Thursday, July 26, 2012

4G Network Service, Inca Style

 The condor was a holy symbol of eternal life to the Incas.  Since the one I had seen earlier today tried to snuff mine out, our guide, Angel, was giving us another chance to feel the way a bird does.  We were back in the minivan, winding and turning over some pretty exciting roadways, overlooking the Sacred Valley and the city of Pisac.  The Peruvian highway department is a lot more relaxed about where they put guard rails.

            The town felt like a lot of other places we have been, but it didn’t take too long to get through it.  On the opposite hillside lay the main attraction of Pisac – ancient terraces and structures that had stood for half a millennium.
            Angel explained to us that many crops need to be grown at specific altitudes, but since it isn’t possible to plant on a hillside, the Incas, or perhaps the society that existed before them, fashioned the sides of the giant mountains into terraces, creating huge blocks of arable land, irrigated by water that previously just ran down the mountainside into the river.
            We sparked the van, and in the lot was the usual gaggle of tourist hunters.  These were smarter – they knew I wouldn’t be fooled with the cute little lamb.  I smelled something cooking.  It was probably dirt, but it smelled good.
            As we hiked along the hillside, we saw a young woman with flowers in her hat, which Angel told us meant she was looking for a husband.  She answered “25” when asked her age.  She might have been five feet tall, and was built using right angles.  She was pretty in a different way – she looked like she had already led a hard life, but her face looked like she had never cried or even frowned.  She was at peace.  If this girl could cook, she shouldn’t have any trouble finding a man.
            We went on around the hills, past centuries-old walls, and through narrow crevices carved into the rock.  At the edge of each mountain, a small set of buildings had been assembled, some with mud as mortar, but many using the same perfect construction techniques we had seen in Cuzco.
            To communicate along great distances quickly, the Incas would signal a lookout at each post, who would in return pass the signal to the next corner of the mountain.  It wasn’t exactly 4G, but an Inca-Tweet could probably go ten miles in a few minutes.

            It’s a shame they couldn’t order me some Chinese food.  By the time we got back around to the parking lot two hours later, I couldn’t resist – I spent s/3, a little more than $1, for a boiled Choclo.  It’s the Southern version (That’s Southern WORLD, not Southern U.S.) of corn on the cob, a sweeter version of hominy corn.  It ain't bad when you're hungry.  I could have eaten an alpaca, but I had already done that yesterday.
            I had straggled behind and bought it quietly, but as I tried to be discreet about chowing down, Angel ratted me out.
            “That is called “Choh-Kloh,” he said, forgetting that we weren’t complete strangers to his country.
            “Choclo!”  Middle and Youngest said in unison.  Now I was going to have to share, as each demanded a portion.
            We made it down the mountain and into the market.  This one was quite a bit more touristy than we are accustomed.  Every vendor wanted to stop us and show us what they had to offer.  Angel told us that the locals spend six months growing food and the other six making handcrafted stuff for the tourist trade.  I respect that, not a thing we saw was made in China.  But these guys missed their calling – they should have opened an international school for insurance salesmen and Jehovah’s witnesses, because they have mastered the high-pressure sales routine.

(Peru has thousands of potato varieties, about a dozen are pictured here.)
            In the food section of the market, we were back in our element, so I was willing to let myself be pressured into buying an EmpaƱada, one of the small Peruvian turnovers made with Chunkah meat.  For the uninitiated, that’s some Chunkah meat that I don’t know what it is.  It’s served all over the country, and it’s pretty good.

Follow our continuing adventures in the Sacred Valley by clicking here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cold Showers and Giant Flesh-Eating Birds

This is the fifth in a series of our Cuzco adventure, which starts with our arrival.  In case you missed the last chapter, “Sexy Woman and the Giant Sundial,” you can read about it here.  

It was the start of a new day, and we were all ready to get somewhere new on our Cuzco adventure.  The hostel room wasn’t as cold as we thought, or perhaps the blankets were thick.  It turns out the girls weren’t the only ones tired of looking at old rocks.  I was ready for something different.

Our first brief stop was at a place called Tambomachay, which is Quechua for “Also some old rocks to look at, but we promise you will still find it interesting.”

As we got out of the van, I stopped in front of the sign and muttered to myself.
Wife:  Are you coming?
Me: Math...12,400 feet…ish.

We continued up the hill a short distance, where we passed rows of short, gnarly alien trees.  Angel told us that a tea to relieve headaches could be made from the bark.  I was glad I didn’t have one.

