Posts Tagged With: Inca

What Has Stuck With Me About This Place Peru

EAT, SMILE, EAT, REPEAT:

The New York Times said it a bunch of times. Other newspapers and magazines have been saying it. And a gazillion trillion others have continued to echo it: Peru has the best cuisine in the world! But don’t listen to any of them. What do they know? Listen to me. It’s true! I may not be able to cook a lick, but I know food that goes beyond the ordinary when I see and taste it. I have not had one bad meal in Peru. You just have to know where to look, but you don’t have to look very hard or even far. Just about anywhere you turn in Peru, you will bump into great cooking. People who know a great deal more about food than I do credit Peru’s diverse cultures that have borrowed from each other – a spice or two here, a cooking method there – to create unique dishes and presentations. So Europe meets Africa meets Asia meet Indigenous meet in Peru! And Le Cordon Bleu Peru continues to crank out skilled chefs in the great tradition of the acclaimed Gaston Acurio. I had the pleasure of dining at two of Acurio’s restaurants – Tanta in Lima and ChiCha in Cuzco – and it made me happier than a fat kid in a bakery. The dishes were a burst of flavors. At ChiCha  where I struggled to get a table, I had a seafood risotto that was killer. I ate every grain and wanted more. And just as ChiCha, I found Tanta purely by accident: I was walking around looking for a place to eat and noticed the crowds. If you don’t take my word for it, listen to the New York Times and the gazillion trillions. And the other newspapers and magazines that have continued to extoll Peru as a gastronomic powerhouse. It truly is.

WITHOUT ME YOU ARE NOTHING!: 

Peru has a race and class problem that has led to a bit of an  identity crisis. You see, white, wealthier Peruvians tend to look down at the Afro-Peruvian and indigenous populations. They don’t value them. If anything, they treat them as a thing to be scorned.  Of course I’m not talking about all Euro-Peruvians, those with Spanish backgrounds. Just some. It’s not talked about much. But ask any Peruvian about it and they will open up about it. A great deal of this disdain is reserved for the indigenous population. You hear the word “cholo” directed at the indigenous population and you know it’s not exactly a compliment.  This has lead to young descendants of the Incas denying their heritage. Some refuse to learn or speak Quechua. They are conflicted about who they are. They want to be identified as anything but from indigenous stock. And yet, were it not for their culture and the heritage that their ancestors built, Peru would lose a huge chunk of its tourism. You think the tourists are coming to see white Euro-Peruvians dressed in their suits and ties? No, they want to take home photos posing with indigenous people in Machu Picchu. Snap your finger and rid yourselves of the indigenous populations and Peru would be just another mediocre country known for not very much.  Well, except it’s good eats J Anyway. It’s time the indigenous populations of Peru – Cuzco, by the way, is somewhat of an exception – start fully embracing who they are and that white Peruvians stop painting them as low class nothings.

THAT’S SO RUDE!:

Okay, so I completely understand that what works for the United States and other supposed “civilized” and “refined” countries doesn’t necessarily work in other countries where chaos is somewhat of a norm. But rude to me is rude. If I’m standing in a crowd watching a parade and you come along and shove me aside to get a view of the parade with not an “excuse me” or “sorry” you are rude! rude! rude! Pushing and shoving people to take their spot was a daily occurrence in Cuzco. I thought at first it was an individual and isolated thing but it just kept happening. So I asked several Peruvians from Cuzco about it and they all said the same thing. That they were aware of this rude behavior and that it was due in part to people simply not being taught manners at home. It’s accepted behavior. Other outsiders – i.e. visitors – experienced this and also wondered about it. Sorry to say this behavior was largely in the indigenous population, i.e., poor and largely un- or miseducated.  Now, I’m taller than most in Peru, so being shoved to the back didn’t trouble me much. I could still get a good view over the people in front of me. But still, manners, manners!

THE PRICE IS WRONG!:

Cuzco is so expensive  it has priced out even Peruvians. Many Peruvians are poor and can’t afford to travel beyond their borders. But I found it interesting that many Peruvians can’t afford to visit Machu Picchu and never have. The entrance fee, the transportation and other related costs put Machu Picchu and other Inca sites out of reach. I understand that governments try to squeeze every dollar or euro out of tourists, but they some seriously need to evaluate the money they ask their citizens to pay. This is especially true of Peru. One of the employees at my hotel said he had been to Machu Picchu only because someone else paid the costs, but his wife – a Peruvian born and raised in Cuzco – had never been to the site. They simply could not afford it. Just about every South American country has two or three different prices – one higher price for tourists, one for citizens of the country and one for locals. Galapagos, for instance, has such a system in which locals pay no entry fees or very little. Peru, it’s time you get a clue.

WARTS AND ALL:

With all its faults, Peru is magical, breathtaking, beautiful, fun, and rich in Pre-Columbian and colonial history. And the civilization that the Incas built is everywhere, not just Machu Picchu. I loved Peru!

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After Almost 100 Years, Comes An Emotional Return

A proud people enter Plaza de Armas square, paying homage to their ancestors. They walk behind trucks carrying artifacts and bones of their Inca ancestors that were taken to the United States

On a guided tour, somewhere among the hand-sculpted stone wall remains of the fabled Machu Picchu, Jonatan the tour guide decided that I the American would be the perfect target for jokes. He asked if I had ever been to Yale University. Yes, I have, I said. Next time you go, he said, please ask when our Inca treasures will be returned.

