorbike. A lot of bike riders are young women. Our guide one day asked us if we owned a car. When we confessed we had two he was amazed, they are a real luxury item here.
There is quite a local industry building and repairing the local tricycles (Honda runs one factory). This tuk-tuk is actually superior to the system used in Cambodia where the tuk-tuks are just trailers behind a bike - but inferior to the purpose-built ones in India or China that have a drive shaft and differential.
Note: Since then we have seen imported Indian and Chinese style tuk-tuks in several cities in Peru, in addition to the local version. The heavier Chinese ones are used as trucks - they are much more solid with a larger engine and tyres, a differential and both rear wheels driven.
Oil has been discovered in the upper Amazon and the Chinese are here building infrastructure (including a water purification plant). There was a strike and demonstration against the Chinese for higher wages while we were in Iquitos. Ironically, red flags were seen at the head of the march; waving in defiance of the bosses... The new Yankees!
A new economic boom is now underway with a lot of public infrastructure being upgraded. But no one is very rich - yet.
The river is presently low - October. The very poor live on the river flats in stilt houses or in raft houses that float up as the river rises. They have electricity and a vast network of data cable; plus satellite dishes. But clean water is a problem, we saw a hose leading from a local Laundromat, and sewerage and other rubbish removal is via the river, or straight to the ground below the houses, when the water is low. Choice!
We saw wood working and metalworking factories on the river flats - small business... they were very happy for us to watch. Our guide that day said ‘they like gringos’. I'm not sure they were so keen on him. He seemed to annoy their dogs. But then he seemed to annoy most animals. Later a parrot threatened to bite him; and shat on him instead.
At the local markets they sell fish, chicken and illegal bush meat of all kinds (monkeys, alligators, dolphins, snakes, manatee etc) as well as fruit, vegetables and jungle medicines and hallucinogens. Some of the tourists are hippy types here for the alternative drugs. But local inoculation appears to be mainly via the flies that come straight from the open sewers and onto the food in the market.
Down the road is a very well appointed, US funded, research station dedicated to saving the manatee from extinction; where we were able to hand feed them. If you are unfamiliar with manatee, they are a mammal about the size of a large sea lion with forward flippers or arms adapted for walking on the bottom and swimming. Like a whale or hippo they need to surface occasionally for air and they are very friendly - at least in captivity.
They share the Amazon with a wide variety of other aquatic animals, including pink porpoises and the better known alligators, fish and so on.
From my travel notes:
“We are now waiting at airport. I am writing this as the flight is delayed – surprise, surprise! No, now it is cancelled!
We have to spend another night in Lima and fly to Cusco in the morning... ah well... South America!
Two hours later - we are on the final approach to Lima. A baby is crying due to the pressure change. We have just flown over the Andes again - spectacular if a bit rough. I have to turn this off now...
... We spent the night at the Ramada Lima airport, a hotel we used earlier in this trip. LAN, the airline, paid. We had paid for accommodation in Cusco that has gone unused. I am now sitting on the plane to Cusco waiting for takeoff. I have a window but it’s a bit cloudy so it may not be possible to see the mountains again. The most impressive thing is how close the snow capped peaks are when we pass over. This will be our fifth crossing of the Andes.
Wow, we just took off and almost instantly penetrated the cloud cover; a cottonwool plain with the vast mountains at its edge. It’s a clear blue day up here as we continue to climb. Now the peaks are passing under us; amongst them the occasional hut and cluster of silvery buildings - farms, villages, towns - mostly in the valleys. Now there are some very high snow covered peaks and a dozen green mountain lakes; now a very deep V shaped ravine, drained by a narrow river. Suddenly the terrain is flat but still very high - quite close. The lakes are larger but surprisingly not at the lowest points - often near the top of the nearby features at the head of streams leading from them or with no obvious drainage.
Now the silver dots are increasing in number; roads scrawl like snail trails across the landscape - civilisation. But just as quickly the terrain changes again and the silver dots become sparse again. I can see a vast lake with no sign of habitation nearby. Instantly the land has dropped away to well below the puffy clouds and a large river meanders below. We are loosing altitude preparing for our run into Cusco. Huge snow covered peaks loom on our port side. We are almost passing between them. As we approach the cloud layer, turbulence is increasing - again the land as fallen away and is a chequerboard of farms. OK it’s our final approach. I have to turn this off...”
