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Inca Dinka Doo

ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

Lima reminds me of Detroit, nice residential quarters on the city’s outskirts, big hotels in the center, in between a vacuum waiting to be filled. Abandoning their city, well-to-do Limeños live in modern high-rises above the Pacific or in the suburbs of Miraflores and San Isidro. This enclosed garden is like Dublin’s “Pale” when English ruled Ireland. Outside lived the Irish, “rough rug-headed kerns.”

Everything you want has its price in the suburbs, and computer shops and record shops, even a version of Rizzoli’s, aim to please. Movie houses, some of them palaces like the old Paramount in mid-town Manhattan, feature the latest-run movies. You can buy a suit off the peg or snooty gentlemen-tailors will make you one to measure. They do a good imitation of London’s Savile Row except that the suits, Latin style, are too tight in the shoulders. Sidewalk cafes offer Johnny Walker Red, and for clients in a hurry automated banking machines supply money. Businessmen and professionals can’t live by bread alone, though, and churches, one on every other corner, cater to the needs of the spirit.

My friend Rickey, living downtown in a one-room studio off Plaza San Martin, would like to live in Miraflores. His dream house, a Spanish-type colonial landscaped with oleander, hibiscus, and potentilla, comes complete with its gardener and watch dog. Thick-walled to keep out the heat, houses in Miraflores are set back from wide boulevards lined with royal palms and poinsettia trees. Around the houses the whitewashed palisades are topped with shards of glass embedded in concrete. Bougainvillea, a loosely thrown carpet, half covers them.

Rickey wears three hats, pilot, bookkeeper, and sales rep or pitch man for Aero-Tours of Peru, but all three together won’t get him past the front door. Anglicizing Ricardo, a concession to tourists, he is Rickey Mendez-Hoffmann, Spanish and German, and like a third of his countrymen a mestizo, part Indian, too. Raised in the Amazonas, he fled the country for the city a long time ago, but the straight black hair, high cheek bones, and black eyes tilted up at the corners tell of a remote Indian past. This mestizo turns his back on the past, preferring to live in the present. Better still is the future, luring him on. Modern Indians, called Quechua, the first syllable pronounced as in “catsup,” know what the future holds and, unlike Rickey, aren’t often disappointed.

It almost never rains in Lima, so the houses don’t need gutters and eaves troughs. But coastal fog, the garua, shrouds the city from April to December. Things come up from the ground without tending, mold included. In the Parque FDR the ancient olive grove, surrounded by Norfolk pine and lush stands of bamboo, still bears after four hundred years. Saturated with the drizzle that threatens but doesn’t fall, the mild air is clammy, and returning from a shop or promenade you have to peel the shirt from your back. Herman Melville, en route to Moby Dick, sailed into Lima but left in a hurry, finding it “strange and sad.”

Air conditioning, mandatory in office buildings and the better hotels, irons out much of the strangeness, however. When you close the door on your sanitized hotel room you might be anywhere or nowhere. The Lima Sheraton where I put up looks like the Waldorf, minus its bird cage. A huge mural, imitation Orozco, dominates the lobby, but the angry peasants in the mural are pretending. In alcoves off the lobby, tourists sip Pisco Sours, and a string quartet plays Strauss and Lehar at tea time.

Detroit keeps tight on its secrets, locked in an “inner city,” but in Lima the seams have burst and “young towns” or slums flourish on the periphery. A third of Lima’s six million live in these pueblos jovenes. Santa Rosa is one, rising from the sand dunes east of Jorge Chavez Airport. This international terminal, named for Peru’s first airman, hopes to capture tourist dollars, and planes leaving for abroad and coming back run on time. If you fly internally, expect a snooze on hard benches.

Campesinos in Santa Rosa, fleeing the countryside for a better life in the city, crowd the strawsided shanties, roofed with cardboard or corrugated tin. Neruda, the Chilean poet who wrote about Peru’s Incas and their fortress-city, Machu Picchu, had harsh words for cities like Santa Rosa. He said that each day a little death overtook the people who lived there. Power lines don’t run out their way and they do without water, electric light, and plumbing. Cooking, they use kerosene. This fuel is hard to come by, much of it siphoned off to the Huallaga Valley where coca is turned into paste. From the bitter green coca leaves, refined with kerosene, sulphuric acid, and acetone, farmers in the valley make cocaine. Highly valued in Peru and elsewhere, it keeps the cold off the soul. Yankees take most of it but Indians are great users, Incas were, too, and Spanish clergy in Cuzco depended on the coca crop for their tithes.

Running inland from the beach, the expressway brings you downtown to the Plaza de Armas, one in every city, like Main Street USA. The Civic Center, at thirty-three stories Lima’s tallest building, flanks the plaza on one side, on the other the Palace of Justice. Cynics speak knowingly of the “Palace of Injustice.” Its writ runs in the city, not always a blessing, but out in the countryside Sendero Luminoso, “Shining Path” guerrillas, live by their own law. Wanting to tear the country down and start over, they kill rich and poor impartially. Tupac Amaru rebels, named for an Inca leader killed by the Spanish, kill Senderistas. Peru’s exasperated army pots away at both, often bagging the innocent, unlucky ones who get in the way.

