Thursday, February 21, 2013

(Belated) Guest Post: Dad's Trip to Monsefú, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu

I have the pleasure of writing this long delayed guest blog for Kim following my visit with her over Thanksgiving, and what a pleasure it was both to see Kim in her element and to share some very special experiences including Machu Picchu with her.

Kim greeted me at the airport in Chiclayo, the city nearest to Kim’s town of Monsefu. We traveled on to Monsefu, where I met her host family, the Sanchez-Vilchez family. Gilberto and Martha are simply a lovely couple, warm, generous and affectionate with me as well as Kim. This is clearly her home (for now!) and as a non-Spanish speaking visitor I could only listen in with amazement as Kim conversed with Gilberto, Martha, and their live-in daughter Mayra, with such fluency that to my naïve ear it might as well have been Mandarin. Her cultural competence was apparent in lots of other ways as well, including her haggling with taxis drivers over proposed fares. Anyone who knows Kim knows you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking she is anyone’s fool, as some of those drivers quickly discovered.

That very afternoon was the grand opening of a new soccer facility with two (small) artificial fields flanking a central building with a second level covered by a roof but open on the sides. The extended families of Monsefu form teams that include members both young and old. The Vilchez-Sanchez family had already played by the time Kim and I arrived, so we joined them at a table and chairs on the second floor. The weather was warm with a lovely breeze, and I was privileged to be included in the drinking circle, a Peruvian tradition in which there is but one small cup which is passed around the circle along with a seemingly endless supply of large bottles of beer. You receive the bottle from the previous imbiber, then wait for your neighbor to finish with the cup. You take the cup and with a decisive flourish whip the remaining drops onto the floor before filling the cup with your own beer. What a lovely experience it was to sit there relaxing with Kim’s extended host family surrounded by other extended families having fun competing and socializing. It took me a bit longer than perhaps it should have to realize that others weren’t filling the cup, merely pouring a small quaff. At any rate, as others left the circle and so my turn came around again more and more quickly I finally caught on. Fortunately it was about time to head home anyway, thank God.

For the next couple of days I followed Kim on her rounds of Monsefu, meeting the artisans, officials, friends of the family, and others she works with. I was struck by how it seemed that every third person we passed in the street knew Kim, and how Kim always had time to stop for some conversation with everyone. No wonder she has been able to accomplish so much in her time there – it’s people power.
A workshop on Costs and Pricing with the artisans
I was also touched by how warmly I was greeted by all. Apparently being Kim’s “Papa” confers quite a bit of status. Quite a number of people gave me small gifts, food or drink. Kim’s host family were extraordinarily generous in sharing their house and meals with me (I noticed that Martha always made sure I got the best servings), and just generally including me (with Kim’s translation services) in their conversation. In addition, I got to meet Kim’s host sister Karina and host brother Erick when they came with their respective spouses Fernando and Amy and all their children to their traditional Sunday midafternoon lunch at the parent’s house. One afternoon we visited with another Peace Corps volunteer who works at a nearby beach town, so we had the opportunity for a stroll on the beach and I got to see some fishermen in their traditional small boats made with reeds (although extra buoyancy is added these days with blocks of Styrofoam inside!).

Reed boats in Santa Rosa, a fishing style used since pre-Incan times (minus the styrofoam!) 

On my last day in the area, Kim and I traveled back to Chiclayo and had lunch at a wonderful restaurant named “Fiesta” where we had an appetizer called “grilled ceviche,” one of the best things I ever put in my mouth.