The rocky structure in front of us could only be described as an Inca shower-house, one of the best surviving examples of Inca plumbing, a system which slowly allowed water to run downhill, while limiting its flow rate to conserve the supply.

“A cold shower will restore positive energy,” Angel said thoughtfully.
            Our consensus was that we didn’t need any more positive energy, so we strolled back down the hill.  The Llamas on the hillside watched the tourists.
            Back into the van we climbed, and within a few minutes we were over the mountain.  The landscape opened into a lush watched by giant yellow and brown sentinels.  We pulled into a tiny roadside animal rescue shelter, one of the scheduled stops on the day’s tour.
            I hadn’t planned on being impressed here.  At first glance, it seemed like a tourist trap, and I couldn’t imagine that it would be all that interesting.  Some birds, some alpacas, blah blah.
            We walked by a deer in a small pen, which showed only brief interest.  Two giant turtles, maybe twenty pounds each, were busy eating watermelon.  The zookeeper let us pick one up and hold it.  Which was cool, but since the critter ducked inside his shell, nothing that exciting happened.
            We walked on by a group of several varieties of parrots, all rescued from cargo ships, where smugglers would pack them into PVC pipe containers.  Nine out of ten birds do not survive the trip – these were lucky, and now we were able to enjoy them.  A friendly green one took his turn perching on each of us.
            Then the fun began, at least for me.  I tend to delight in doing things that probably should be prohibited, but aren’t, because no one thinks anyone will actually do it.
            Two giant Andean condors perched on tree stumps watched us with interest.  The largest flying bird in the world, the wingspan of one of these enormous buzzards is almost 12 feet.  Not frightened at all, they posed on their stumps quietly for photos with us, then hopped down.
            I seized that moment to do the “shouldn’t do this” action.  I sat right down next to one of the birds and just couldn't help myself.

            “You look like a big chicken,” I said.
            The big male vulture looked at me like I was nuts.  Then he took an interest in my shoelaces, trying twice to get a taste of them.
            The next bite was aimed a bit higher.  He managed to get his beak around the majority of my ankle.  Fortunately I pulled back a little just as he bit down.  Since they are carrion birds, he wasn’t expecting his meal to retreat.
            That’s exactly what I did, even though this was my favorite part.  I could have sat there and interacted with this bird all day, or to the limits of his patience, which probably would have been reached within seconds.
            At the end of the tour, we were shown various natural dyes used for wool, while a woman sat weaving, and youngest petted a Peruvian hairless dog.  The obligatory gift shop visit was brief.
            As we got back into the van, I suspected that the zookeeper was thumbing through his Spanish-English dictionary, so he could make a sign for the next group:
“Please do not sit and verbally taunt the giant flesh-eating birds.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sexy Woman and the Giant Sundial

            Having exacted our revenge on the alpaca lamb by eating one of his relatives, we piled into the van and headed further up the hillside overlooking the city.

            Our first destination was a place called “Sacsayhuaman,” the ancient fortress of the Incas.  And yes, my friends, it’s pronounced “Sexy-woman,” but there’s no strip-club here.

The construction was a bit different here in a couple of ways.  The stones fit perfectly together, just like we had seen previously, only they were a LOT bigger.  Some have been estimated to weigh 160 tons or more.  They are places together to form a zig-zag wall about twenty feet high, and easily defended from invaders – all that’s necessary is to whack a climber with a stone club if he is lucky enough to scale the smooth walls.  Secondly, the stones were all different shapes and sizes, so it looked like a mountain had been shattered and reassembled.

            How the Incas moved these stones two miles from the mountain quarry remains a mystery, but it is known they never used carts or even wheels.  Some theories say they were dragged down the mountain, which may explain the perfectly flat surface, while a recent theory contends that it is possible to rock large stones back and forth using ropes, and walk them.  Angel, our guide, even thought that clay molds might have been used to allow the rocks to be fitted before they were lifted.

            We even heard one of the mystical mumbo-jumbos in town describe a scene where 500 conch shells were blown at the same time, matching the natural frequency of the rock, vibrating them into place at exactly the same angle.  He was in the process of taking a lot of money from some new-age tourist to teach him the secrets of the Inca universe over a steaming cup of coca tea.

            The sun was starting to get lower, so we headed back to the van.  On the way, we saw three more girls dressed in red dresses, carrying a baby llama and hawking photos.  My wife says they were different, but I swear the same three girls were following us.