Peruvians like Rickey don’t love the army, and soldiers, if prudent, don’t advertise their trade. Some, on guard duty outside the pale, wear a black mask like a ski mask. Only the eyes are visible, and their own mothers wouldn’t know them. The soldier guarding the Justice building stands at ease, however, and you can stroll at your ease in the city. You will want to look sharp for pickpockets, though. I wear a body pouch, strapped round the thigh.

Houses in Lima, using what lies to hand, favor bamboo and adobe. Some householders, keeping up with the Joneses, paint their facades shocking pink; others, making the worst of it, settle for grime and decay. Most buildings keep a low profile, mindful of earthquake. The last one shook the city in 1974. Limenos, living on the bubble, wait for the next one. They don’t wait in fear and trembling but take disasters in stride, part of each day’s business in this best of possible worlds.

New and old rub elbows in the modern city, sometimes leaving sores. Where the pavement ends, dirt streets begin. Cactus grows in the streets and I note a vulture in the market. This week in Lima the garbage collectors have walked off the job, nothing new, but the vulture raises eyebrows.

Public transport is by minibus, crammed to the gunnels. Buses moving slowly in the clotted traffic, a seat is a good point of vantage. Young men with time on their hands, roaming the sidewalk, keep pace with the bus, and street vendors, informales, hold up their wares, pocket lighters, “Inca” souvenirs, ball point pens, and keepsakes, mainly religious. Billboards, like stage curtains hiding the life behind them, advertise orange “croosh” and sweet soft drinks, gaseosas. Inca Cola, colored gold, is the favorite. Some billboards, promoting movies, depilatories, and underwear, are vivid with images of women south of the border. One, her hand on her hip, wears a come-hither smile and looks a little like Dolores Del Rio.

My hotel phone, flashing yellow when I get back to the room, confirms a lunch date with Rickey. Leaving early tomorrow for Nazca and the southern desert, we need to coordinate plans. The trip to the desert, a trial run for Aero-Tours, is Rickey’s idea, and going with him I have a free ride. We meet at “La Rosa Nautica” on the boardwalk beside the sea.

Cheaper restaurants, picanterias, serve spicy foods like recoto Relleno, hot stuffed peppers, but at “La Rosa,” a tourist haunt, they set a blander table, tempering the wind to the lamb before they shear him. This week’s specialty is “Foods of the Inca,” a recent craze in Los Angeles but not often seen in Peru. Upscale delis in Los Angeles, appealing to jaded palates, do a lot of business in Inca vegetables and fruits, and I am told that Japanese pay $18/lb. for pepinos. Yellow and purple, the pepino tastes like honeydew melon.

Our menu suggests that we try the ulluco, a candy-striped root, also oca, like potatoes, with the butter and sour cream taste built in. Inca farmers cultivated a wide range of crops, more than Heinz’s 57 varieties, but the Spanish banned all of them, excepting lima beans and potatoes. “Dark, dirty, and highly sinister,” they called the potato, using it to feed the slaves in their silver mines and sailors below decks in their galleys.

Reserving the Inca specialties for another time, we lunch on qui chajtado, seared guinea pig, with a bottle of Chilean wine. Rickey, raising his glass, drinks to happy days. Visions of El Dorado dance in his head, better than today’s humdrum. His job with Aero-Tours—”fetch and carry,” he says ruefully—is only step one on the road to fame and fortune. Long before the Incas, people in Nazca were growing cotton, a cash crop, and a man could make his fortune in the desert. But money is only the second most important thing, and he wonders if a farmer’s coveralls would suit him.


Cleared for departure from Jorge Chavez at 9 A.M. , we wait for two hours on the runway. But we are over the desert by noon. If you stand on the desert floor the shallow indentations don’t seem worth noting, perhaps the work of a predator or the wind that rises late in the day. From five hundred feet up, they turn into figures, however.

The breaching whale, an orca bigger than the soccer field at their Estadio Nacional, is native to the Pacific, lapping the salt flats west of Nazca. Some figures are geometric, rectangles and triangles, one of them trapezoidal. Preserved by the drought that bakes this sterile plateau, straight lines that might be railroad tracks run toward the horizon. Five valleys of the Rio Nazca cut the plateau but the river bed has no water for much of the year, sometimes for years on end. An American archaeologist, using carbon-14 tests, has dated a sighting stump found in the sand to A.D. 500. Opinion differs, however, and others insist that the Nazca Lines originated centuries before this. No one knows who made them or why.

At the controls of the single-engine Piper, Rickey gestures with a black-gloved hand at the window and down, flashing his neon-bright grin. It isn’t cold in the cockpit, only noisy when he slides the window back, and the leather gloves, like the leather helmet with earflaps and goggles, are stage props. Always on stage, he finds the images he lives by in old Hollywood movies, tales of the Bengal Lancers, Graustark, or the French Foreign Legion. Which came first, his pilot’s license or the accessories, vintage Dawn Patrol, is a question. Banking sharply, our propellor plane fights the wind, then, gaining headway, noses closer to earth. The figures in the sand, coming clearer each millisecond, rush up to meet us, my stomach lifting with them.

