Christmas in Cusco

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Christmas in Cusco made for a fantastic contrast to the months spent cursing the fog in Lima. I arrived on the 24th, in the middle of one of the former Inca capital's most unique market days. Panettone (yes), fireworks and incense were on sale everywhere, but more especially, hundreds of vendors offering nativity scene decorations of all sorts filled the famously beautiful Plaza de Armas central square. These ranged from animal figurines of all biomes to grasses and mosses carried down from the high pampa plains. The colonnades along the square's edges had turned into chaotic informal encampments for the vendors and their children. As in the other Andean market settings I would get to know, I mostly saw women, I suspect because the men are kept busy by fieldwork.

After interesting conversations with young shoeshiners about what McDonald's food taste like and having a hot street bowl of chicken soup with plenty of basil and peanut ají, I joined my friends from the Católica who were in the city giving a two-month dance workshop to go pick-up some miniature manger creatures and wine for the family we would be spending Christmas Eve with that night.

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Living abroad, it's easy to downplay the experience of celebrating the holidays with others, but the solitude eventually comes to hit you and I've been fortunate to have always been invited into someone's home if away from mine. In this case, I was the guest of guests of the family and they still welcomed me in with the most warm open arms. Christmas Eve was spent around the tree and manger drinking sweet Peruvian borgoña wine and the father's herb and honey infused moonshine, kalpa. At the strike of twelve, hot chocolate (topped with sweetened condensed milk!) was passed around along with panettone (Peruvian but nearly identical to Italy's). The next day, we returned for a grand and delicious meal of stuffed turkey, which tasted very much like what I'd have eaten at a typical Thanksgiving meal in Canada. Plenty more borgoña and kalpa accompanied us into late afternoon conversations, when I eventually made the blunder of opening up a cultural discussion more apt for geography circles.

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Thinking about Canada's own confused relationship with its indigenous past, I mentioned the need to still officially acknowledge the extent to which the original inhabitants of the Americas, particularly in densely populated regions like Cusco and its surroundings, had been decimated by common European infectious diseases (there is a large consensus amongst specialists that around 95% of people died, mostly from falling sick). This might seem like common knowledge, but most people I speak with here still credit technological superiority and defecting rebel Inca factions for the speed, extent and pervasiveness of conquest. Obviously, this happens much easier when people are dying left and right and the human landscape is emptying itself out… Well my lack of thought caused quite the rawkus, spurring accusations of speaking without references, renewed statements about the advantage of having guns, not-actually rhetorical questions about how could the Inca have fended off the Spaniards if they hadn't even developed a writing system, stuff about rebel factions too. It all piped down quickly, I realized my misstep, but it also reminded me of the very annoying tendency in Peru and other Latin American countries to freely swing between criticizing your country and preaching models from abroad, and then when the foreigner believes they're being asked to join in the debate, remind them of how little clue they have about the way things really are. At that point you shut up and let people dish out their facts and collect their smirks from around the table. Ok, it wasn't that bad in this case, and I had stupidly tried making conversation with a loaded topic. We later took the frustration out on the dance floors of the historical centre's backpacker-beaconing discotheques, but I awoke the next day with the need to get out of Dodge and spend some intimate time with my backpack. Ticking off all of Cusco's main historical sites in one afternoon, I packed for an early day hit on the road the next.

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I headed south to the small town of Andahuaylillas which my guidebook recommended. There I asked around about hiking up into the mountains and they all told me I just had to follow the road and could eventually get up to a place with lots of llamas called Manco. Najs! For my first day-trip, it sounded great and I was ecstatic: everywhere I looked, big, jagged mountains, sky, clouds and bright green unharvested fields of corn and colourful potato plants. I was meeting people who looked very Andean, who saluted me in Spanish and then whispered laughingly in Quechua. Exiting the second village on the road around kilometre ten, when the gravel gave way to mud and the sun happened to duck behind clouds, I felt I was entering a very deep and mystical rural world. When it rained I threw my hood on and covered my backpack and kept marching. Eventually I got to a fork, where the road continued on the left and a footpath began on the right leading through some small fields cloistered by short rock walls and an agglomeration of very simple houses made from clay bricks. I took the right and met an old woman and a young girl walking with a flock of 20 sheep and some llamas. "Just keep walking through!" she told me when I asked for permission to cross through the houses. It's hard to qualify, but everyone I have met walking in these rural areas since has marked me as projecting incredible strength of character and identity, and an attitude towards the outsider that is unbothered and sincere. So I kept walking, the heart light and pupils dilated.

I found more llamas, then the hydro dam which was given to me as the next landmark, ran into a bunch of boys who alternated between laughing at and with me, hiding in the ruins of an old broken-down house and throwing me rocks. It felt good to have managed to get so far off the beaten path so quickly. On my way back down I stopped and spoke with a local guy my age who was trekking into another valley with some dry goods on his back. I took his number to see if we could arrange that his community let me spend some days with them, he seemed positive about it but would have to confirm. I never came to use the contact, but I am not ruling out returning for deeper immersion in such places in the future.