            Up the hill and within sight of Saxsayhuaman, we stopped at one more place.  The structure had been carved entirely from the mountain itself.  A single, strangely shaped stone had been placed in the center of an altar.  It was surrounded by a short wall, and the surrounding walls bore irregular cuts and ridges.  This didn’t look like anything else we had seen today.  Why would the ancient race place this amorphic monolith when everything else was a precisely set brick?

            Angel pulled out a notebook full of photos to explain.  The rock was shapeless 361 days out of each year, and this was one of those days.  During one solstice, the stone cast the shape of a puma’s body.  During sunrise at the equinox, the puma’s face could be seen.  At midday, the ridges in the surrounding walls would draw a llama, using the sunlight as a brush.  A condor’s head on a different date, a man’s face on another.  There were at least a half dozen times each year where cosmic forces drew their art on this rock.

As cool as this was, my kids were both tired of looking at old rocks, so we headed back, after a quick stop to buy a hat in the local gift shop (locals with wares spread out on blankets).  We had all had enough, and were looking forward to a bowl of hot chicken soup and a night of hard sleep in our frigid room at the hostel.

Continue to the next chapter of our adventure, "Cold Showers and Giant Flesh-Eating Birds."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cuzco Cathedral

After a short time, we stepped out of the temple and into the street.  Our young friends had found a new set of victims, so we ducked into an alley, on our way to the main square.  Even on both sides of the alley, the ancient Inca walls still stand, with concrete and plaster on top.  Tiny doorways lead to shadowy cafes, and I caught a whiff of incense.  At any moment, I expected to hear the cantina music from Star Wars.

A hundred yards later, we emerged onto the main square, on our left the large monastery built by the Jesuits (he called it the "Jesus Company,") and in front of us, the massive Cathedral of Cuzco.  Our guide told of a secret tunnel that led to a nearby convent, where the nuns and the priests interacted freely, although children of those unions were killed at birth. I looked to my right, and saw the great Mecca for political-class city trash.

Starbucks.  We kept on walking.

Angel quickly negotiated for our entry into the main cathedral, and in one step across the threshold, we went backwards four centuries.

(Photo from Global Express Tours Website - Photography inside is prohibited)

I’ve always been astonished at man’s belief that building huge golden altars will curry favor with the gods, but here it seems to have been taken to a new extreme.  The cathedral itself holds several smaller chapels, each with a different saint.  The bishops are buried under the altar in the main chancery, and at every turn, an even more ostentatious display has been erected to some saint or another.  The eastern altar contains 3 tons of gold leaf, pressed over plaster-covered cedar.  The main altar contains over five tons of silver.  Philosophies of religious financing aside, it really is a spectacular place.  Huge paintings, centuries old, cover anything that isn’t already covered in carvings or precious metals.

Our guide told us that many of the artists were natives.  Then he pointed out why he thought so – most of the paintings contained combinations of pumas, round sun-disks, and condors, all symbols of the ancient Inca worship of Mother Earth.  They were discretely mixed in among the more traditional symbols of Catholicism.

Like the collection of robes worn by the bishops, woven with gold thread.

We stepped outside into the warm sun of the Plaza de Armas, and waited while Angel came around with the van.  The great thing about being a visitor to Cuzco – one need never feel alone.  A lady walked up to us, offering to sell us small gourds, hand carved into the image of an owl.  Today was her lucky day, since I had been searching almost a year for a specific carved gourd containing the Inca calendar, and she happened to have several.  She relieved me of about $23.

Before we could be molested by more native girls with baby lambs, Angel showed up with the van, so we headed off to lunch, where youngest and I feasted on alpaca steaks.  I wondered – before they ended up on my plate, had they ever been photographed by tourists?  If so, then I was getting my revenge.

Read the next chapter of our Cuzco adventure, "Sexy Woman and the Giant Sundial."

Koricancha and the Church of Santo Domingo

As promised, Angel, our driver, showed promptly at noon.  Since the hostel lacked parking, he stopped on the one-lane street long enough for us to pile into the van, but not long enough to avoid the horns of the four cars behind us.
A few minutes later, we arrived at our first stop, Koricancha, and while Angel parked the van, we were accosted by a group of three indigenous girls, dressed in bright native garb.  One carried a small llama lamb in a sling.  I knew what was coming.
“Photo?  Photo?”
Sure, okay.  It was going to cost me a few coins, but everyone has to make a living somehow.  The kids posed for a photo with the costumed children and their cute little llama lamb.  I handed the oldest one 3 coins.
“What about me?” “None for me, mister?” The emphasis was on all the wrong syllables.  Rehearsed lines of English.
Ok, terrific.  I know you three are working together, yet you hustle me separately.  I split another 3 coins between the other two to avoid argument.  They could curse me later, and probably would.