Cusco was once the hub of the Inca Empire, which was a federation of states; their borders meeting here.
“Our hotel is charming as is much of the town - it has something of the character of an alpine village - I expected to see someone carrying skis any moment. But skiing here would be a challenge, we are very close to the equator and the snow line is so high you would need to carry oxygen. The town has very narrow streets full of tourists many of whom are back-packers. There are many hostels, cafes, restaurants, internet cafes, and shops of all kinds catering to tourists.
Our host greeted us with a mug of coca tea and warned us about altitude sickness; have a light lunch, no alcohol. After a brief settling in and some lunch in a local inn he helped us hire a cab to see the nearby Inca ruins. Again I was amazed at the ability of relatively primitive man to shape and move large stones. Some of these are up to 30 tonnes and Inca walls are made of multifaceted stones hardly any of which are square. Yet each is cut to match exactly to the others in the wall. Clearly the was some method of achieving this using templates or mathematics based on knotted string; no longer understood.”
The Inca were clearly warlike and skilled soldiers as their towns and other buildings are elaborately fortified using site lines worthy of a European or Chinese fortress. Some of the structures are related to water management and others to farming. Like other agricultural societies they had discovered means of determining the seasons using the sun and stars and these played a large part in their religion.
Their civilisation is quite recent compared to those of Egypt the Middle East India or China. The Empire was formed in 1438, merging several earlier civilisations. But pre-Columbian cultures developed quite independently with no contact with more advanced civilisations, evolving their own agriculture building techniques, astronomy, and religion. The latter seems to have been quite primitive, comparable to that in the Middle East around 5,000 years ago and little advanced on primitive animism. Like many early agricultural peoples sacrifice and offerings to the gods seems to have played an important role.
At its peak a vast area of South America paid tribute to the Inca. Expansion was often by simple threat or by the consent of smaller kingdoms by treaty with local rulers who were then brought into the court. The Inca upper classes bound the heads of their children to give them a pointed skull; the mark of Inca nobility.
They did not have the wheel but they had developed metallurgy based on gold, silver and bronze; and this was their strength as bronze and brass gave then superior weapons which all Inca males were taught to use; but it was also their downfall. Gold and silver was an irresistible lure to the Spanish.
The Spanish lust for gold put an end to the Inca civilisation. But the Spanish were very nearly defeated here as Cusco; with only a quick witted officer's cavalry charge saving the day; no doubt due to intervention by the superior Spanish god. The Spanish would have eventually won in any case as at that time they were the world super-power with the most effective land army; it having been honed by decades of Christian war against the Moors and Islam.
For a long time it seemed to people here that the Spanish God beats all others; but this seems to be questioned more today. After the conquest the Spanish set about the systematic annihilation, or enslavement in the gold and silver mines, of anyone who disagreed. It's a surprise to see local tribal people in nun's habits; and this relatively small town is chock-full of substantial ecclesiastical buildings; from a cathedral to a couple of large convents and many churches.
Notes from Saturday
“After a day looking at Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley, by means of a car and driver, we are on a very picturesque train ride to Machu Picchu.
Two of the sites we visited were very interesting indeed. Above Cusco is an Inca fortified hill. It is most impressive and was apparently almost impregnable. So once conquered the Spanish wasted no time in demolishing much of it. The altitude slowed us down noticeably so that fully exploring the ruins proved difficult in the hour or so we were there.
More enigmatic were a series of amphitheatre like circular structures in natural sink-holes at Moray consisting of concentric retaining walls rising above a central circular 'stage'. There are three such structures in various stages of repair. Maybe two are abandoned earlier versions? There is also a connecting terraced area that could also be a theatre (the little dots in the picture are tourists).
Each terrace is connected by steps that allow access to visitors. No one seems to know what it was used for. Ceremonies, growing crops, a game? It's a vast feat of engineering; and Inca masonry; and human effort. The guide's explanation that it was an experimental farm, with a different crop on each terrace due to a different micro-climate, seemed unlikely. The later walls suggest a temple in their fine masonry.
We decided it was either a place designed to impress visitors or a vast folly to keep the army out of mischief during peacetime.