The odd menagerie includes a hummingbird (good luck if it favors your house), a beaky parrot, a condor with fluted vanes, at one o’clock the dog-fox. Man’s best friend, he followed the mountain gods, and I remember that the man in the moon kept a dog. Like the spider and lizard, the monkey, living in the tropics, promised rain. This one has a scrolled-up tail and a giant penis. Desert dwellers in the old days hoped to carry on the race or perhaps they had sex on the brain.

Spiralling lines, more monkey business but nonrepresentational, suggest a “motif,” and on the littoral the whorled sea shells repeat it. In a landscape destitute of form, someone was making connections. Poets and scientists do this all the time, finding order in chaos or only kidding themselves. Prescott, our famous American historian who took Latin lands for his special preserve, saw intention wherever he looked. I read his Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru in the old Modern Library edition, boyhood reading whose lessons sank deep. The world according to Prescott wasn’t a darkling plain, its clutter of fact adding up to design. Incas, left to themselves, might have equalled the glories of Baghdad or Damascus, “but other and gloomier destinies were in reserve for the Indian races.”

Sun, glancing off the waste gravel, throws some patches in relief, leaving others in shadow. Grafted to the stony soil, a flower and tree vie for attention with a pair of splayed hands. The tree is the huarango, and according to Rickey the hands, though short a finger, are sacred. Deformed children, born of thunder and lightning, rejoiced in their deformity, he tells me. Other than the geoglyphs, only a scattering of crescent-shaped dunes, médanos, break the “lone and level sands.” From the air they resemble ancient tumuli or grave mounds, but no one is buried at Nazca.

Sixteenth-century Spanish found tombs on the highlands only miles away, though. They said how the skulls, still malleable in infants, were pinched and squeezed to look like volcanoes. This conical shape honored the mountain gods or turned away wrath. Not far to the north, mummified bundles, laid up in dark galleries hollowed out of the desert, have come to light in our time, and some Indian pottery, fired with straw and llama dung, survives after two thousand years. You can see what is left of it in Lima’s National Museum. Mostly, however, huaqueros, grave-robbers, have picked the country clean.

Engorging the Nazca culture, Incas did this deliberately, wanting history to conform to their version, not somebody else’s. They said history began when the sun god, creating the first Inca, instructed this founding father to lord it over the earth’s four quarters. He was Manco Capac, and he and his descendants draped themselves in the mantle of godhead. The mantle, anyway, was real, made of bats’ skins or the silky wool of the vicuna, a sawed-off member of the llama family.

Incas, tracing their family tree to the sun and his sister, a moon goddess, cast their images in gold and silver. Making sense of the world, they called one the sun’s sweat and the other the tears of the moon. On the wall of my living room, a bas-relief likeness, shiny black plastic, shows these twin divinities, the female nestling close to the male. Europeans, on the other hand, said the Inca race descended from Kublai Khan, the twelve tribes of Israel, etc. Sir Walter Ralegh in Shakespeare’s time heard that the founder was a certain Ingasman or Englishman, his name a corruption of Incas plus Manco. Words mean what people want them to, and I have an Irish friend who thinks that Shakespeare the spear shaker was an Irish “kern” or foot soldier.

Garcilaso de la Vega, the original mestizo, born of a Spanish knight to an Inca princess, set forth the facts in Royal Commentaries, collected the year Shakespeare died. Counsel for his unfortunate countrymen, he pleaded “the cause of that degraded race before the tribunal of posterity,” Prescott said. A Catholic and accustomed to large drafts on his credulity, Garcilaso addressed himself more to imagination than “sober reason.” But Prescott allowed some merit to his work, “clothed with the beautiful form and garb of humanity.”

Enlivening the work with mythical trappings, Garcilaso doesn’t endorse the idea of a New World, however. “There is only one world,” he thinks, nothing new beneath the sun, and his tale of atrocities and much else bears him out. Spanish, burning the royal Inca, compel his followers to carry the wood for the flames, but the followers don’t need instruction. “We’ll drink chicha from your skull,” Inca warriors sang, exulting over their enemies. “From your teeth we’ll make a necklace, flutes from your bones.”

Sometimes, dispensing with humanity’s garb, Garcilaso settles for matter-of-fact. Much of it seems pointless and if your taste runs more to imagination than sober reason, you are likely to find him hard going. A Spaniard asking an Indian what name the land goes by is understood to be asking: What is your name? “Beru,” says the Indian, adding “pelu”: I was in the river. So the Spanish put the two words together.

Taking over from the Incas, they saw to it that their history died with them. Nothing remains of the Incas’ precious metalwork, melted down into ingots for the royal mints at Toledo and Seville/Only the despoilers record what it looked like, “many vessels of gold, lobsters of the sort that grow in the sea, birds and serpents, spiders, lizards, and llamas, also figures of women, natural size, all of fine gold and as beautiful as if they were alive.” Incas lacked a written language, trusting to their quipus to interpret the past for the future. The knotted strings, coiled and stored in jars, yielded their secrets to the amauta, skilled in reading the different colors and lengths. But Spanish killed off these professional “rememberers,” and the annals of the Inca are lost.

