They asked me to imagine a city laid out in the shape of a puma; a stone to tie the sun to; a city of fleas. They asked me if I was willing to meet Earth Changer, Our Lord of Earthquakes and Mother Earth? I nodded. If so, they whispered in my ears, prepare to follow the pilgrimage to Cusco, the place that every Inca endeavoured to visit once in a lifetime. Navel of the world, one of the Western Hemisphere’s greatest empires, Spanish colonial showpiece, gringo capital of South America, Mecca of all dreamers, Cusco is all this and more. Ask any guide or better still read any guidebook. They said.
Explore the ruins, live the traditions of the descendants of the Incas, make the sell-your-soul-for-it kind of trip to the Hidden Citadel of Machu Picchu, bargain graciously with ample doses of smiles and gracias in the Andean markets, watch and worship the apus, the imposing snow-capped peaks while standing at the agricultural terraces of the Incas, climb as many hills as your muscles can take, mountain bike, plummet 1,400 metres in two hours, be an adrenaline-junkie on a raft on one of the a heart-stopping white waters, or get lost in the world’s largest protected rainforests of Manu Biosphere that starts high in the Andes and goes down through elfin, clouds, montane forest, swamps and lowland jungle of the Amazon and do more.
Do more but like what? Like learning espanol, sipping the legends and the lore, guzzling down glasses of pisco or enjoying ceviche or pachamanca cooked over heated stones in a hole in the ground or even the cuy (guinea pig) or chewing coca leaves to fight high-altitude sickness or even the cold, get spitted on by a vicuna- the cousin of llama, and swear like Captain Haddock...his blistering blue barnacles, thundering typhoons, buy the softest of alpaca sweater or weep alone on your pillow in the night till you learn to be a gringo, an independent single strong woman backpacker, and accept that after Gandhi the most popular export has been the latkas and jhatkas of our Bollywood.
This is the story of Alice. But the story begins long before, when Alice read Tintin’s Prisoners of the Sun when she was 6 or perhaps a few years older. Tintin the sleuth goes to Peru to solve a mystery...his tale puts Alice in the dream-processor. They say when you sincerely dream for and long something, they often turn true. 20 years later Alice as a scribe finds herself in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with 12 other girls from different countries. When the media-programme is over, Alice decides to go footloose ....break the shackles, put the suitcase in the locker and throw the essentials in a backpack and just GO.
No itinerary, no tour packages, no fast paced whistle-stop visits, no companion. A journey should rightfully begin with a prayer and this time she wants to offer her prayers to the Inca gods in the Inca- capital Cusco. And when the plane pierces the mists and clouds and she looks down from the window of her plane, she knows that she is in a wonderland.
First thing first. Locate a budget place. She does and then goes for a walk to acquaint herself to this new world. The sun is about to set and the moon has already claimed her place in the sky. Didn’t the sun sent his son, Manco Capac and the moon sent her daughter, Mama Ocllo, to this world to spread culture and enlightenment throughout the dark barbaric world? And both emerged from the icy depths of Lake Titicaca and walked and walked to this place which they named Cusco- the navel of the Earth-and started the Inca dynasty sometime in the 12th century.
The wind was icy cold and Alice sheltered herself in a cafe watching the Plaza de Armas and Plaza Regocijo, in Inca days called Huacaypata (the place of tears) and Cusipata (the place of happiness) and she didn’t know that soon, very soon they both, tears and happiness will lay their claim on her.
Flanked by palaces, Plaza de Armas was a place for solemn assemblies and parades, the latter is still seen every weekend and one can join the masked boys or the colourful dancers and feel the ancient culture thriving alive though the Inca palaces have been replaced by Spanish architectures of a cathedral, Iglesia Jesus y Maria and El Trinufo. Even if there may not be any religious inclinations the complex is a must visit because of the treasure, the art, the woodwork and the amalgamation of Spanish and Quechua schools of art. For example where will you see a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus eating cuy and drinking chicha.
The church of La Compania de Jesus, built on the site of the Palace of the Serpents also has a dazzling work of art with generous use of gold leaf. The Incas love for gold outdid any civilisation on the planet and perhaps was one of the reasons that lured the Spanish to plunder, loot and destroy the empire.