The track is narrow gauge and the train wobbles. Vast snow capped mountains tower above a mountain stream cascades and foams alongside. The train is a modern motor-rail with well padded armchair seats. The windows extend into the roof so we can see the mountaintops and sheer cliffs reaching to the sky. Occasionally we stop on a passing loop to allow another train to pass in the opposite direction, the many 20-30 something back packers taking the opportunity to share travel stories. The stream is now a river dashing over rapids; our train toots and toots as we enter a short tunnel. We could have gone by road but this is much better!
Now we have reached a low dam and a small hydro-electric facility; workers in hard-hats cluster nearby. There is also a large drift or tunnel into the hillside; possibly it's a mine and associated power supply? Downstream the river quickly revives as we approach our destination.
Aguas Calientes, the stepping off point for Machu Picchu, turns out to be an artificial town; even more like a ski resort than Cusco; in that there are no cars in town. Disneyland writ large and the archetypal tourist trap. Buy your pass to the ruins and a return bus ticket - quoted in $ US. Everything is twice the price. We were advised to get up at 5 have breakfast and check out of the hotel: 'as you won't be back in time for the 9 o'clock checkout'.
I hope it's worth it!”
The Inca ruins at Machu Picchu
Yes they are worth it! We reached it by bus; the alternative is walking many kilometres and climbing some 450 vertical metres. We arrived at the top before the clouds had lifted; a blessing as after they lift the sun fries white skin to a lobster red; despite 30+ block-out.
While the scale and intricacy of the stonework is staggering it is more than matched by the setting. Vast glacial valleys converge; mountains tower above; even though the site itself is atop a not insignificant mountain, two and a half thousand metres above sea level.
Although it had earlier been looted, it remained overgrown and unknown, except to locals, until rediscovered by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Since then the site has been cleared of the vegetation that hid it and many stones have been restored somewhat speculatively; now cemented into place to provide paths through the site for visitors and to give the ruins a more artistic appearance. But apart from maintaining the various paths, little has been done to make it 'fool or fall proof'. At many points there are unmarked precipices with vertical falls from a few dozen metres to many hundreds. As one guide said the record to the bottom of the mountain is 3.5 seconds. Machu Picchu is now a moneymaking machine on a similar scale to Petra, far surpassing Angkor Wat; the Great Wall of China or the Tower of London.
It is an achievement on an unimaginable scale for a Bronze Age society without the wheel. Like the pyramids and Angkor Wat it is a tribute to the achievements possible when tens of thousands of men are mobilised for long enough; to a single end; under an unbending tyrant. Like Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu is not very old as architecture goes and has not worn well.
By comparison, the present Westminster Abbey, site of the recent royal wedding, is around the same age and is architecturally far more impressive; in engineering sophistication rather than scale or location. Like the Khmer in Cambodia, and despite their advanced stone masonry, the Inca had not mastered the arch, nor the dome; and their oldest surviving structures are around a thousand years younger than the Pantheon in Rome; very few, if any, of them intact.
Some time points in human architectural achievement:
- Great Pyramid of Giza 2560 BCE (stone - still in tact, if a bit weathered);
- Great Temple of Amun at Thebes 1391–1351 BCE (stone - massive columns - roofless but still standing);
- Great Wall of China 220 BCE to 1460 CE; (stone and earth fill - mostly in tact crumbling in places)
- Pantheon in Rome 126 CE (Roman concrete dome, stone and brick masonry - still in everyday use; only 10 larger domes have been built worldwide since);
- White Tower at the Tower of London completed 1078 CE (stone and brick masonry - still in daily use);
- Angkor Wat in Cambodia 1113-1150 CE (stone and earth - partially in ruins);
- Westminster Abby 1245-1517 CE (stone and brick masonry - still in daily use); and
- Machu Picchu ~ 1450 CE (stone and earth - totally in ruins).
We do need to keep primitive, ignorant and brutal societies in perspective; they did not know significant things about the universe that we do not. And there is blood on every one of the stones they laid. Yet today there are people who want to believe in Inca astrology or revive ancient religious beliefs. On Sun Island on Lake Titicaca we saw little shrines still in active use, apparently by hippie backpackers; scattered with fresh coca leaves (…like what day is it man!). Folk medicines; amulets; and astrological mumbo-jumbo are on sale in almost every market. But then these are commonplace, even in Australia.
