THE STONE WHEEL OF KACHAQHATA
In the short span of one century, we are told, the Incas created an empire that rivaled in extent and governance that of the Romans. They supposedly built 20,000 miles of roads over rugged, mountainous terrain. They built innumerable rope bridges spanning impossibly deep gorges. And they built stone walls of such magnitude and perfection that they defy our understanding, even in this day of such marvelous invention and construction. They did all this without iron tools, without beasts of burden, without writing.... and they did it without the wheel.
"I know where there's a stone wheel," the guide said. "An Inca wheel."
He might as well have been dangling gold before a Spanish conquistador.
"It's got to be Inca," he said. "I don't think there were any Spanish going all the way up there and carving wheels."
We were drinking together in Norton Rat's Tavern in Cusco, Peru. Norton's overlooks the main square, the Plaza de Armas. There is a balcony where you can eat, drink and watch the never-ending spectacle below. The bar is big and comfortable and is usually host to a bunch of interesting people from all over the world.
The guide's name was Doug and he wasn't exactly your stereotypical image of an Andean guide. No austere old hawk-beaked coppery-skinned Indian was Doug. No, this was an authentic clean-cut, nice-as-they-come, all American white-boy. He was fresh-faced and eager and had great teeth. He looked like a Land's End ad.
At that time, Doug wasn't a very experienced guide. His first assignment was to begin the following Sunday. He had to meet a group of hot-to-hike gringo tourists at the airport at 8:00 A.M and take them over the Inca trail. Doug was 29, but he looked to be about 18. He had come into the bar alone and I was alone and we were about the only customers there, so we got together and started trading Inca theories and fantasies.
"The wheel's at the quarries of Kachiqhata," he said. "That's where they got the stones to build the temple at Ollantaytambo. And it's not a mill wheel. Mill Wheels have grooves in them, and this thing doesn't have grooves." He talked about holes drilled here and there, but his image was difficult for me to visualize. It was beginning to sound a little like an alien craft… or maybe Ezekiel's wheel. But Doug radiates such honesty and goodness that I willingly suspended disbelief.
Ollantaytambo (oy yan tie tambo), the village itself, is notable for being one of, if not the only, remaining village in Peru where people still live in buildings of classic, pre-colonial Inca architecture. Most tourists are unaware of this. What they come to see is an architectural jewel perched on a mountain spur a few hundred feet above the village. This construction is one of the most impressive stoneworks in the Andes. It is a temple/ fortress of exquisite and unique design. The reason it and other similar architectural sites in Andean Peru are referred to as "temple/fortresses" is because they seem to have been both. They were temples but they were also defensive redoubts for the next attack from the neighboring tribe that came around to slaughter you and yours and take your life, your land, your food and your women. This temple at Ollantaytambo is obviously unfinished, but what is there is Andean stonework at its finest. Huge blocks of rose rhyolite were brought from the Kachiqhata quarries high on a mountain across the valley. They were sledded a couple of thousand feet down the mountain, somehow transported through the river, dragged several hundred yards across a field or two, then brought up a colossal 380 yard-long ramp to the construction site. The quarry at Kachiqhata was the only place around where they could find this stone and if the Incas wanted a certain kind of stone for their construction, they would go to great lengths and heights to get it. Rose rhyolite is pretty stone. It is a dense and fine-grained volcanic rock that is a light salmon to pale pinkish yellow in color.
I had seen the stoneworks at Ollantaytambo, but I had never been to the quarries, so the trip seemed worthwhile, even without the alleged wheel.
I tell Doug, "I'll pay your expenses if you'll take me up there, but I can't hike it on foot. We'll have to get horses."
I have a fair collection of excuses for not walking. My left knee was trashed years ago by an unfortunate automobile-person encounter where I was the person. It has been operated on twice and is severely cartilage-challenged. But that's only the half of it. My entire right leg has been weakened and un-coordinated by a weird, voodoo neuropathy that I am certain was the result of an old girl friend sticking pins in my effigy. The fact that I had just turned 63 was incidental as far as I was concerned, but it was good for an added excuse if I needed one.
When I was in Peru six months
ago, I had hoped to ride up to the quarries. For one reason or another, it
didn't happen, but I did get hornswoggled into a hike on the other side of
the river that I thought would ruin me. I have an especially hard time with
uneven terrain and much of that hike was a scramble from rock to root to branch.
Horses seemed like a much better idea. I assumed there was a horse path to
the quarries and, at the worst; we might have to walk a little way to the
"No problem." says Doug. "We'll get horses. I'll call Señor Ponce in Ollanta. But the only day I can do it is Saturday."
