Celebrating Inca culture

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As we rode the air-conditioned bus down from the mountain citadel at Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, a small boy dressed in traditional Inca warrior gear, appeared on the dusty single-lane road leading to the village of Agua Calientes far below. A few among the packed busload of gringos noticed the boy. The driver honked at him and a few more craned their necks to see him. What they saw was Inca culture in action, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

A few days earlier in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco about 90 kms south of Machu Picchu, it threatened to rain as the annual three-hour Festival of the Sun or Inti Raymi got under way on June 24 (winter solstice). The dry season in this southeastern part of Peru starts in June and runs through September. After that the wet season takes over. No fall and no winter as we know them, so a celebration of the sun is most welcome and has been for half a millennium.

Despite the threats, it didn’t rain and the crowd that had gathered – as many as 100,000 onlookers including at least one sighting of Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz and one of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates -- cheered as the Inca emperor, speaking in Qechuan, the Inca language, raised his arms to the sky. Miraculously, the sun shone as he did so.

The Inca Empire thrived for about 100 years through the mid-1400s and abruptly ended in 1532 when the Spanish conquistadors rode into Cusco on horseback and began destroying what the Inca people had built. In 1572, the Spanish banned Inti Raymi as a pagan ritual that challenged Catholicism.

Today’s ceremony is different from past years. Cusco’s mayor, sensing an opportunity to fill city coffers with even more gringo cash, has moved the ceremony to a spot at nearby Saqsayhuaman, which one writer suggests pronouncing as “sexy woman”.

The festival is usually held in a large field surrounded by Inca ruins that defy belief. Some of the building blocks -- a sort of Inca Stonehenge -- are so big that it would seem impossible for humans, especially humans with only stone tools and no horse power, to have put them in such precise order and at such a high altitude. Cusco sits in a valley snuggled into the Andes Mountains at about 2,430 meters.

The mayor’s decision had angered the public. People used to be able to watch the colourful ceremony from a rocky hill at no cost. Now, the tourists have taken over and paid $80-$100 to sit in orange, green and blue chairs close to the central action.  

“So it’s gone from a people’s event to a tourist attraction?” I asked the local guide. He agreed and seemed upset at the mayor’s decision. Yet the tourist dollars, euros and yen that flowed on that one day would provide more than enough funds for several badly needed public projects.

In the two lead-up acts of this annual extravaganza of costume, music, dance and speeches, we were unable to see or photograph the movements of the cast of hundreds. These took place at Cusco’s Qorikancha, a former convent with some amazing Inca ruins housed in a massive Spanish colonial building, and the Plaza de Armas, the central square where thousands of school children and various regional groups have been performing folk dances for days.

Like the larger festival in Rio de Janiero in February, the communities compete vigorously for the prowess of winning the dance contests. At Saqsayhuaman, photographing the event was not a problem and the spectacle of so many people looking down from the rocks was inspiring as is so much of Inca lore and architecture.

“I wonder when it’s going to start,” a woman from Los Angeles said. Then a stream of musicians and dancers dressed in traditional costume began to line the rim of the natural theatre area. A man appeared on the main stage (the sinchi or master of ceremonies). He will guide the proceedings until the Inca arrives.

Suddenly, there was flute music coming through the massive loud speakers that sit incongruously at the edge of the field, then the sound of marching. On the horizon in front of a large statue of Christ, a quarter the size of its twin in Rio, four legions of Inca warriors moved closer to the stage (called an usnu). Soldiers held high the vertical banners. Soon dozens of flag runners lined up on the opposite hill.

“Cusco’s flag is a rainbow,” explained the guide. “The mayor went to the United States and when he saw the flag of homosexuality, he said he would adopt it as the flag of his city.” The story is apocryphal but the group was amused. One tourist said it was her flag, too. 