An object lesson in history, the Moche Valley in the desert’s northern reaches once housed a “sacred place,” Huaca del Sol. Scientists, scanning their computers, estimate that 130,000,000 sun-dried adobe bricks went to build this temple to the sun god. Like Burgundian Cluny, medieval Christendom’s grandest holy place, it dazzled pious pilgrims until a new dispensation swept away the old. Broken bricks and a rubble of potsherds litter the coastal plain.

Some monuments in Peru still resist time’s tooth and man’s thieving, Machu Picchu, the lost city in the Andes, coming first to mind. Hiram Bingham, the American explorer, was looking for something else when he stumbled on it in 1911. This Yale man carried a flagpole, seven feet long, on his travels to Peru, and reaching the top of Mt. Coropuna shook out the University’s flag. Rickey, like New Yorkers who have never been to the top of the Empire State building, has yet to see Machu Picchu. But he has seen Lost Horizon, so can tell you what this real-life Shangri-La must look like. Climbing up the mountain, he plays the part Ronald Colman played in the movie, and getting to the summit points to the city between peaks.

“Machu” is the old peak, “Huayna” the new one, surrounded by boiling waters, the Urubamba. Thousands of stone steps, chiseled by Inca masons, ascend to terraced streets and plazas, lined with temples, humble clan houses, gabled houses for nobility, and barracks for soldiers. Ashlar stone dresses some of the houses but all are open to the sky, the ichu grass that once thatched them rotted ages ago. Rough nubbins or bosses break the ashlar facing. Perhaps they helped the builders shift stones with their crowbars or had another meaning, unguessed at.

A causeway above the river gorge joined the city to others like it, hanging between sky and earth. Mist, eddying up from the gorge, mingles with cloud, sometimes forming shapes you are tempted to put a name to, a whale, a dragon, a helmeted head. The volcanic peaks, though shocking in their immensity, are hospitable to life, unlike picture-postcard mountains in New England. Erupting, they discharged “basic” lava, not acidic, so enriched what they might have destroyed. On slopes above the empty city, Indians grow wheat and barley in narrow plots or andenes, cut by Incas from the rock. They didn’t lack for land, ruling more than a quarter of the continent, Prescott says, and accounting for their sky-built city teases thought.

Neruda in his poem on “The Heights of Machu Picchu” asked himself what it all added up to. Blood of peasants cemented the buildings, lifted “stone above stone on a groundwork of rags.” Priests and ideologues, justifying the blood, think it watered the tree of liberty or helped expiate our sins. Rickey, though no ideologue and not into poetry, shares this hopeful view of things, but Neruda, like an old amauta interpreting the quipus, can’t find the evidence that might support it. Invoking the dead builders, weaver, reticent shepherd, tiller of fields, mason high up on his treacherous scaffold, he sees that their blood made a furrow, however. Devoid of meaning except in itself, it seemed worth recalling, and he spoke for dead mouths, meaning them to speak through his own.

The Urubamba River, glinting through giant ferns at the foot of the mountain, makes a horseshoe turn past fruit orchards and terraced fields, greening with sugar cane. The terraces are temporales, this Spanish word defining itself, and the river takes its name from a Quechua word, “uru,” a caterpillar or grub. Urubamba is the flat land where grubs devour everything that grows. Scorpions infest the orchards and the yellow viper or fer-de-lance lives on the mountain side. The mato polo, a parasitic fig tree, grows in the jungle that borders the cultivated ground. It has its “tropism” and sending out tentacles, attaches itself to the fruit trees. Up top on the saddle, a government guest house accommodates travelers who want to stay the night. Most settle for a briefer visit, and having done Machu Picchu return to Cuzco, 67 miles away.

As the crow flies it isn’t much of a journey, but pongos, chasms like wounds, open on the soundless tumult of the river, and the ferrocarril takes its time. Switchbacking, it climbs the steeper grades like progress, two steps forward, one step back. Cactus, broom, and saw-toothed brumelia grow beside the road bed, and silvery eucalyptus trees, native to Australia, grow in the temperate air of the valleys. Asking, I can’t learn how they got to Peru. Alpaca and llama ewes herd their lambs in the upland pastures, the llamas supercilious, the frizzy-haired alpacas without a clue. Curs— “yaller dogs,” omnipresent in the countryside—wander on and off the tracks, watched by impassive Indians from their circular sod huts. Indians, like llamas, adapt without fuss to the thin air of the altiplano, 15,000 feet up. Used to the lowlands, I suffer from altitude sickness, a headache like a hangover, nausea, too. Rickey says that muleteers deal with the soroche by punching holes in the ears of their mules.