I was ready whenever he wanted to go. I have been coming to Peru off and on for almost 25 years. I love a mystery, and the stoneworks of the Incas are a magnificent mystery. These people, or their predecessors, could move 100+ ton stones for miles and miles and then fit them together with such precision that you can't get a scalpel between them. They had no animals to help with the transportation because llamas were the biggest and strongest of their animals and if you ask a llama to carry more than 100 pounds, he spits at you. They created these marvels without mortar, and they did it without metal tools.
Doug went off to call about the horses while I continued to take up space at the bar. I had come here, come for the forth time in two years to photograph the ruins and to broaden my understanding of the Incas. I am putting together a web site of text & pictures that will hopefully lure the reader into a deeper exploration of this fascinating culture. I have taken hundreds of photographs and have read most of the translated writings of the old Spanish chroniclers. The deeper I dig, the more I realize how much there is to learn.
But for all my serious intent, somehow, on this trip, I had fallen into frivolous ways. I was putting in a lot of man-hours at bars and discos. I was having a fine old time and making lots of new friends, but I was feeling a little guilty. I wasn't doing much to move my web site forward, unless I changed the point of the project and called it "Disco Babes of Cusco." If Doug could take me to see something that most people didn't know about and that injected another bit of mystery into the stew, I might redeem myself in my final days here.
Oh boy. I had no idea what I was getting into.
* * * *
Flaco is a drug dealer. I knew this about him before I knew his name, because the first thing that came out of his mouth when we met was an offer.
It was four years ago in Aguas Calientes, the little town where most overnight visitors to Machu Picchu find food and lodging. I visited this town for the first time many years before. It was 1975. Aquas Calientes was primitive. My friends and I got shelter and beds for ninety-seven cents each. There was no toilet in our place. I think the only toilet in town was a latrine. It was a long one covered with a concrete slab punctured in the appropriate places with holes and foot purchases. It was the communal toilet, a ten-holer at least and it was ghastly beyond description. Apparently nobody in Aguas Calientes could aim.
Flaco means "skinny" in Spanish. The name is used extensively and indiscriminately in Peru. If you're calling out to a skinny guy who is beneath you socially, you might yell, "Hey Flaco." It's also a common nickname that gets stuck to thin people. This particular Flaco fit his name. He was very tall and thin to gauntness. His cheekbones were high and they shadowed sunken cheeks. His eyes were deep brown, deep set and startlingly intense. His hair was black and straight, in sharp contrast to the pale color of his skin. If Indian blood ran in him, it ran only a trickle. All in all, he was a very handsome, somewhat tragic-looking figure. He was probably about 25 then. Flaco spoke perfect English, because he had lived in Huntington Beach, California for about ten years. He was friendly and far from threatening. There was a kind, an almost innocent look about him. I declined his killer bud and his pure coke, but I asked him if he knew of a good bar in town.
"Absolutely. Best in town. Hundred percent. That's where I work. I just got off, but I'll escort you back there."
Escort? I'm thinking. Escort? Nobody says "escort" around these parts.
So we walked up the street about a block and a half to a place called Moma Oclo's Bar. Now considering that the original Moma Oclo was the wife of the first king, Manco Inca, and was revered as a demigoddess, I hoped the bar would be something special. It wasn't, but it was open at least, and there were a few people inside, and I hadn't found anything else and I didn't want to disappoint Flaco, so I decided to give it a try. I thanked him and turned to enter.
Flaco asks if he can join me. I hesitate for a moment. Do I really want to be seen hanging out with a known drug-dealer? Then I look at him, look at this innocent face with its trace of anxiety, and I say sure. But I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea.
We sit at the bar and I order a Pisco Sour, the national cocktail of Peru. He doesn't order anything. I look at him and say, "Aren't you drinking?"
"I'm too broke," he says. I'm trying to save my money to go to school.
"What kind of school?" I ask.
"Tourism. I want to become a guide."
Considering that he was broke, I figured he wasn't all that successful as a drug dealer and was probably wise to think about school. I didn't know at the time just how right I was.
I took a few sips of my Pisco Sour. It's a pleasant drink, made with Pisco, which is a grape distillate of sugar, lemon and whipped egg white. The concoction was fine, but I couldn't enjoy it while Flaco was sitting there with nothing to drink. I'm feeling sorry for him. I look at him and he is already looking at me and I can see the question coming, so I beat him to it.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
He lights up. "Thanks Richard. You're a prince." He orders a beer and a shot of the most expensive tequila in the house. Nothing shy about this Flaco. But what the hell, I think. You've got to expect it. Compared to this boy, I am rich, and he knows it.