This population seems determined to get their gold back.  Since I don’t speak Quechua, there wasn’t much point in telling them I didn’t take it.  It’s only a matter of time before they build a casino, declare sovereignty, and start ignoring the laws of their local jurisdiction.
Oh, wait.  That’s North America.
I grumbled, but got over it quickly as we entered Koricancha proper.  It’s a temple inside a temple, sort of.  The original Inca structure was large enough to hold a few thousand people, but when the Spanish arrived, the gold bricks, panels, and idols were immediately looted, and a good portion of the stones were removed, broken into smaller stones, and hastily reassembled in the classic European style of construction, to build the ostentatious church of Santo Domingo atop the old Inca structures.

Here’s a lesson in engineering for all of us.  The Incas used mortar in some of their construction, but not for temples.  The stones were cut in trapezoidal shapes, and no corner was ever placed at a joint, so some stones are cut in the shape of a T, or in more complex variations.  In one part of the temple, a single stone has nine different sides.  In between these stones, a spherical section was hollowed out, with a round stone placed between, to prevent sliding, in the event of…well, earthquakes.  All walls angle inwards at exactly thirteen degrees, just like the windows.  Everywhere.  Exactly.

            At no point along these walls does a gap exist between the stones.  Not one-hundredth of an inch.  Nothing. 
            I imagined that a number of Incas were left alive to watch the disassembly of their sacred temple, and probably a good number of them were forced into slavery to create the resulting abomination.  But I could imagine the conversation that went on, as two Inca slaves carried stones to the wannabe mason priests:

            (Translated from Quechua)
            Good morning, Sam.
            Good morning, Ralph.  Any idea where we’re taking these stones today?
            To the idiot over there, who insists on building the wall the same width at the top and bottom.
            Stupid white people. It’s not like he doesn’t have our walls right here to use as an example.
            Nope, insists on doing it his way.  It won’t even stand by itself, he has to glue it.  Square windows, do you believe that?  With square stones used to make round arches at the tops, instead of one solid stone.
            Why doesn’t he cut them round if that's what he wants?
            Too lazy, I guess.  You know we’ll be back here fixing it the first time Mother Earth farts.

(The wall of darker stones in the middle of the photo was built by Inca, Inc.)

            Now all that notwithstanding, the Church of Santo Domingo is a pretty marvelous structure, even after they rebuilt it due to earthquake damage.  Three times.  The last time it crumbled, in the 1940s, it was decided to leave the four interior temples visible within the cloister. 

            During the summer solstice, there is one small trapezoidal window that the sunlight will enter, illuminating a small room where only the chief was allowed to go.  Parts of the Spanish structure are still adorned with oil paintings on canvas, hundreds of years old.
            The place opens out into a courtyard, whose stones once bore stones great gold idols on top of each, but now only the stones remain, and the fence holds back the street merchants.

Our adventure continues here, in the Cathedral of Cuzco.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Arrival in Cuzco

           The airport in Cuzco was nothing like the writhing cluster of travelers in Lima.  Its dozen gates were more like Springfield, Missouri.
            In the Ozarks, though, it’s the northern hemisphere, so it’s the hottest part of summer.  Guess what that makes it here, at 11,000 feet?
            “It’s so…cold…” said Middle-child, like the last ten minutes of a movie, where the hero is about to die.
            “I can see my breath,” youngest said, then demonstrated.
            After a quick stop at baggage claim, we headed to the exit, and finally saw a young woman holding a sign with our names written on it.
            We piled into the mini-van, bound for our hostel.  It is a three-star place, but I have no idea what that means, if anything.  In Peru, it could mean windows that close, a door that locks, and water that runs, although not necessarily hot.
            Past the main square and its massive cathedrals, the streets turn narrow, the kind of foreign streets that I imagine being caught in a stolen Fiat, grinding gears and driving at high speeds over concrete stairs to escape gunmen in BMWs with tinted windows.  I yell at my wife to hold it steady while I return fire and the kids reload for me.  I have great kids.

