No Sacrifice

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Arequipa, without question, is an immense Peruvian highlight.

We were here principally because it is the jumping off point for the Colca Canyon: the world's largest canyon, a canyon of such grandeur that The Grand Canyon quivers in its presence, and proud overlays showing the relative grandeur/ dwarveness of the two are proudly offered.

Courtesy of this long voyage of self discovery, I have come to learn that I actually care very little about all the parts of nature I don't get to eat. But Colca would be epic, like an Empire State Building of, um, holes, so I led the charge to visit.

The city of Arequipa is beautiful with its grand square, classic buildings and lots of restaurants in the upper level of the surrounding arcades to allow for very elegant afternoons. We also managed to secure a hotel with more timeless beauty, inspiring views and quality service than should reasonably be expected for 12 bucks a night.

Getting here was also more fun than an 8 hour bus should be, even if we were promised a 6 hour trip. What's not to like when the lady selling roast pork sandwiches doesn't make them at home but just brings a 2ft side of pork on the bus and a very serious meat cleaver and just hacks away in the aisles of the rocking bus? Peruvians seem fairly easygoing, as at one point I turned round to see one fenale passenger cheerily asking for her to lift the plastic pork liner just slightly and making no direct remarks about the litany of pork fat flecks across her face and hair.

Also on the bus was a super slick representative of the Coca Cola Company, trying to evangelise the miraculous properties of his wonder drink and get the locals off Inca Cola, remarkable both for its awfulness and its 90% market share. He was polished and preened, and his voice projection was far too good given that we were in an ear splittingly adjacent row to his standing presence. His pitch was basically sound: Coke's great for the whole family (yep), contains absolutely no milk (?), filled with antioxidants (hmmm), and no sugar (just making it up now). While his audience slept soundly through what was an excellent demonstration, there were lots of nodding heads when he moved onto Continental rice sauce, and positive raptures when he demonstrated some kind of menthol healing balm which fought the good fight with the remainder of the chicharron (roast pork) aroma.

Noticable from the bus is that Peru appears to have no trees, and a super abundance of 25cm rocks. Its desolate, and empty in a way that only hundreds of treeless kilometres can be. Adding to this is the apparent Peruvian disdain for all forms of architecture and finishing anything. On the former point, I call as evidence several hundred thousand bare red brick and breeze block cubes that are truly breathtaking in both their nationwide ubiquity and ugliness. I feel confident in issuing an open challenge to nominate a single Peruvian building of the last century that does not belong to the 1970's Public Toilet School of architecture.

As to the unfinished buildings, our Colca tour guide let us in on a bit of trivia: the Peruvian government charges significantly lower property taxes on buildings while they are being erected. Go on, guess how many buildings look finshed as a result of this piece of government genius. Every single building has a cultivated still in construction look as a result: reinforcements exposed for a hypothetical second story, random bits of red brick wall left around, you name it.

Venturing onto the tourist trail in town, our first stop was the eminently well finished Santa Caterina Convent. While I had some doubts as to how energising a convent visit could be, this is a blinder for numerous reasons. It started life as a very well endowed convent for the well healed among the called of Spain's elite families. The local Spanish installed bishop variously took a dim view of proceedings there, and over time various rules were introduced to limit the nuns to one servant each in their pursuit of their vow of poverty, and later on to discourage the practice of using the convent as a brothel given that whole vow of chastity thing they'd signed up to.

Its a grand and sprawling complex, replete with outdoor works in oils that surround every little courtyard. Having been built around 500 years ago its confronting that this would still be some fairly opulent digs today.

Later that day we went to visit the University Museum to view The Ice Maiden Juanita. Juanita is the signature discovery among 20 or so uncovered Inca child sacrifices, and courtesy of being sacrificed atop the local dominant icy peaked volcano, she is ridiculously well preserved (as are most of the others). Claude positively cooed over her lustrous shiny hair, not washed or Pantened in 500 years. While Juanita herself was in a big freezer, she was at least replaced by an equally astounding frozen kiddie still with skin and organs intact.

The Incas reverence for the volcanoes was pretty logical: even viewing Mt Misti today there is a keen sense that it is very much in charge, and the town and its occupants are there very much as short term guests. The Incas believed that an erupting volcano was a sign of angry gods, and that a hot 16y.o. girl was required to keep the gods happy (solid logic again). We wondered how the sacrifice was performed and learned from the guide that they were simply given a good lash of booze (at altitude as well remember), then given a good solid whack in the back of the head. No unnecessary stuff that could let your sacrifice escape or question how happy the gods would be to get a whole priest or two as a sacrifice instead. Logical to the end. 

The Inca gods were believed to have also valued the local llamas and alpacas. Quite understandably, it proved challenging to get your sacrificial beasts to climb up the 5800m mountain, so Inca chiefs adjudged it acceptable to sacrifice the beasts back at home, and carry just a little one inch replica up for burial with the child sacrifice. God may be omniscient, but everyone needs their memory jogged a little as to the llama bodycount offered in thy name now and again.

The following day we headed out for our two day Colca canyon experience. The guide, Irene, was worth the price of the tour alone. She filled in all sorts of gaps our (far more expensive) Inca Trail guide could not, and she dabbled a little into contemporary politics and policies giving us a good insight as to some elements of everyday life.

Heading through the passes of the Central Andes was my first real experience of altitude (4900m) clubbing me over the head. Well rested, but I just could not stay awake. I slept on the bus. I fell asleep at 5pm on reaching the hotel, got woken for dinner, then fell asleep again and slept 12 more hours. Really quite pleasurable as a symptom.