Incas, choosing Cuzco for their capital, glorified it with the sweat of the sun, a mistake. “I have come to take their gold away from them,” said Pizzaro. He and his Conquistadors, mostly adventurers down on their luck, hoped it would turn up in the New World. Glorifying their own god, they needed stones for their temples and took them where they found them. Around Cuzco’s Catholic church of Santo Domingo runs the outer wall of the Incas’ Coricancha, “golden enclosure” of their Temple of the Sun, and Santa Catalina’s nunnery wall once guarded their House of the Virgins. Who conquered whom is worth asking, however. In Cuzco’s cathedral, the Madonna on the choir stalls has an Indian face and the crucified god above the altar is black.

On a rise overlooking the city, a statue of Christ, dead white in the sun, bans the Inca fortress, Sacsahuamàn. Marching 1500 feet on the north side, the pile of gray-blue limestone dwarfs the walls of Agrigentum, Greek Sicily’s holy of holies. Three gigantic tiers, each supporting its terrace, ascend to parapets, enfiladed on three sides by mountains. The mountains poke at heaven, and except for melancholy, Stonehenge on its unbroken plain can’t compare. Twenty-ton boulders, rough-hewn and polygonal, face the lowest tier, but elsewhere the stones are squared and marble-smooth. Joined as if they grew that way, they look almost seamless, and you can’t insert a match stick between the chamfered edges. Thirty-thousand Indians labored 70 years to build Sacsahuamàn. “Sexy Woman,” tour guides call it, bidding for a laugh.

Getting up there you have to fly between mountains, sometimes a close-run thing. Peruvian pilots, not the same as prudent gringos who fly the friendly skies back home, like to brush the mountain peaks with their wing tips. This isn’t a risk but a challenge. I have read that their fathers, training in California for the Second Word War, fought each other with machine guns in real battles above the clouds.

Incas did without the wheel and draft animals to pull it, but some of Sacsahuamàn’s building blocks, lifted from quarries many miles distant, measure eighteen feet by six feet. What hand hewed these stones, then brought them to this height, remains a mystery. Six hundred years later, the stone megaliths look down on the tiled roofs of Cuzco. Thousands of feet below, descendants of the Incas still cultivate quinua, their sacred “mother-grain,” threshing the grain with wooden clubs. Prescott evoked the scene, a “magnificent prospect.” It mingled rocks, woods, and waterfalls with “the rich verdure of the valley” and the shining city in the foreground, “all blended in sweet harmony under the deep azure of a tropical sky.”

But the harmony shatters. Rivers, “rushing in fury” down the mountain slopes, “throw themselves” into the yawning abyss, and hideous reptiles hide in trees or slimy pools, waiting to seize the unwary. This gives them their reason for being. Prescott’s savage world reverses 19th-century images of the Peaceable Kingdom, but whether savage or benevolent has its drapery of purposes and forms.

Sacsahuamàn, on the road to the lime kiln, isn’t there yet, but at Nazca houses, temples, and redoubts are gone. Scientists and sci-fi buffs are willing to say what went on there, however. E.g., the Nazca Lines helped choreograph a primitive dance, or devout pagans, not that different from Christians, gathered for prayer in the cleared spaces between them. Or travelers from a distant star used these spaces as a landing strip. Touching down on our planet earth in their “chariots of the gods,” they left a memento behind. In one of the geoglyphs, a man in a bubble helmet wears a cylindrical tunic. No-nonsense archaeologists, scoffing at talk of astronauts, propose a keeping-them-off-the-streetcorners version of the past. They think Nazca’s governors, plagued with rising unemployment, created a “works project administration” in the desert.

Most say the geoglyphs tell of an ancient water cult that hoped to make the desert bloom. Mountain deities, capricious like St. Paul’s god, brought the rain or didn’t. “On whom it will it will,” they said, “on whom it will not, so.” Across the border in Bolivia, peasants still salute them. Southwest of La Paz, a religious procession winds up from the village every year in September, following the man-made lines that score the side of the mountain. If they keep to the straight and narrow, rain falls on the dead land, also their sins are forgiven. Roman Catholic “indulgences,” much in vogue until Luther’s time, had this absolving power. The procession in the Andes coincides with a Catholic feast, the Exaltation of the Cross. Conciliating what they couldn’t get rid of, Spanish sprinkled holy water on the old pagan gods, taking them into the temple.

Our tour package promises a ground-level circuit of the dusty town and environs, and a jeep rolls out of the hangar when we land. Nazca town has its points of interest, a few imposing buildings, official-looking and built of sillar, the white porous volcanic stone they use in southern Peru. Some are plastered over and painted in pastels, one or two faced with Spanish tiles, azulejos. Potatoes and carrots grow in plots beside the highway. Tethered goats run out their tether and cattle, udders straining, crop the stunted grass. Restaurants in Peru serve up the world’s worst coffee, stirred with condensed milk from a can, and I wonder what happens to the milk from the milch cows.

Morose behind the wheel, the Indian driver does his job, nothing extra. Even a dust bowl deserves its meager comment, but the cat has got his tongue, and if he has a name we don’t know it. I have a name for him, “Coolidge.” Ancestors of this Indian governed Peru, but Indians are to Incas as modern Greeks to the builders of the Parthenon. “Madly ungay,” Isherwood called them. Like me, he traveled in these parts, returning chastened.