Soon the Inca arrived on the shoulders of a dozen warriors. Preceded by the arrival of his queen, he rode in a more opulent gold chair and was adorned with a gold headdress and flowing white gown. He is the only one dressed in white. He raised his arms and the sun seemed to blink at him, indicating that it was still up in the sky despite the heavy cloud cover. The crowd cheered its approval. A little of the sun’s heat would not go amiss on this chilly southern afternoon.

The event proceeded with several speeches and four set rituals, one of which is the symbolic sacrifice of a black llama. The heart of the beast was handed dripping in blood to the Inca, the llama being considered a sacred animal to the Inca people. Today the event was simulated and no llama dies.

After the rituals, the Inca gave his wrap-up speech, saying “Let us celebrate our father, the Sun.” He then signalled that it was time to dance and drink together. The drink could be coca tea, which has energized the Inca people for centuries and protected them, and the tourists, from the effects of altitude sickness. It might more likely be chicha, a fermented corn brew that the Inca offered to Francisco Pizarro when he came to Cusco. The conquistador is said to have rejected the offer and handed the Inca a copy of the Bible instead. Things went badly after that.  

As the ceremony ended, the Inca circled the field on his warriors’ shoulders, letting all see him, photograph him and toast him. The trick for us now was to get back down to Cusco without losing our purses and wallets as we ran the usual gauntlet of vendors selling alpaca sweaters, paintings, postcards, jewellery, even passport holders and arm-slings to hold bottled water.

The rain? It stayed away, allowing Inti Raymi to be a success once again. The mayor? It looks like he can breathe easy. The money that exchanged hands with the multitude of tourists seeking the warmth of a baby (some say maybe) alpaca sweater, poncho or toque will probably exonerate him in the eyes of the majority in this poor nation. Cameron Diaz? She was there somewhere, disguised in blue jeans and perhaps sporting yet another hair colour. She would later make the evening news in North America for touting a political statement embroidered on her packsack.

As the Inti Raymi ceremony finished, the Andean sun continued to beat down on the Inca capital’s orange-tiled roofs. Buses meandered through the crowds – the women with babies clinging to their backs, the grandmothers with llamas on a leash (“Picture mister? Only one sole”), the little children selling finger puppets knitted by their mothers, the young boys selling postcards and the young men and women selling acrylic paintings.

The lavish celebration would surely bring a bumper crop to this agricultural city of half a million. But the Inca could also rest assured that a new crop, the hundreds of thousands of tourists craving a look at the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu and the lost culture of the Inca Empire, would also continue to thrive.

***

Back at Machu Picchu, the little Inca warrior appeared again around the next hairpin turn. Someone pointed to the boy; a delighted cheer came from the front of the bus. Others noticed and watched for him at the next turn when he would appear again, running alongside the bus for a short piece. A louder and longer cheer went up.

At the penultimate turn, the boy leapt from the steep, jungle-like road’s edge and the tourists went ballistic. He had become the hero of the hour. It would seem impossible to descend so quickly from one turn to the next through the thick underbrush and muddy slopes dropping steeply to the road far below. How had he managed it?

At the last turn, the bus approached the bridge into town and the little warrior leapt out in front of it, his arms held high in victory as he lead the bus across the bridge. A tourist snapped a photo of the boy guiding us, a mouse leading an elephant.

Suddenly the bus stopped and the boy climbed aboard, his fist rising in celebration. By now, no one was puzzled about how he did it. We knew that the boy was, in fact, many boys and that they had used a tactic that was probably passed down from the earliest days of the Inca nation when they expanded their empire throughout the Andes Mountains, building great architectural monuments like Machu Picchu.

Clearly, he owned the crowd now. We began to rustle in our passport wallets and money belts. We wanted to put something in the knitted pouch he held out as he proceeded proudly down the aisle of the bus, running a friendly gringo gauntlet before heading back up the mountain.


Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer. He attended the Inti Raymi festival in June 2007. A few months later Machu Picchu was declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

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