The Spanish did such a good job annihilating the Inca, who managed to keep this site secret from them, that now its purpose and use are largely speculative; as are the means by which it was constructed. It is certain that a vast expenditure in human labour was required. In successive expeditions Hiram Bingham recovered several hundred human skeletons, almost all of whom were female, suggesting perhaps some religious sacrificial purpose; and at various points there are features that might be altars or tombs. Alternatively it may have been a royal retreat and most of the inhabitants, members of a harem. In addition he recovered many decorated ceramic and bronze objects; some explicitly sexual suggesting fertility rites.
It is claimed that by 1911 there was no gold or silver remaining, some Germans having allegedly cleaned it out years earlier. But it is possible that the Inca themselves cleaned it out. They had need of a great deal of gold and silver when their king was held to ransom by the Spanish who demanded a 'room-full' of each for his release. When this was provided the Spanish first failed to release him and then executed him. But one doesn't need to be honourable with primitive heathens.
Almost all these pieces were melted-down and thus any message they carried or insight they provided was lost.
But the final straw for the Inca was smallpox. It is estimated that up to 90% of the population died in these epidemics which were interpreted as a punishment from the gods, further assisting the introduction of Spanish Christianity. This merged with traditional beliefs so that in churches here you see the Inca sun and other symbols incorporated into Roman Catholic iconography. Traditional evil spirits are now identified with the devil and the sun with Jesus.
The return train journey was rather different in that the train staff put on a fashion show, up and down the isle, (not quite NSW Government Rail).
We re-alighted at Ollantaytambo, a pretty town at the junction of the Sacred Valley and two vast intersecting glacial valleys. Our rustic but very comfortable hotel was actually in the railway station.
During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti and a ceremonial temple/fort. After conquering the region the Inca built this over a previous fortification.
Ollantaytambo was the main point of Inca resistance against the Spanish. It was the site of an Inca victory, under their last king Manco Inca Yupanqui , when they took to the heights; and having already dammed downstream then broke a dam upstream that drowned, or immobilised the attacking Spanish forces below to be shot down by archers.
The Inca were skilled hydrologists and used water not only for irrigation but in their religion and strategically in a number of ways.
The fort/temple has a number of interesting features including some unique masonry and a couple of places where, as at Machu Picchu, a misstep would certainly result in a very brief lesson in personal aviation. One needs to be acclimatised to altitude before attempting the height.
Back in Cusco
“After our early mornings and exertions we had a relaxing morning in the hotel. Some shopping was done by the very keen, others read or watched movies. In this very tourist oriented town touts stand outside almost every restaurant inviting tourists to experience 'authentic dishes’; llama and guinea pig at inflated prices.
Actually the food here can be very good and we found several pubs (Irish and English) as well as a couple of nice restaurants, typically upstairs or with inconspicuous entrances, where excellent meals: local trout, llama, pork, beef and so on, as well as various varieties of potato and fresh salads - always with tomato and avocado; are to be had. Coffee varies from excellent to 'Americano' filter coffee that is not made with hot enough water due to the low boiling point at this altitude; around 80 degrees C. Tea is equally insipid for the same reason. Chilean and Argentine wines are excellent value; and the local cocktail 'pisco sour' is often 2 for 1 during the evening 'happy hour'. Pisco is a local distilled alcohol; originally produced by the monks from rejected wine. It's mixed with lemon and/or lime and egg whites, to make the cocktail. We can recommend it.”
The afternoon was spent in various museums and in the original Inca central palace complex, now an archaeological site within a convent that the Spanish, as usual, built on top of it. It still functions as a convent (confusingly for monks not nuns) and the two religions, and two building styles, are seen cheek by jowl. In the last major earthquake in 1950 part of the convent was destroyed revealing the earthquake resistant Inca structures that had been incorporated, or concealed by being plastered over, within and below. The local Inca revivalists, like our guide, saw this as evidence of, and a metaphor for, the corrupt nature of the Spanish; but not perhaps of the religion?