Coolidge wears a knitted cap, close fitting and tasseled on top. Hugging himself to himself, he ignores the heat and has pulled down the flaps of his headgear. A poncho, gaily colored, is general issue in Peru, but a college boy’s cast-off T-shirt covers his chest. Vox clamantis in deserto, reads the motto on the T-shirt, “A voice crying in the wilderness.” He has a broad chest, outsize shoulders, and arms ropy with veins like a twist of tobacco. Coarse trousers, llama and alpaca wool, cover his legs. In scorpion country, no one goes without sandals. Dutch boy clunkers, his are made of llama skin, fastened with metal brads to a slab of galvanized rubber. I bought a pair in the market at Pi’sac but the uncured skin stank and the rubber, old tire scraps, never conformed to the foot.

St. Anthony had his pig, and Indians have the llama, a dwarfish cousin of the camel. Clothing, woolen blankets, cargo sacks, and fuel—dried dung or taquia—come from this beast of burden, also sun-dried charqui, our English word “jerky.” Standing no more than three feet tall at the shoulder, the llama seems inoffensive, almost a house pet. Beneath the clown’s nose, a black button, the mouth curves up in a sickle-shaped grin. When provoked, however, llamas take dead aim, spitting bitter saliva. If it gets in your eye, you know it. Fully grown, they weigh as much as four hundred pounds and can carry half their weight for six to twelve miles a day, longer if you push them. Indians do better, carrying the country’s weight on their shoulders.

This explains their bent-over look. Built close to the ground, they scrape a living from it, pieced out with cottage industries, fruit of the loom. Inca women used the backstrap loom, often found in grave sites. Occupying their time on earth, it gave them something to do in the next world, and Quechua women use it today. You see them sitting cross-legged beside their heaped-up rugs and sweaters at Sunday markets in the countryside. The sweaters, colored like Joseph’s coat, are meant for the tourist trade, and most women wear shapeless black dresses. One size fits all. Their hair is coiled in ringlets, the head crowned by a black derby or black felt fedora. Some favor a white Panama hat and some of the hats look like stovepipes.

An important market, Pi’sac squats on its mountain bluff above the Urubamba, northeast of Cusco. The Hotel Ollanta, close to downtown Cusco, will take you out by van, a corkscrew journey over streams and jagged hills, the road corkscrewing higher as it seeks the plateau. Crosses beside the road remember loved ones who went over when the brakes went out or the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Some drivers, hedging their bets, pin a St. Christopher’s medal to the visor above the windshield.

Bodies, pressing close together in Pi’sac’s Plaza de Armas, fill the open-air stalls and the shops on either side of the street. Down the middle of the street runs an evil-smelling gutter, and some shops employ sign language, helpful to those who can’t read. A basket hung from a lamp standard says that bread is sold here. A plastic bag means a telephone, the only one in town. Tourists, seizing their chance for a colorful photo, want the women in the plaza to hold it, just for a minute. Like Russian women bundled in sweaters one on top of the other, they wear layers of underskirts, poking out from under. Instamatics record this costume, but some women, fiercely modest, turn away before the shutter clicks. According to them, the camera has power, sucking the soul from the body.

Homemade umbrellas, cotton sheeting stretched over bamboo frames, protect them from the sun on the cobbles. They sell popped corn, high-laced boots, and statuettes of St. Rose of Lima, also musical instruments, some the size of a bassoon, others, clusters of little tubes like Panpipes. Made from reed or an animal’s femur, the Indian flute has a limited range, two to six notes. Those you find in souvenir shops are plastic, and young tourists often have one sticking out of their backpacks.

Indians in Pi’sac, like most in the countryside, would rather you called them campesinos or country folk, Indian being a term of reproach. Many chew coca leaves, a wad the size of a Brazil nut. Some begin the day with a tipple of chicha, fermented corn. Gray in color, this intoxicant smells like stale beer. “Sparkling chicha,” Prescott called it.

Spanish-speaking when they have to be, Indians speak Quechua by choice. Almost half in Peru still use the old tongue but don’t make themselves heard in the din that rises from the parliament in Lima. “Lima se desinteresa para nosotros,” runs the standard complaint. “In Lima they care nothing for us.” In Rome they don’t care about the Mezzogiorno, people in capital cities having only a sketchy notion of the country beyond the pale. A truism, thought Sandeman, the botanist-explorer, and Peru illustrated it best. “To know the capital well confers no diploma of knowledge,” he said. Limeños, blind men describing an elephant, confirm this.


“When you no longer see trees you are there,” said Ruiz, the early navigator, merging the country in desert. Two thousand miles long, it ends in stupefying mountains, however, twenty to fifty miles inland. In the valleys of these cordilleras mighty rivers begin, the Huallaga and Ucayali, both entering the Amazon, mightiest of all. The confluence of waters creates a third Peru, the jungle.

Iquitos, its capital, spreads itself beside a tributary of the great river. Lean-tos, doing what they ought, lean into the river, and trees, growing any whichway, take root in the mud. In this Jack-and-the-beanstalk country, plants shoot up thirty inches in a day. Heat, almost embodied, guarantees rain, not the gentle rain that drops from heaven, a deluge like the one that fell on Noah’s Ark. Through the heat comes the shrilling of insects. North of Iquitos, the Amazon begins its four-thousand mile journey to the sea.

