a tourist’s history of cuzco
He flew over the Andes, over the homes pouring smoke like warmed milk, over the children who waved up at him, the owl. The flying owl, his face like a clean dish, pierced secrets and encouraged silence in his people. Ayar Awka, who was now an owl, had left his brother at home because he was still human. Although Awka, the owl, wished to turn back, sometimes it’s safer to continue with the wind. As the owl fell from the sky, he gained momentum, aware that he was hurtling towards the earth. When he hit the surface, he turned to rock, his impact forming history, and likely more stone. The hot clay of civilization bubbled under the ground, ready to mold the many rocks that would form this city, pressurizing with the weight of the earth. Worms and bugs crawled above, unaware of the mystery of formation. Ayar Ochre, Awka’s brother, sprouted wings and flew toward his sibling and then toward the sun, the air thin in the city in the clouds. When Ayer Ochre fell, he too turned to rock. His wings cast in sediment, he planted himself on top of Cuzco, Peru. The brothers and four women built a house and planted corn. However, they didn’t call their city Cuzco. Instead it was Pacaritambo, meaning origin.
Incan rocks, eerily shaped, tell the story of a stolen city. In 1559 a temple on the site of the brothers’ landing was torn down to build a cathedral, and shortly after, the city was renamed Cuzco. The broad face and ornate towers of the cathedral peered over the square; even half-built, its eyes were still open. The Incas were forced to build the cathedral, shaped like a cross, by stealing rocks that formed Saqsaywaman, their holy city. The sand that filled the main square was thought to be hallowed, so following the orders of the Spanish, the Incas swept out the plaza and sprinkled the sand on the Cathedral’s altar.
The Incan Empire was fractured because of a recent civil war between two brothers, Emperor Atahualpa and and Emperor Huáscar. As the Spanish attacked through the gaps in the city’s defense, the Incans thought of the brothers who had soared over the mountains to grow this city in rock. As the colonizers forced the Incas to speak Spanish, to write, to attend Catholic mass, the rocks, who knew the native history, worried that in a hundred years their children would forget their original tongue, their stories, their ancestors.
When I arrived in Cuzco, I videotaped the feet of the soldiers parading through the Plaza de Armas. I moved my camera up to the cathedral that dominated this plaza. I wasn’t even worried about my non-existent Spanish, about sitting in on a meeting with hospital staff, about walking through the recovery rooms, barely lit through barred windows. I moved in and out of my hostel in lateral movements, returning to my room in the small square where I watched lovers on a bench.
When I walked out into the city, I noticed numerous dogs trotting silently through the streets. One followed me from one side of the city to the other, which I interpreted as a symbol. When I got back to my hostel, I ran inside and grabbed the dog a slice of ham, which I naturally served on a plate. When he had finished his little bocado, I reached for the plate, which he responded to with a kind chomp that reminded me that he was not done yet. Above the city at Saqsaywaman, I watched as llamas licked the stones and ate the grass that sprouted around it. The tourists, including me, seemed more interested in the baby llamas grazing than in the ancient engineering miracle, the people who lived here, or where those people went.
That night, I collapsed on the bathroom floor and hit my head on the tile, realizing that I wasn’t meant to live at this altitude. My dad was reading when he heard the thumps. I didn’t yet know of birds descending into stone, of the energy within the pillars of the city. Language is a kind of falling, water poured on the backs of the sleeping, a labyrinth of streets with dulled signs. From the floor, I saw the plants weaving through the holes in the wall, through open shutters, suspended in the dry air, and so I got up.
During my week in Cuzco, I sat above the city writing in a journal, in English, over a colorful playground that clashed with the ancient stoned city veiled in golden light, and watched two dogs race down the alley. Two pigeons cackled at the sight of humans. On the rock wall, around 14,000 feet above sea level, I didn’t speak or breathe too deeply, because I wasn’t meant to fall.