All the guides we have encountered have been somewhat cynical about religion. One asked me if I believed in God; maybe a foolish thing to ask me. I gave my standard answer that this is a definitional issue: if by God you mean the observed structure and behaviour of the universe then I imagine everyone does. But if you mean a supernatural being that created the Universe; in whose image we are made; who sent his Son to suffer in proxy for our sins; so that we might enjoy a imaginary and implausible everlasting life; or any one of the hypothetical deities that speaks particularly to humanity (above other animals) through prophets; or angels; or signs; or who will respond to prayer; or favours the faithful; I don’t.
While such deities may once have been a plausible explanation for the twists of fate; the mystery of life; good fortune or more often bad: earthquakes; tsunami; plagues; and other acts of mass annihilation; in the light of contemporary knowledge it seems more likely that these are the consequence of the ebb and flow of natural forces and their complex interactions. We now know that individual humans are a recently evolved colony of cells, in common with all the organisms on earth that we call animals, and it seems very likely that we are an accidental evolutionary oddity of no consequence to the universe. The Earth on which we have so briefly existed is itself a short lived infinitesimal speck circling an insignificant star among thousands of billions of others. The current universe is thought to be young, yet already around 13.7 billion years old.
Human civilisation, together with its complex religions and gods, has existed for less than a millionth of this time. But humans are the victims and beneficiaries of recently emergent intelligence; suddenly capable of formulating questions about our existence. The briefest acquaintance with early human beliefs and religions makes it transparently obvious that they were conceived or concocted by seekers after an explanation who had inadequate access to verifiable information; these hypotheses were then elaborated by self-serving priests and politicians; and very often contributed to by the deluded or mentally ill, whose ravings or visions were thought to be a connection with the unseen or unknown.
While I find religion extremely interesting from a historical and anthropological perspective and admire the human effort and creativity evident in the many works that have been inspired by it, I find no personal value in a religion that is clearly descended from, and inherits ill-informed ancient superstitions and beliefs. He then ‘sotto voce’ declared that he didn’t either. Clearly he felt that this was confidential between us. If you come to doubt one religion all others are called into question.
In the there is a lot of effort put into showing that the Inca and Christian religions are in some way equivalent, including large colourful tables in Spanish and a complex diagrammatic representation seen in several places. This seems to play down the virgin sacrifices, ritual murder and slavery. But then under the Spanish maybe these differences were hard to discern.
We have seen quite a bit of nostalgia for the lost Inca culture that blends with a latter-day hippie/green sentiment that the Inca were closer to the earth. This is in sympathy with the widespread use of coca and other ‘natural’ drugs. 'Noble savage' sentiment runs strong and the primitive barbaric nature of the Inca civilisation, all too evident in the sheer scale and complexity of slave-class-built Inca structures and their warlike nature and barbaric practices, including ritual decapitation, is overlooked.
Many of the Inca structures are religious. Their finest stonework is often used here. The best masons were not actually Inca but indentured labour from subjected tribes mainly from around Lake Titicaca. The Inca were the managers and overlords of this process; like the British in India.
This masonry work, as I have already remarked, is amazing and is seen in some two dozen distinct styles. Stones are often shaped to fit together in complex patterns of apparently random polygons within hundredths of a millimetre, no mortar being used. Often the surface was glass smooth as can still be felt today in places protected from the weather. These walls were then often gilded using gold leaf or even gold plate (soon knocked-off by the Spaniards).
Elsewhere walls were rendered, employing animal gelatine, cactus juice and hair as binding agents, as in one bath we visited, where virgins were taken to be washed before sacrifice at the spring festival. It is said they went willingly, like cheerleaders given the ‘privilege’ of consecrating the tournaments of their male counterparts, as it was a great honour and they would soon be reincarnated. I didn't notice any enthusiasm to emulate this among the tourists; but then I suppose few met the first qualification.
Temples often incorporate special terraced gardens where crops were grown as offering to the gods. Niches into the rock housed the mummified bodies of the ancestors, in foetal position. The skulls of lesser mortals were used as decoration. These were moved about according to the season, offered food and so on. We saw several in museums, sometimes moved about in baskets or large jars.
Important festivals were marked by the sun's position casting shadows in temple structures. The time of day was marked in the usual way, by very primitives 'sundials'. In general while different and possibly more exotic in interpretation, their astronomical knowledge compares less than favourably with Stone Age and Bronze Age Egyptian and European knowledge. Even the great pyramid, built in the Stone Age, has a well known sun shaft built into the structure and by the early Bronze Age Egyptians were well aware of the planets and their cycles.