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I made it back to the road-stop by 7 and took the bus further south through to Sicuani, the last main town of Cusco's valle sur (southern valley). The next morning I walked around tasting foods (cf. chairo), went through the market and got a feel for the place but rapidly understood that either I could use it as a launchpad for regional explorations of a few days, continue to Lake Titicaca only 3 hours away or return to Cusco and follow a tip north to the Apurimac Valley. I chose option three, took a last picture of the city's river and distant snowy peaks that reminded me of Central Asia, and then nestled into my window seat for 5 hours of admiring terraced agriculture systems.

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1200 words, so let me speed up! The walk to Choquequirao will make for the subject of another post, as will my visit to Ollantaytambo, which is better served through a more visual post on masonry.

New Year's was a rambunctious huge lot of fun. The 31st was spent outside in various squares, enjoying beautiful weather and the cosmopolitan atmosphere brought by the thousands of new tourists. Then, along with two other friends from courses at the Católica, we welcomed the twelfth hour botellón-style with the throngs in the Plaza de Armas, fireworks exploding at our feet with a glass of liquor in hand and a Peruvian rendition of Se eu te pego playing on stage. I ran the three laps of good luck around the Plaza de Armas, found momentary serendipity on the second, and then joined up with my dance crew friends for a good dance off welcome to the first day of January. We made it out late enough to find the tamal vendor awaiting her first customers of the year.

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On my last day return from Ollanta [-ytambo] I met Walter, an important breeder of Peruvian Paso horses on the colectivo back to Urubamba. I got to spend an interesting hour admiring his beautiful animals and meeting his family on the ranch, Rancho "El Diamante". While his two-year-old grandson showed me his riding skills, his daughter and son-in-law were fixing cuy (guinea pig) cages. He was headed to Rio Grande Do Sul (Brazil) this month for an international horse show and was anxiously awaiting the arrival of a parasite test kit so that he could ready his animals' immigration papers. This breed is apparently one of the most comfortable to ride because the horse keeps its back completely flat and stable while moving, "like a puma stalking its prey" Walter told me.

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I then headed towards the village of Maras off the Urubamba-Cusco road, thinking that I would either visit an impressive complex of ancient Inca water-evaporation salt production terrasses, or the unique circular terraced fields of Moray. I found out however in the second colectivo that Maras village itself was holding its annual village festivities that day, so I elected to get off there with the rest of the passengers. Maras appeared very small but at least a couple thousand people must have been present, either dancing to the loud and contagiously rhythmic live huayno (an example) music, or hanging out with their community group drinking chicha and eating large pieces of fried pork chicharrones and roasted golden-fleshed potatoes.

I invited the taxi driver to a large glass of berry-infused chicha (fermented corn juice) called frutillada. As is customary, before indulging, we each poured a little onto the ground as tribute to Mother Earth and its fertility, the Pachamama. Our glasses quickly empty, my driver went back to work and I started to wander around taking pictures, my senses overwhelmed by all that I was feeling. It reminded me of when I happened upon the state governor's visit to a small market village in the middle of nowhere Chhattisgarh, India.

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Eventually I met Eber and his friends. They were drinking beer, not chicha, and sharing a glass, as is sometimes common in group drinking situations in Peru. You get the bottle first, then you wait for the person before you to finish their glass, then you get the glass, pour yourself what you feel like drinking, pass the bottle and savour your pour before passing on the glass again. Eber, a young guy my age who mainly works in construction and in his field, had fought with his wife the day before and slept over at his buddy's, yet she was still around and the two were speaking. It seemed like a normal domestic spat: "it's the new year, so she'll have to forgive me" was his response, but he hadn't eaten in two days either and now was filling himself with booze - "the stomach must make itself strong". Still, him and I took a liking to each other and we ended up having a long conversation about how the people of the Sacred Valley of Cusco have been forced into finding their own relationship with the past and its presence on the land, separate from the important archeological sites the region is famous for because they have all been turned into sequestered destinations that cater to tourists. He told me he had millions of dollars worth of gold artifacts at home which they had discovered in a former Inca cemetery, but "you can't sell what hasn't cost you anything". He left me with a beautiful image and an attractive reason to head back one day and continue talking:

"There is one place I know of that for me represents the true beauty and splendor of the Incas. Imagine arriving on a perfectly flat and large mountain top from which you can observe the entire region. In the middle of it is a dark and smooth rock where a life-sized man and woman have been carved out, and there they are making love. They appear exactly as if they had once been real people and then petrified at the height of their passion"

He offered to take me there, but I would have to go blindfolded. Just a fortnight before leaving, I had once again found the beginning of a mysterious new trail of discovery.

This area has you constantly thinking of the living past and questioning that which you're told as having happened or existing. It always moves me a lot when people open up to share the mystery of their lives. Very few of us still leave room for it. Even fewer of us believe in it enough to want to discuss and share it. Wander and wonder!

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