But it was time to go back to a lone room and let tears wet the pillow. Alice was alone, but what mattered that Alice was so lonely in a so so faraway country, dreaming to do everything alone...And then she hears....Mujko Mujhise Chura lo....song from film Mohabatein. This is hallucinations. A Hindi number in a country where people didn’t even know English? But the song keeps playing, drawing her towards a school courtyard where she finds girls practising on the music for their annual school day function. They look at her; dressed as she was in a salwar- kurta.
“ An Indu?” they ask her.
By now she knows that Indians from India are called Indus. And she nods. Still in a daze. They touch her dupatta and with great effort and lots of gesticulations request her to teach them some dancing from Bollywood. She agrees, overwhelmed to see how dancing around trees and romancing in filmy style has overwhelmed the young Peruvians. How the masala Hindi films have crossed the barriers of oceans, culture, race, and language. Assignments and people to look forward too for the next 3 evenings for Alice but she also has a long list of “ things to do” before, in between and after that; museums to explore, nightlife to enjoy, visit the fortress of Puka Pukara, the shrine of Tambo Machay, walk the sacred valleys of Sacsayhuaman, Urubamba, Pisac, Moray, worship the sun god, admire their drainage system and get stoned by the incredible and scientific stonework which stood the numerous earthquakes that the area is prone to, make friends with locals and other travellers and exchange tears and loneliness with laughter, happiness and strength . She truly is in an adventure-land.
Being her own Hiram Bingham
Any traveller worth his salt knows that his travel is incomplete without a visit to Machu Picchu. So either do the 4-5 days of dizzying Inca- Trail, take the luxury train Hiram Bingham, or the budget tourist train or take a taxi/bus or make various combinations of all these. Do whatever but reach there must because the site is something that can’t be matched by words, especially limited words. It is a kind of shorthand for lost civilisations, the curiosity and apprehension that accompanies an exploration, the thrill of discovery, exotic travel, and an enigma that defies the modern technological world, all wrapped with loads of picturesque surroundings.
It was hidden, and lost for centuries. It was said to be sacred city where astronomical treasure and knowledge was kept and studied; it was also called a citadel; it was also called the home of the “virgins of the sun”; whatever it was it was deliberately abandoned by its inhabitants- perhaps because of civil wars, perhaps because of small pox, perhaps drought or fire. None know for sure. Unknown to the world, till 1911 when explorer Hiram Bingham made his chance discovery and spread the word, Machu Picchu is now declared a World Heritage Site and Wonders of the World.
Cross the ticket gate and what you notice is ruins and ruins and extensive terracing that supplied the crops to the city. On the back is Intipunku or the Sun Gate from where the sun sends its first rays to kiss the Sun Temple that draws a golden haze on each piece of ruin. It takes a while to understand the significance of each ruin and a guide comes handy. Gradually one understands what they are; the main plaza, the Temple of Three Windows, the Principal temple, the Sacristy, the residential quarters, ceremonial baths, the royal sector, the watchman’s hut, the condor temple and the Intimacay cave. And synonymous with the ruins is the overpowering verdant mountain Huayna Picchu. Photograph it as much as you want, let clouds cover it or the rains shroud it but let only a brave-heart climb it.
“Alice, what did you do?”
“The steps are wet and slippery and the climb steep and treacherous and my camera bag heavy. With each knee-breaking, spirit shaking step it turns heavier but what would be life like if I cross the oceans, years of dreaming and give up now.”
“All the best Alice but will you go to the Intipata-The Inca Bridge which is actually couple of logs and ropes carved into a vertiginous cliff-face?”
“I will if I am alive and then I will soak my sore muscles in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes. And if I die, think that I was the Ch’alla (sacrifice) to the Pachamama. And I take nothing but a piece of this magical place that transcends the roles it has acquired, photogenic image, tourist magnet, centre of controversy, through the strength of its stones, the way it is tied intimately to its surroundings, its enigma, its beauty. I am ready to be the Virgin of the Sun God.”