After a connecting flight through Lima, we arrive in southern Peru, in Cuzco.  The two major archeological sites we visited were Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. I should pause a moment here to explain a bit about Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Incan culture, and Peruvian history. As you know, the Incans were a great civilization whose culture dominated the west of modern day Peru as well as stretching into Columbia and Chile.  Cusco was their capital, but they had numerous holy sites including Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu that celebrated their connection with all nature. They recognized the duality of all things, hence their worship of the sun and the moon and their belief that the “Adam and Eve” of the Inca were literally the children of the sun and the moon.  Incan architecture was always carefully planned to synchronize with the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. They believed that the river Urubamba that flows through the Sacred Valley was itself literally a mirror image of the Milky Way. You have all seen pictures of Machu Picchu and can see how surpassingly beautiful it is. Lured by stories of cities of gold, the Spanish Conquistadors invaded and destroyed the Incan civilization, its rulers, and its shrines, taking all their magnificent gold and silver icons and melting them down to ship back to Spain. They were totally ruthless. They captured the Incan emperor and ransomed him for enormous quantities of gold, requiring the Incans to strip their own temples. Then, instead of releasing the emperor, they killed him anyway. They destroyed all the Incan temples they could find and built churches on top of their ruins. You may be able to discern from my description that I was simply horrified by this history, and couldn’t help but notice that so many of the indigenous descendants seemed to be among the poor while the upper classes seemed to be of lighter skinned Spanish descent.

Ollantaytambo was one of the shrines as well as a self-sustaining community in Incan times. Although it too was destroyed by the Spanish, enough has been restored to get a sense of what it might have been like, to witness the carefully terraced hills used for agriculture, and admire the astonishingly fine stonework of the Incan masons working only with other stone and copper tools. In the picture below notice how the Incans had painstakingly fashioned multi-ton stones so finely that one cannot slip a sheet of paper between them.
Temple at Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo was also interesting in that many of the walls in the town itself are still intact, and the houses are inhabited, so that one can get some sense of what daily life might have been like.
The town of Ollantaytambo

Ah, Machu Picchu. After taking a train through the Sacred Valley and staying overnight in the town of Aguas Calientes, we took a winding half-hour bus ride to the base of Machu Picchu and then hired a guide. Machu Picchu is unique in that it apparently was never found by the Spanish and hence was largely intact when it was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham (with the direction of Inca guides, of course) in 1911.  After touring the site and taking a side hike to the Sun Gate, Kim and I initially agreed that while we found it to be fascinating and impressive, it didn’t seem “magical” as often described in guidebooks. In hindsight however, I have found that my memory of the place, and indeed my experience of being there has grown and deepened as time has passed. I now think the “missing magic” was ironically a product of how, after several days of immersion in Inca culture, it felt quite normal to be there, as if we were visiting a nearby town whose inhabitants had only recently departed. By then I could easily imagine being a resident of Machu Picchu, watching as the Emperor, carried on his litter along the Inca Trail, passed through the Sun Gate, and descended to the main gate of the city. This kind of altered reality was facilitated by the fact that the site is so relatively intact that but for the addition of thatched roofs and a willingness to live in very small houses by today’s standards, one could move in tomorrow.

To even attempt to describe the careful planning that went into the construction of this site would be overwhelming, but let me mention just a few:

The construction of the site was exquisitely integrated into the topology of the geography, and great care was taken to delight the residents with extraordinary views at every turn.
Temple of the Sun, on top of another temple

Sacred doorway
One might wonder how a town at such an altitude could maintain a water supply for its population. The answer is that MP is placed between and lower than two geological faults that supplied natural springs. Those springs were then funneled by hand carved stone canals and powered by gravity over 2500 feet to a fountain for the exclusive use of the Incan Emperor and his family and then continuing on to supply fifteen more fountains for the rest of the population.

As one gazes upon the beauty that is MP, it is astounding to learn that 60% of the stone work is in fact underground in the form of foundations and drainage for that which is visible. That drainage, which goes down up to nine (!) feet was essential for a space that gets about 76 inches of rain per year, mostly within the seven months of the rainy season.

In the end, this was really an amazing experience for me.  Kim is twenty four years old and quite an independent young woman, and so I had imagined that the opportunity to spend ten days sharing this kind of fabulous experience combining adventure with the intimacy of being a part of Kim’s everyday life was probably past.  I will forever treasure this time spent with her even more than the fulfillment of a bucket list life experience. Thank you Kim.

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