            My paranoia increased when we arrived at a barely marked doorway on a one-way alley, with a sign that said in Spanish, “Please be patient and don’t ring the bell.”  I never found the hidden camera, but a man was there shortly to take our bags.  Maybe he was using some forbidden Inca knowledge to just know.
            The tiny lobby opened up into a courtyard, where maybe ten doors stared down like spectators.  The place was punctuated by bright flowers I had never seen.  We entered the small kitchen, where the lady brought us a cup of hot tea, to help us adjust to the altitude, which I had not yet felt.
            At least not until we climbed the eight steps to the door of the room.  Someone had forgotten to order oxygen.  And moisture.
            Wife unlocked the padlock on the room door, and we entered.  Our two-room suite was…well, it had two rooms, technically.  Walls of solid concrete, but with a tiny balcony overlooking the cathedral square mentioned earlier, with the mountains in the distance.

            Once our gear was stowed, we decided to do some exploring nearby.  It wouldn’t be unusual to find little tiendas that sold bottled water and snack foods for a song, so we didn’t get stuck somewhere buying bottled water for $4.  The Peruvians had learned that trick from Disneyworld.
            We of course found one on the corner, and a buck and a half later, we all had chips and a bottle of water to share.
            Just to our right was a street with wide steps on either side of it, and topped by an arched doorway. 
            “Let’s go check that out,” I said evilly.
            After ten steps, Wife and Middle had stopped, learned against the wall, and were supporting their weight by putting their hands on their knees.  My medical friends would call this tri-podding.
I snickered, by only on the inside.  I only made it another ten.  After making a bit of a to-do about where I should stand to get the best photo of the arch, I simply said, “Okay!” and started back down.  This had been my plan all along.  I never intended to go up all those steps.
            Fortunately, the hostel was downhill from us, maybe fifty yards or so.  We returned there, to wait for our ride, who had promised to take us on a tour of the city.
            I hoped it wasn’t a walking tour.

Read about our visit to the church of Santo Domingo here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Redneck Diplomat and the Giant Fish

For those who have followed some of my rambling Facebook posts lately, you will know that today represents a significant day in my life.  It never has before today; last year it came and went without incident.  Today, though, it represents something different.  Today is the oldest I have ever been, and the youngest I will ever be again.

July 1, 2012 marks Day One of my midlife crisis.

I’m not going to run out and buy a sports car, although I could.  I have no desire to take on a mistress.  I’m actually pretty satisfied with life in general.  But I’m not getting any younger.  It might be a good idea if I started taking better care of myself.  Two years at a desk job, and I feel like it is subtracting time from my life expectancy.

I’m not overweight – I never have been, but I’m soft.  Things that I used to do without thinking about it now make me hurt.  I still run occasionally, but I check to make sure there is ibuprofen in the house before I do, and that the hot water tanks are full so I can get in the tub afterwards. 

I used to be an avid martial artist – I studied Karate for several years, Tae Kwon Do for a year, and a few months of Aikido.  Yet today, I have lost over half of my strength, speed, and flexibility.

It comes as no surprise to my friends that I would plan my midlife crisis in advance, I’ve actually been thinking about it for weeks.

Two weeks ago, after a two-mile run together, my 11-year old told me that she wasn’t going to run with me next time, because she wanted to improve her time.  That was probably my breaking point.

I made an appointment with a personal trainer, who will be meeting with me several times over the coming months.  To my dismay, he shattered my denial by telling me I needed to eat differently.  In order to survive the workout sessions he has planned, I have to eat tons of protein and make sure I’m actually taking in what I need.

So this morning, off to the market I went.  The objective:  to buy a pound of fresh fish.  After noonish, it isn’t so fresh anymore.  I was hoping for a big slab of fresh tuna, although I had no idea what it looked like.

We navigated the maze of tiny shops until we arrived at the fish place.  There were no fewer than a dozen different varieties of random fish, including flounder and a few others I couldn’t identify.  The vendor didn’t have tuna, but he offered me another fish, head and all, and said it was almost the same thing.

Sure it is.  Pork is almost the same thing as beef, except it comes from a pig.
Then I saw it.  I have never heard of a “side of fish,” but that’s what this reminded me of.  I asked the fish-seller to slice off a piece that would weigh about a pound.  Based on what I got, there was at least 50 pounds of meat there, cut into four giant fish-roasts so it could be easily handled.    

After making a few more stops, my family and I walked the half-mile back to our house.  I took my prized fish steak into the kitchen and cut it into 4 portions.  Before I did, though, I decided to take this photo to share with the blogosphere.  That is a 10-inch plate, folks.

I fried a portion in the skillet in about a tablespoon of oil, with a little cumin sprinkled on.  It was joined by a scoop of fresh coleslaw and half an avocado.

Maybe this idea of eating healthy isn’t going to be so bad after all.

Read more of the Redneck Diplomat's struggles with live seafood with An Extra Two Clams.