A popular tourist draw on the river, Belèn is known to locals as “the Amazonian Venice.” Rickey, raised near Lake Moronococha on the western edge of Iquitos, parrots this phrase. He knows the country well but sees it through a gauzy curtain, interpreting the world to the mind. Natives in the floating shanty town live on rafts in the river. Afloat most of the year, in the dry months the rafts sit on mud. Each has its fishing skiff, easy to paddle and woven from bundles of a hollow reed, totora. Like traveling salesmen, the boats go from “door to door,” crying their wares. Money being scarce, Belèn’s people don’t buy but barter, and what goes around comes around.

Naked brown-skinned children, letting down tin cans, bring up the day’s drinking water from the river. They omit to boil it, though, and some, their bellies bloated with parasites, look like little old men. Indians, called “bow and arrow boys” by English travel writers, live in the jungle on both sides of the river. Daubing their faces with pulped achiote seeds, they wear necklaces strung with boar’s teeth, and hunt with poisoned arrows and blow-guns. The darts are tipped with curare, paralyzing if it gets in the blood. Functionaries in Lima worry about this, and only a year ago Indians over the border in Brazil attacked a party of geologists, killing two and wounding a third.

Selva is the word for the Amazonian jungle, like Dante’s selva oscura except that this poet’s world acknowledged design. Indians, wielding machetes, hack paths through the dark wood but rain, a hundred inches per annum, quickens new growth and most of the work goes for naught. The river leaks or the earth sweats. Logs, lashed with creepers, furnish crude walkways over the quaking ground. You must walk them gingerly, though, like foot soldiers looking for land mines. Biting ants in their thousands and tens of thousands hide beneath the shiny leaves of the polo santo or holy tree. When the rains are heaviest, in the first two months of winter, the winged males and females swarm at nightfall. Insectivors know this, and in the morning if you look for an ant you don’t see one. A few impregnated females, getting away before the feeding begins, found a new colony elsewhere.

Green and black frogs, heard but not seen, live in the mangrove swamps, food for alligators and snakes. The anaconda, forty-five feet long, is the biggest snake and can swallow an alligator whole. Some snakes, frightening their prey, make it shoot adrenalin into the blood stream. This tenderizes the meat. Vampire bats employ a different technique to similar ends, injecting victims with a serum that prevents the blood from clotting.

Victorian naturalists, crisscrossing Peru’s jungle, made little of its high-colored side and their understated prose denied the need for getting excited. Docketing matter-of-fact in learned treatises with Latin titles, they called our often obstreperous world to order. H.W. Bates, a great collector of specimens, sent home 14,712, most of them insects, and something like 8,000 new to science. He said the blood-sucking vampire, genus Phyllostoma, had an inoffensive character, its grin and glistening black eye notwithstanding. Alligators, though sometimes “rather troublesome,” were essentially timid. Richard Spruce, a “bryologist” (liver worts and mosses), could kill them if he wanted to, but didn’t care to waste powder and shot.

Spruce had a poet’s temperament (genus Romantic), and quoting Lord Byron said he held “converse with nature’s charms” in the jungle. Bates is lower-key and makes you feel that he has stepped through the doors of an English drawing room to walk the lawn in back of the house. Common dung-beetles, flying about at evening, evoke the “”shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hum,”” a familiar presence in “our English lanes,” and the sodden ground of the tropics, gray mist veiling dead leaves and rotting vegetation, plus the cool atmosphere soon after sunrise, remind him of autumn mornings in Leicester. Sexual mores were no less pure than “in similar places” at home.

The music of drawing rooms isn’t heard in the jungle but it has its noises, too, and I stop my ears against them. Incas did the same. Conquering all in their path, they left off when they got to the selva. Notable is the thump-stop-thump of the log drum and the nail-on-blackboard sound of the caracashá, a notched bamboo tube played with a fiddle stick. For dreary monotony nothing exceeds the Indian flute or quena, however. When I can’t sleep, I wish I could bottle the drone of the quena. Uninflected, it has no meaning, only duration, and getting into your head takes you out of yourself.

Our Nazca driver, like emptied-out Americans stunned by the sound of the boom box, has this music in his head. His eyes at half mast, he goes through the motions, shifting up and down or braking for chickens, and looking at us doesn’t see us. “Stoned on chicha,” says Rickey, a contemptuous reporter. Different from Coolidge, he is all eyes, behind them a calculator, estimating profit and loss. Nazca people “knew a thing or two,” coping even in the desert, and he marvels at the empty land where things materialize out of a hat.

Worth my attention is the great mountain east of town, Cerro Blanco, white for the snow that never melts on its crest. It had its resident deity, Viracocha (= foam of the sea). Saddened by the drought afflicting his people, this compassionate god wept bitter tears, and running down the mountain they ran into the ground where they formed subterranean canals. Lined with stones to filter out impurities, the underground aqueducts still bring precious water from its source in the Andes. Foothills of the Andes rim the irrigated fields, at this season yellow with blossoms. The blossoms are cotton, and when they reach maturity turn white.