By the late Bronze Age the Egyptians were toying with monotheism and writing the first of the psalms that are still incorporated within the Jewish/Christian/Islamic tradition.
I speculate that this relative ignorance may be due to being in the tropics where the seasons are really just wet and dry as opposed to the much more obvious seasonal variations in Europe and, possibly, the lack of a stationary southern pole star. In the northern hemisphere the stationary pole star, about which the heavens appear to revolve, is obvious to even the most trivial observation of the heavens. It's the one star that does not move for a stationary observer, relative to trees mountains etc, in the course of the night. It is a small step to noticing that different constellations rotate and disappear during daytime on an annual cycle that corresponds to the seasons. Predicting the seasons is critical to an agricultural economy. Thus the appearance of a heavenly and earthly nexus; and the beginning of more elaborate religious hypotheses: might not the position of the sun, constellations and planets mean something on earth? Similarly these season and cycle dependent societies tend to believe in reincarnation and the ‘great mandala’ (the wheel of life).
The Incas incorporated the Southern Cross into their astronomy as it, obviously, rotates annually but the constellations on the ecliptic are of less importance with just two seasons because the position of the rising and setting sun on the horizon or its position in respect of a mountain is an adequate indicator of the seasons. So the relative positions of the constellations synchronising with earthly events plays a lesser role than it does say in European or Chinese astrology. I have seen no evidence that they discovered the 'wandering stars' - the planets - known to Europeans, Indians and Chinese many hundreds of years BCE.
The following photograph shows an Inca sun dial that also shows the time of year. At the bottom of the structure are a series of notches in the stone into which the shadows fall at different times.
As in all stone and bronze age agrarian cultures, astronomical observations were intertwined with the religion; as the heavens seemed to be determining events on earth: the seasons; water availability and so on. Here earthquakes are relatively frequent and there was a thunder god and god of the rainbow that needed appeasement. This is very similar to the Abrahamic high, or mountain god, which evolved into Yahweh in the Jewish tradition.
As in all agrarian cultures it is important not to consume the entire crop herd or flock; some must be withheld as seed or breeding animals. Again it is a short step to thinking that another portion needs to be set aside for sacrifice; to ensure a good season. If the gods are not satisfied with your initial sacrifice and it still doesn't rain, or the locusts won't leave etc, you need to step up the sacrifices; from the food; to the live animals; to the virgins; to the first born sons. And if this works you have discovered the secret and you need to keep it up in future.
On the way to Titicaca
From my travel notes:
“We are now on a bus going to Puno on Lake Titicaca. On the way we just stopped at a remarkable church decorated with Andean frescos under restoration topped by huge 3m x 4m Spanish gilt framed paintings depicting St Peter and St Paul. Again it is built over an earlier Inca structure, probably a temple. The church at different times fell into the hands of the Jesuits or Dominicans who undid each other's decorations and iconography. The latter are a blend of European and Andean imagery.
According to our guide, when the Inca sun and other icons are incorporated into Christian iconography it is termed 'synchronance'. There is a lot about. Conveniently the Inca prayed and sacrificed to the god, creator of the world, and to the sun as well as minor gods that can be incorporated as the Spirit, the Virgin and various saints.
After stops at Raqchi to see the ruins of an Inca administrative centre and temple and of course a church and a stop for lunch at a purpose built bus service centre we reached La Raya, 4335 metres above sea level the highest point on this trip but we did not feel at all breathless as we have become a little better acclimatised to the height, scaling the steep streets of Cusco; where initially we were quite breathless. From there we are descending to Puno on the lake.
Surprisingly there was no obvious ridge at the highest point. Throughout the trip we have been in a broad valley mostly with a meandering river. The road is good, a well maintained two lane sealed ribbon running between farms and wide paddocks mainly used for grazing. Large cattle herds and sheep flocks can be seen in the distance across yellow grasslands and occasional highland tundra.
To our left the jagged snow caped peaks of the Andes, sometimes very close, provide a backdrop to rolling foothills. On the right more foothills and mountains patches of grey-blue and yellow-green in the distance.