For the small amount I was awake, we were pointed out mountains that we were told are the origin of the Amazon, although it must be said that most maps I look at seem to vigorously dispute this. What we can agree on is that the Central Andres were all very pretty. Moreover, the Andes are also packed full with (largely legally inedible) animals. We saw pink flamingos, we saw ducks with baby blue bills, we saw (just!) highly camouflaged rock rabbits, and of course we saw enough four footed woolly beasts to form Llamarama.

Later in the day we saw a pre-Inca burial site and learned about the locals preference for deforming the children's skulls into a completely coneheaded shape. When the Incas took over they let it go on, and it was only the Spanish Missionaries who put a stop to it, a rare instance of the church interfering with children for the better. Aside from this mandate, the spread of Spanish Catholicism appears to have been marked by some excellent compromises. The early churches are all very Christian in their use of standard symbols, but they discreetly face the local volcanic deity out of longheld respect. Local Pachamama (Mother Earth) symbols also get a start in the relief sculptures, unless it really is true that the virgin Mary had a pet puma.

I am enjoying the local religious interpretation quite a lot. The Spanish seem to have been very flexible: when the locals asked if they could still dress up in spangly outfits and dance in the streets to celebrate various feast days, it was thought that Jesus would approve. Visitors looking back from centuries hence may may easily confuse the founding deities of South American religious observation to be discoverable solely among Christina Aguilera's backup dancers. Nice entymological link to Christinaanity too.

Back on the tour, we eventually made it to Colca Canyon. There appears to have been a very fluid definition of the term "canyon" applied. I thought I had paid my $20 for a 3km deep hole. 'Canyon' in Peru seems to refer to "change in elevation between two fundamentally unrelated points": we ended up at a quite nice 1000m deep hole, only to learn that the depth measurement was from that bottom to the the top of a peak set quite far back from either edge. Shonky.

Also at the canyon was the lookout for condors. Refer to my earlier opinions about nature. They were nice enough, but there was no KFC* around to let me fully enjoy their large succulent bodies. (* Kentucky Fried Condor...mmm..)

Arequipa, depsite the occasional canyon related disappointment, has been a fine stop: enough crazy human behaviour left over to provide a nice balance with the crazy bits of nature on the itinerary.

* * *

We left Liz and Mike to rest and recuperate in Cuzco and headed to Arequipa as a pintsized threesome.  The sickness had managed to circle the group and land abruptly on Liz' shoulders whilst walloping Mike for the second time.  Pete, Iain and I decided to make the most of our good health and explore the 'White City' of Arequipa.

It was nice to arrive somewhere new where the sun was shining after a few grey, recovery days in Cuzco post Inca Trail.  We disembarked in Arequipa a little hotter and hungrier than prior to boarding our enlightening local bus.  Unlike the tourist buses this didn't stop for food nor bathroom breaks so when the bus pulled over to pick up new passengers I took my chance.  Afterwards, I raced back to the bus to find that it had pulled out and had begun to drive away and had only stopped after Pete and Iain's screeching (well anyway Pete's - as Iain was busy eating at the time).  After boarding there was much local merriment that the gringo had almost been left behind.

Arequipa was an interesting stop for a variety of enticements.  Not limited to the fact that the polished city slumbers in the shadows of a number of enormous, snow-capped volcanoes.  Amongst others, the majestic 5800m high El Misti towers over the city whenever the sky is clear and blue.  Standing awestruck looking at this beautiful volcano you could almost understand why the Incans felt a powerful reverence to these volcanoes and treated them like invincible gods to be worshipped via all kinds of sacrifice.  We learned all there is to know about Incan child sacrifices when we visited the local museum which houses a number of frozen, sacrificial children discovered well-preserved atop the volcanoes under a thick bed of icy rock.  It is an astounding thought that these troops of Incans climbed the same mountains that today's climbers ascend with the help of ice axes, crampons and high-tech goretex wet weather gear, wearing only leather sandals and a few layered alpacca ponchos.

We visited the 500 year old Convento de Santa Catalina which allowed visitors to stroll through this 'city within a city'.  We roamed through the nun's quarters and could see how they had lived (and were currently living as nuns still lived in the restricted access areas of the convent).  It was nice to see the simple, yet stylish, stone living quarters each with what looked like a mandatory stone, wood fired pizza oven.  The narrow, winding paths were eclipsed by flower pots, brightly coloured walls and outdoor, religious oil paintings.  It made for a very nice morning's exploring.

By far the highlight was venturing out of town to see the Colca Canyon on a two day tour.  The Canyon region was dotted with alluring scenery but the journey to the canyon was made all the better by our knowledgable guide, Irene.  She pointed out pink flamingoes (coloured by their local food supply: shallow dwelling pink shrimp); vicunas (a wild relative of alpacas and llamas living at altitude); explained how the Incan tiered agricultural landscape helped cold-hating corn grow with reckless abandon despite being at altitude (walls of stacked rocks were used to release the day's heat to prevent the frost from affecting the plants); explained why the locals wear different shaped bowler hats (because they used to deform their children's skulls to reflect the shape of their local deified volcano until the Spanish arrived and suggested they just wear funny shaped hats instead).  This was a worthwhile tour if only just for all the information she managed to relay to us in 48 hours.

This was a great wrap-up of our Peruvian adventure.  Next stop: the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.
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