Wind, rising as the day advances, puts us on notice, and heading out to sea we take the short route home to Lima. Visible from the air but obscured by the noonday sun, a thin line bisects the shapes in the desert. Indifferent to the images Nazca people lived by, Inca engineers cut their coastal road straight through them, a rude swathe 24 feet wide. This standard measurement equals the length of five Indian bodies.

Running from present-day Columbia to Chile, the coastal road spanned upward of 3,000 miles, the width of the continental United States. Sun temples and stone-laid palaces stood alongside it, also large complexes called marcas. Like our modern highway plazas—filling stations plus restaurants, picnic tables, and hostels—they offered a rest for the weary. Haifa millenium later, modern engineers took the same route south, and the Pan-American Highway parallels the old Inca road.

The Pope, a whirlwind traveler, has been to Lima in our absence, leaving a trail of confetti. El Comercio gives the gist of his homily, delivered to cheering thousands in the Estadio Nacional. A lion is in the streets, according to the Pope, “seeking whom he may devour.” Not mincing words he names it, godless materialism. Commentators observe that the papal visit has much improved Lima’s streets. The garbage is gone, new paint freshens the traffic lanes along Jirön Union leading to the cathedral, and for the time being pickpockets keep their hands to themselves.

Outside the pale, however, distant thunder reverberates. Shining Path guerrillas have blown up power pylons high in the Andes. Nightly blackouts darken half the city, its air conditioning is down, and the water purification system, fuelled by electric power, no longer functions. Bodies on ice pile up in the morgue. (The grave diggers have struck, also the doctors.) In the central post office mail lies undelivered, at latest count five million letters and parcels.

Just when we don’t need them, the dog days descend on Lima, and nothing mediates between me and the climate. Prescott, doing Lima, “the fairest gem on the shores of the Pacific,” took note of the climate, its dryness corrected by a vaporous cloud. Sheltering grateful inhabitants from the tropical sun, it hung like a curtain over the city, “imperceptibly distilling a refreshing moisture.” If not everyone was grateful, Prescott didn’t know this. Chance, blundering into his student’s life at Harvard, cost him an eye, poked out by a crust of hard bread. Later the other eye failed and for most of his adult years he lived in a darkened room, devoting himself to research. A tireless researcher but too frail to travel much, he never got to Peru.

I say goodbye to Rickey at an Italian coffee bar around the corner from Parque Kennedy. Italians since Garibaldi’s time have flocked to South America, hoping for a fresh start in the New World. Rickey, alert to this, thinks about setting up a tutorial service—different from Berlitz, “hands on,” he says—to smooth the passage from Old World to New. But he needs a big dictionary, Spanish-Italian, and even “Rizzoli’s” has failed him. Perhaps, when I get back to the States, I will find one.

Air-Peru, indifferent to seat belts, and tables and seat backs “in their upright position,” runs an easy-going ship but returns me to Miami in one piece. As we settle into our final approach, I look through the port window at the modern El Dorado, its orders imposed on sand. Condos crowd the water’s edge, behind them row on row of tract houses, each with its fenced-in back yard. Seminoles, if I have it right, lived where the houses are. Scotch-Irish came later, mostly dirt farmers, some plantation owners, in their wake Negro slaves. Rich Anglos, out of love with Newport, followed, then Jews deserting New York, last a great influx of Cubans. They hoped for life after Castro.

Surfaces sparkle in Miami’s International Airport, though traffic at high season approaches Chicago’s O’Hare. Make haste slowly is their watchword, and clerks behind the counters, if harried, don’t show this. Buses, a magic carpet, sort out foreign travelers from domestic. Digital screens predict arrival and departure times, and most carriers follow the script.

But the elderly black man, a fellow pariah in the airport’s smoking section, wants to cry on my shoulder. His flight for Boston has problems. Needing a light, he thanks me in Spanish, evidently the common tongue. Signs in the terminal are lettered in Spanish, and the voice on the intercom speaks Spanish with an English translation. Waiting on a connecting flight, I call my son in New York but get a recorded message in Spanish. Later I learn that he has a Bolivian roommate. I inquire about this. “You don’t like Hispanics?” he asks me.

According to the papers, a Hispanic tide is rising in American cities, like prices in Peru. Spanish speakers in the bars and gift shops exemplify this and come in all colors and sizes. Most are brunette, though a number are blond, and I pick out a good-looking redhead. Eager to chat in that rapid-fire way of theirs, she makes a good listener too. But Dolores Del Rio, catching my eyes on her face, gives me her best if-looks-could-kill look.

Waldenbooks in the Arrivals Lounge stocks a few dictionaries, Spanish and English. Spanish-Italian is too much to hope for, though, and I am home a month before I locate this ticket to fame and fortune. It goes off direct to Lima from the publisher in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Rickey hasn’t ever responded, however, and perhaps in Lima’s central post office a package with his name on it awaits delivery with the rest of the mail.


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