Flaco senses the softie in me and rises to the occasion. One beer and tequila is followed by another, then another, and I keep up with him, so that after a couple of hours we are pretty drunk. Flaco turns out to be a good drinking partner. We talk about the Incas and their history. We talk about the girls of Peru. We even talk about literature, if you can believe it. Flaco tells me one of his favorite authors is Aldous Huxley. This stuns me. I read most of Huxley's novels when I was about nineteen and he was one of the writers who had spurred my interest in literature. "Which books of his have you read?" I ask him. And right off he says, "Eyeless in Gaza," and begins to tell me some of the plot. This is oddly serendipitous. I had recently been trying to remember the names of those Huxley novels that had so inspired me. And here was this kid, this Peruvian, this woefully indiscreet and unsuccessful drug dealer, taking me back to thoughts lost for forty years. Whatever his faults, I'm beginning to like the guy. There's something sort of rounded about a bad drug dealer who's read Huxley. We end up closing the bar.
I go to my hotel and Flaco goes wherever it is that he goes. The next day I go to Machu Picchu, and that, I assume, is the end of Flaco.
* * * *
* * * *
It is time for the meal. I had been told, warned maybe, that we were to have cuy, which is Quechua for the little rodent we call "guinea pig." Cuy is bedrock, indigenous, Inca food and being a culinary coward, I have never attempted it. (There is, by the way, a painting of the last supper in the Cathedral of Cusco where everyone is eating cuy.) I am full of fear and loathing. The plate is placed on the table. The little critter is stretched out before me, all brown and furless. His toothsome mouth is wide open as if in a scream. His little feet reach out to me. I watch Yheni for guidance on proper cuy consumption. It is a hands-on indelicate operation. Yheni tears off a leg and pulls back skin to reveal meat.
With her first bite, there is a great, fearful, defiant squealing and chattering among the living guinea pigs. They know. Surely they know.
We the guests are the only ones honored with cuy and a table whereupon to eat it. The rest of the family sit quietly, plates on laps, eating a simpler rice and potato fare. Now, contemplating this roasted rodent before me, I would gladly change places with them. But I screw my courage to the sticking place and attack.
I clutch at the roasted hide and pull it back to reveal a pale meat. I struggle with fork to lift it. The live guinea pigs squeal in protest, but I fight on. I finally get some of this flesh into my mouth and begin chewing. It's tough, but not bad. I think I can do this. Yheni is way ahead of me. She has delved into the critter's innards and is eating something that looks like paté. She tells me that the intestines have been removed, but the liver and heart remain. But what is that squishy black stuff that looks like something half digested? I can't handle it. I manage a little more of my cuy's meat and desist. I eat a little of the mass of potatoes that accompany the cuy and then quit, giving the excuse that I am trying to lose weight.
Yheni keeps eating until nothing but bones, claws and head remain. I congratulate her on her courage.
* * * *
EL SENOR DE LOS TEMBLORES
The Incas loved a procession. In olden times, once a year, the mummies of the Inca Kings of yore would be taken from their palaces and paraded around the plaza.
The rituals and rites of the Incas were the most elaborate and rigid to be found in the pre-Columbian Americas. Or maybe anywhere in the world. Around Cusco there were somewhere between 330 and 400 sacred places called "Huacas." They were situated along 42 sacred pathways called "Ceque lines." Each of the Huacas required specific sacrifices at specific times to be attended to by a specific noble family.
The Spanish conquerors were determined to convert these heathen Indians to their religion. The True Religion. That was their raison d'etre. There had to be some excuse for the rape and pillage of this empire. So in the name of the True God, they set out to destroy the sacred places of the Incas. And they used every obscene measure imaginable to separate the people from their pagan ways.
"You are heathens," said the Spanish. "You worship rocks and waterfalls and you carve stones into strange shapes and worship them too. Know this, you pagan infidels, there is only one God. And we know his name."
Well, the change wasn't too hard for these pagan infidels. Not only were they used to being told what was true about earthly matters, they were used to being told what was true about gods. It made for easy transitions.
Huacas forbidden? No problem, we'll pray to your saints. One group of deities is as good as another as long as we've got bunch of them.
And Christ? We know about Christ , but we called him by another name. The old legends told us about the creator god, Viracocha, and his son who returned to earth in human form. He was a white man with a beard and he wore a long, white robe. He brought with him a message of peace and love.
And the Holy Ghost… that's easy… God is everywhere. Everyone knows that.
No more mummy processions?
No problem…. We have El Señor de los Temblores. And we parade him around the
plaza on a litter carried by a dozen men.
Just… as in olden times… did we carry our king… who was the one and only… the true earthly representative of God.
The Inca… Our king…
The son of the Sun.