Saturday, February 24, 2007

Take My Breath Away

Forgive the title--we've heard enough 80s rock ballads (think Bryan Adams' Everything I Do or Xtreme's More Than Words) this morning at our hostel to addle my brain and make me feel like I'm in 8th grade all over again.

But, really, the altitude here can be suprising. We're at something like 3800 meters, and I am feeling it--shortness of breath walking up the street, some headaches and lack of appetite. But Cusco is a fascinating city.

In the local dialect Quechuan, Cusco (aka Qusco) means navel of the world, since it was the capitol of the Incan Empire. We have been getting steadily exposed to Incan culture, history and art--and human sacrifice--since Arequipa. One of our last stops there was a museum dedicated to the remains and artifacts of frozen mummies found on the local volcanoes. The Incans believed the mountains were gods and would go there and sacrifice people, mostly children and women, to try and appease them. In the 80s, a mountain climber found the first and most famous mummy, named Juanita. No suprise, the climber who happened upon her was named Johan, or Juan in spanish.

She's famed for being one of the best preserved, with many other offerings. However, she is only on exhibit part of the year, so we saw her less famous brethren, Sarita (found on the volcano Sara Sara). Our guide was very informative, and we learned the differences between llamas, alpacas and vicunas and found out that the graves were often struck by lightening because of the metal objects buried only 1 meter from the surface. We also learned that it was supposed to be a great privilege to be sacrificed to join the gods; there were actually schools to train and select appropriately chaste, intelligent and beautiful children for the event, which ended with a sharp blow to the left-side of the head with a sort of star-shaped mace. A little macabre, but interesting nonetheless.

Today, in Cusco, we went to the Inca Museum. It had information on many of the pre-Incan cultures, as well as artifacts from the Incans. It was useful to have learned about many similar artifacts at the exhibit in Arequipa because, unfortunately, most the signage was in Spanish, and the museum seemed to contain an inordinate amount of painted replicas instead of some actual items and bad dioramas that included plastic men near small plastic bushes surrounded by actual coca leaves (picture bay leaves) all out of proportion.

Speaking of coca leaves, since arriving in Arequipa I've been enjoying daily cups of coca tea. It looks a little like a cup full of bay leaves and initially smells very green, like cut grass, but with a little sugar it's quite tasty and supposed to help with the aforementioned altitude effects. Though the leave is controversial for US policy (it is the raw ingrediant for making cocaine), it is viewed quite reverentially here as a spiritual and medicinal plant. Actually, on some of the figurines included in the sacrificial burials were human figures with bulges in their cheeks indicating that they were chewing coca.

Otherwise, after a day of R&R yesterday, we saw some of the famed Incan walls and many Andean men, women and children, with their fantastic woven fabrics and dress, replete with lambs and llamas. The only sad/odd part is the children walking around wanting you to pay them to take a picture with them in their traditional dress.

We'll have another day in Cusco, hopefully exploring some of the ruins closer to the city, then it's off for a 3-day, 2-night tour of the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu. Soon, we will be here...

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