Monday, September 1, 2008

18 August 2008

Cuzco ~

We arrived in Cuzco this morning after what ended up being a 17 hour bus experience. Now, I have taken many bus rides longer than this, but I would definitely label this an epic bus journey. From Ica, we joined an already near capacity bus heading towards Cuzco. We even paid an extra few bucks to take the luxury bus. I started the ride very enthusiastic to read and to write and to ultimately sleep. However, this bus felt obligated to entertain. After some music, bingo, and then a movie, it was past midnight and the whole bus decided to retire. Not wanting to disturb our fellow passengers, Adam and I turned off our lights. Now Cuzco is situated at over 3300 meters in a valley. To get to this valley, you need to cross many large Andean peaks. In a straight line, Ica and Cuzco can’t be separated by more than 300 miles. However, on Andean roads, that equals 17 hours. It was hard to see much out our window due to the darkness of night, but it was obvious that by midnight, we were traveling in a large bus on a small, extremely curvy, shoulder-less road with shear cliffs just a few feet from where we drove. Most of the curves were too tight, so we’d come to a nearly complete stop, allowing the driver to verify both lanes were free of cattle or of other vehicles. If other things obstructed the curve, we’d just sit and wait. Fortunately, rides through the Andes in the middle of the night don’t encounter much traffic. So most of the night we were constantly swerving and when I say constantly, I’d say we were completely changing our bearings at least 90 degrees (sometimes 180 degrees) every minute while accelerating and decelerating between turns. This makes the already difficult task of sleeping on a crowded bus much more impossible. Neither Adam nor I know how much we were able to sleep; however, we never slept for long durations without being violently jerked or being startled awake by a crying baby or by a cell phone.

In the morning as the sun rose, I gave up my desire to sleep and instead took in some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever seen. The road and the ride continued to behave the same; however, now I could see the glorious scenery. Despite being extremely steep, most of the land was being cultivated by very indigenous looking Peruvians, wearing their traditional brilliant colors and walking alongside their dromedary. Legend has it that this was the original site of the Incan civilization because of the extremely fertile land. Now 100s (if not 1000s) of years later, the Incan and pre-Incan descendents are still working this land using probably quite similar methods. I kept my eyes glued out the window but with about an hour to go, I started to get sick—not stomach sick but allergy like sickness. I think the combination of the bus ride without sleep and the high altitudes (we had easily surpassed 4000m for parts of the ride) was doing me in. Upon arriving in Cuzco I was a sneezing machine.

Now, a vast majority of Cuzco tourists arrive via air, and I believe miss out on the amazing arrival. Via bus, you curve around a mountain top to see a valley below filled with the city of Cuzco. The walls of the valley are completely filled with houses (but there are no roads because it is too steep). On the bus, we spent a good 30 minutes zig zagging down into the valley and into the heart of the city. The city is truly amazing, and I can see why it is probably the oldest major city in the western hemisphere.

Now our plan for the day was to take a cab to the town center and to walk from hostel to hostel until we found a place. At all the bus stations, people try to get you to go to particular hostels, and by getting you there, they get a chunk of the money. When I picked up my luggage, I found Adam engaged in an intense conversation with two women about where to stay. They were suggesting locations farther than our desired location for slightly higher prices than we expected. Ultimately, we did get into a cab with one of the women and drove to two hostels. We picked one about a block from the center for about $1 more than our book recommended; I guess I can survive the extra dollar. We ended up with a private room with bath, tv, and balcony for about $10 each. The room is very cold, but it sounds like all the rooms are about the same as the outside air temperature here. Fortunately, the beds all have multiple layers of alpaca blankets.

After a small lunch, we spent most of the day roaming the ancient streets surrounding the plaza del armas where we ultimately invested in the entry fee to tour the cathedral. The cathedral is probably the biggest tourist destination within the city. It was built shortly after Pizarro conquered the city. This is the pride of Peru, and I was excited to compare it to the many other cathedrals that I have toured around the world. First, I found it ironic that the Catholic Church charged admission and allowed vendors to sell trinkets inside the cathedral doors (Jesus wouldn’t like that). Upon paying, we were instantly approached by guides who wanted to show us around for a fee. We declined considering the entry fee covered an audio tour. The structure itself was large with a distinctly Baroque design; however, it was quite basic compared to most European cathedrals. This city frequently encounters earthquakes, including some major ones which have leveled the city. For this reason, they probably constructed a solid church, absent from stain glass windows which are standard fixtures of Catholic cathedrals. While no Old World Church, I imagine this to be the most imposing structure that the Incan population had ever seen.

The inside of the church was extremely cold—literally and figuratively. However, the attraction to the church was all the riches. Never have I seen any place adorned with so much pure gold and silver. The gold was mind blowing. There was probably more gold in this church than in all the Catholic cathedrals I have been in combined. I found the display of gold extremely frustrating. Here was a huge display of wealth that the church stole from the native population and then forced the surviving natives (those who weren’t slaughtered) to mine additional riches and to accept their god. It’s painful to walk through room after room of gold while knowing how many people died to create such an intimidating structure. Perhaps the conquerors and the papacy did so with good intentions, but it sure is ironic and shameful that the same institution which claims to be on higher moral grounds could impose such destruction and evilness on the locals. In terms of wealth, Cuzco is in much better shape than most South American rural communities. But by US standards, the city would be condemned. If the wealth in the cathedral was redistributed to the citizens of Peru, the same people whose ancestors were sacrificed for the church to have such wealth, many people could be lifted out of poverty. What good have these icons done for the people here?

Photo Credits:
1. Windy Andean road. We didn't travel this one, but it is characteristic of all the curves we took (Flickr)
2. Woman and her Alpaca. All of the farmers we passed were dressed like this (Flickr)
3. Cathedral that we toured in Plaza del Armas (Flickr)
4. Quick video of Plaza del Armas

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