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Icons of Power

The Inca Trail, Ekeko and an Unlucky Guinea Pig

View Central and South America on brynster's travel map.

After four incredible but exhausting days, we finished the 45 kilometer-long Inca Trail to Machu Picchu yesterday. Despite our sore thighs and aching calves, the whole experience was exhilarating and unforgettable (pictures coming soon).

On our trek with the local outfitter United Mice, we started hiking with our guides Sol and Josef through a semi-arid Peruvian landscape dotted with cacti and Spanish moss-covered trees, then climbed 1,200 meters to a 4,200 meter-high pass (named Dead Woman Pass after the suggestive shape of the mountain peaks).

Then down to a cloud forest dense with orchids and wildflowers and finally down yesterday morning to the well-preserved religious and farming complex of Machu Picchu. Along the route, we passed some beautiful mountain vistas and more than a half-dozen other Incan ruins of varying size, nearly all requiring large and well-shaped rocks to be hauled up steep slopes. Nearly as amazing (and a tad guilt-inducing), we feasted on surprisingly good and fancy food the whole time and watched in awe as our group´s 15 porters nearly sprinted past us on the trail while carrying tents, tables, chairs, food, propane tanks and our extra bags.

Machu Picchu itself was humbling. Dozens of terraces thought to be used like greenhouses for domesticating crops climb up the side of a mountain, with interspersed religious buildings and the remains of housing for an estimated 600 people. The wood and grass roofs are long gone, but some of the solid and precisely-built walls look almost new (Incan walls have apparently survived numerous earthquakes in Cuzco while many of the city´s colonial buildings collapsed).

As a final test, we climbed up the steep Wayna Picchu mini-mountain that overlooks the site. Unbelievably, there are well-preserved Incan ruins there too - at heights that required holding onto a cable to ascend and made more than a few hikers cry.

The experience was marred only by learning that Machu Picchu´s incredible Incan aqueducts and fountains, still fully functional after nearly 600 years, have been reduced to a mere trickle by a luxury hotel that has received permission to redirect the water for the exclusive use of its pampered guests. Nearly as outrageous, we learned that the famous Inca sun dial, vaguely resembling a modern chair and positioned in one of the most important religious temples, was chipped on one corner when a camera fell on it during the filming of a beer commercial.

During the past week, from Bolivia to Peru, we´ve learned a lot about the power of icons and symbols, and how easily they can be manipulated. The Inca Trail, we learned, represents just a fraction of tens of thousands of kilometers of Inca-built trails, designed to help rulers consolidate and retain their power as the empire grew.

Back in Bolivia´s Madidi National Park (last week´s adventure), we learned just how incredibly diverse the Amazon jungle can be when we saw three monkey species we had never seen before, including up-close views of brown capuchin monkeys, red howler monkeys and common squirrel monkeys. If anything helps preserve the Amazon, maybe the ecotourism promise of seeing cute monkeys - icons of the jungle - may do the trick.

In La Paz, we learned that it´s possible to receive an obviously fake 100 Bolivianos bill (about $12 US) ... from a bank´s ATM machine. Needless to say, the country has a teensy problem with counterfeit currency.

In the small town of Copacabana, Bolivia (the original Copacabana, by the way), we learned from a colorful wall mural celebrating polio vaccinations that the only truly happy child is one with a large syringe protruding from his bare bottom. In the same town, it´s possible to buy small statues of Ekeko, the mustachioed god of household plenty, who carries a bundle of miniature cash, food, comfy bedding, and other longed-for domestic goods. If you don´t fancy him, you can buy dollhouse-sized stores, homes or a tiny suitcase with international money and passports to increase your chances of a round-the-world trip.

Right behind the stall selling Ekeko and his accessories, incidentally, is the town´s humongous Moorish-style cathedral, where you can have your car blessed in the mornings and where the famous carved Virgen de Copacabana icon can be seen in all her glory on a large lazy Susan that swivels out from a small upper chapel to the main altar of the cathedral on special occasions.

The unusual set-up, according to our guide, is intended to prevent actual movement of the icon, since the last time someone tried to transport the Virgin (to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope in the 1800s), a huge storm shipwrecked the boat and killed all but two priests who salvaged her and managed to swim to what they subsequently named Copacabana Beach in Brazil. According to legend, moving her again will trigger catastrophic floods.

Next door, in a crypt-like chapel where the walls have been blackened from all the candle-lit prayer requests, devotees have drawn some of their specific requests to the Virgin with candle wax on the walls, including a very artistic drawing of a home with a huge satellite dish.

It´s remarkable to me how often South American cultures, from the introduced Catholic religion to the homegrown Incan empire, assimilated the icons of defeated civilizations to help convert and control people. The Incas, for example, borrowed heavily in their architecture and iconography from earlier cultures that they eventually overran, even taking as their own an existing god of creation to be worshipped by nobility. The Catholic church, for its part, frequently allowed Incan symbols to appear in religious art in order to smooth the way for converting new followers. Over and over, we´ve seen Mary depicted as the equivalent of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), complete with a large sun behind her head, a moon at her feet or bosom, and a flared-out dress that resembles a mountain in shape.

And in the Cuzco Cathedral, a famous painting of the Last Supper contains a local specialty as the main course: whole roast guinea pig, with its legs sticking up from the platter as Jesus and the disciples look on. In another painting, a serpent appears beneath the Virgin and child (snakes were important Incan symbols), with tropical birds and what look like llamas behind her. Finally, the wonderfully detailed choir stall in the cathedral contains carvings of important saints and martyrs. Beneath them,though, are what look like naked pregnant women. Upon closer inspection, the naked statues contain both female and male parts, symbolizing the important Incan concept of male-female duality.

It´s not entirely clear whether the naughty wood carver pulled one over on the church, or whether the powers that be simply looked the other way.

Posted by brynster 17:10 Archived in Peru

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