A standard gauge railway shares our valley, running sometimes alongside and sometimes way across the plain, together with a single medium voltage electricity feeder of no more than 11 kV. This can't possibly be adequate to service all the farms and small villages in this vast valley as well as the populated spurs we have seen, following the water courses up into the foothills. Electricity must be a luxury here. But then it is a poor valley; I have seen few vehicles or even farm equipment, except on this road.
Nevertheless when heavy work is to be done in Peru large machinery is often employed. Fields seem to be tilled by tractor and earth moved by bulldozers, trucks and front-end loaders. Gone are the days when vast teams of enslaved lower classes toiled in this valley under the yoke first of the Inca then of the Spanish. Poor and superstitious as some are, it has to be better to be alive today than in the time of the Inca.
As we approach the lake the valley has widened into a broad flat plain perhaps 50 km across. This is the high plateau.
Suddenly we encounter a vast industrial town with factories and workshops of all descriptions a checkerboard of dusty streets divides adobe, ceramic block and concrete buildings, many unfinished. Several other regional roads converge here. Large trucks and heavy machinery jostle with the tour buses. Piles of building rubble spew across the side streets; domestic rubbish blows in the wind. Cars that seem to have been bought second hand at a stock car sale are interspersed with pedal-power tricycles and Indian style tuk-tuks. Wind eddies and vehicles raise the dust. The sun burns down but it is cold outside. A few sick trees, advertisement covered walls and corrugated steel barriers break the monotonous terracotta of the mostly ceramic block buildings, interspersed with adobe.
The whole is given an additional Indian appearance by the cattle and goats grazing on the sparse vegetation on a median strip in the middle of town. But it has an air of an Indian town that has suffered some disaster that has wiped out 90% of the population leaving only poor South American Indians huddled against the dust in the doorways. We have encountered Juliaca; a city where all kinds of counterfeit goods are manufactured behind closed doors.
The main clue to something odd going on is two high voltage transmission lines coming up the valley to the town. One is about a third of the capacity of the newer one, suggesting rapid growth in demand. On our last day in Peru we heard that illegal explosives seized by police and customs in Juliaca had detonated killing 24.
From my travel notes:
“Puno is a breath of fresh air; while not exactly beautiful it is a regional centre and a hive of activity.
On our first evening in Puno a folk festival gets underway; with many hundreds of young adults in fancy dress dancing in the street; it’s like an endless ‘mardi gras’ or ANZAC march; well into the night and again the next day. A group of girls is followed by a group of boys in elaborate costumes, each with a dance routine, followed by a band of brass or drums and so on. I'm not sure when they kicked-off again, as we got up early to go to the floating islands, but the festival was still underway when we returned, restricting access to our hotel; but lots of fun for all those involved.”
The floating islands are made or reeds and now exist entirely for tourists. The island people were once fisher folk who took advantage of the reeds' natural tendency to float, roots and all, during the wet season. Additional reeds are stacked on top of these floating mats to build a substantial platform on which reed huts are built and families live; not unlike the more substantial raft villages on Halong Bay in Vietnam.
After this we visited Taquile, a conventional island, to see a traditional farming community and have lunch at one of the farms; very nice.
Puno has a University, specialising in cultural studies, and many of the young people in the festival are students. Education is compulsory and universal to the end of primary school but around 80% now proceed to high school and many go on to university. Peru is traditionally poor with a high birth-rate. But it has at last got its population under control, now down to 2.1 per woman, and now has the fastest growing economy in S America. There are obvious comparisons with China or India.
There are active birth control initiatives here amongst the indigenous groups that still have very high fertility. I asked one guide how the Pope feels about this and he replied 'the local church is closed; the people are still Catholic but they follow traditional beliefs as well; a priest comes to officiate at weddings'. But these are not exactly traditional Christian weddings. Following native traditions couples live together in trial marriages for a year or more before committing and the ceremony lasts several days with traditional rites mixed in with the Christian ones.
Birth rates are now falling steeply. One Indian family, now hosting tourist groups on the island, that had eight children last generation now has two this generation.
All the children we have seen seem to be healthy, well dressed and to attend school.
In neighbouring Chile students are currently demonstrating; demanding universal secular education. Brazil and Argentina appear to be experiencing rapid growth and there is an optimistic feeling in the air that South America may at last be able to throw off the negatives of the past (extremism and confrontation; both religious and secular) and begin to realise the continent’s obvious potential.
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