Jonatan had spent a good part of the tour recounting Inca history from their early rule in the Peruvian valley and dominance across the continent to their internal powerful struggles that hastened their brutal defeat at the hands of Spanish conquistadors.

When he got to 1911 and the arrival at Machu Picchu of Hiram Bingham, Jonatan made a point to note that it was historically inaccurate to say that Bingham had “discovered” Machu Picchu since it was well-documented that two Peruvians had already found Machu Picchu years earlier. Also, when Bingham got to Machu Picchu there were two Inca families still living there. Nevertheless, Bingham did what the Peruvians had failed to do: announce to the outside world the existence of Machu Picchu. “The Lost City” – glory, hallelujah, had been found!

Machu Picchu

When Bingham, a Yale University professor and explorer, left Machu Picchu, he took with him to the United States many Inca artifacts, Jonathan said.  For decades, the descendants of the Incas and the government of Peru had been trying to force Yale University to return the items, which include skeletal remains of Incas.

“So everybody ask Mike when will Yale return the items,” wannabe standup comic Jonatan said, drawing laughter from the group. Hahahhah, Jonatan. Funny. This line of jokes – with me at the center – continued through much of the tour. “Mike, you have an answer about Yale, yet?”

Immediately after the more than 2-hour tour, as I explored the ancient ruins on my own, I heard a voice call out my name.  I turned around and saw that it was Jonatan. He asked a few basic questions about my trip, such as where had I been and where did I plan to visit next. As we then parted ways, Jonatan made another quip about the looted Inca treasures. He said he had never been to the United States and it was very difficult to visit, what with all the visa requirements and such. I said maybe the United States should have visa exemptions for the descendants of the Incas to visit their taken treasures. Jonatan said, yes, and then maybe he could go to Yale with me to help me petition for the artifacts. Yeah, funnyman!

El Jonatan

Fast forward to two days later. I’m back in Cuzco, the seat of the Inca Empire. I turn on the television for the morning news and on the screen there’s a live report from the Cuzco airport trumpeting the return of the Machu Picchu treasures from Yale University. Every speaker is declaring this a proud day for the Incas, their descendants and all of Peru. Say what?! When did this happen? I do a quick Internet search and learn that a deal had been struck months earlier between Yale and Peru to have the artifacts and remains returned. They would now be under the care of The National University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco (Spanish: Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco). The public university would partner with Yale on research and exchanges. In other words, Yale students and staff get to visit the artifacts and to study them for research. In turn, San Antonio University students and professors get to travel to Yale for study and lectures. Win, win.

Fast forward two hours later. I’m sitting on the balcony of the Cappuccino Café in the Plaza de Armas. Suddenly there is drumming and Andean music blaring. A procession of men and women dressed in Inca vestiges enter the square. They are followed by a motorcade of police vehicles and trucks carrying boxes that hold – drum roll Jonatan – the returned Inca artifacts! More people enter the square.

One of several trucks and vans carrying the returned Inca artifacts and human remains

Plaza de Armas quickly fills with thousands of people, including various university and government officials who take turns at the podium to trumpet the return of the items after nearly 100 years and declare this day, June 22, 2011, a historic and proud day.

More Andean music blares from loudspeakers and as the items begin to make their way around the square in trucks under heavy guard and police escort, some descendants of the Incas dance traditional dances in jubilation while others are overcome with emotion and shed tears. It is a very emotional homecoming, no doubt. But perhaps some of those tears were being shed for what once was – a people whose empire stretched across most of South America – a proud heritage destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards and others, such as Bingham, who carted away Inca treasures. For years into the 20th Century, Inca tombs were looted and sold off to museums and treasure hunters.

In his speech to the still-swelling crowd, the mayor of Cuzco said he and others would continue to fight until all the looted Inca relics are returned to Cuzco and its people, including artifacts now held in prestigious museums across Europe.

More artifacts circle the square

I wish I could have seen Jonatan again to let him know that I had everything to do with the return of the treasures. In two days’ time, here they were, back in Inca land. That would be my joke to him, of course.  That I had made some calls.

On that day, as I sat on that café balcony, I admit I shed a tear.  To witness this historic moment was nothing short of amazing. For nearly 100 years these artifacts had been taken from this land, and an international fight that made its way to the White House – with Peruvian President Alan Garcia making a personal appeal to President Barack Obama  on a visit– had finally produced results. And I had a front row seat to the historic moment.

It was indeed a special moment and one the thousands of proud Inca descendants will remember forever.

The rainbow flag that represents the Incas and their long lost empire - this particular flag has the emblem of the University of San Antonio in Cuzco, which will take charge of the returned artifacts. The seven colors in the Inca flag represent today's seven South American countries that once encompassed the Inca Empire

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Inca Land: A Proud People Celebrate A Proud Heritage

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I arrived in Cuzco, Peru, after 22 hours on a bus. I never got off the bus once. Twenty-two hours that were rather grueling. At least the last four hours. I’ll try not to ever do that again, even if the bus had some comforts such as reclining seats, attendants and food service – and two bathrooms. Spending almost a whole day on a bus is no fun, especially for a guy like me who gets cabin fever. And yet, the getting to Cuzco was worth every hour. I am in my element here in Cuzco. This is a place packed with centuries of history, of cultures, of human drama.

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu. It’s been right up there with the Egyptian pyramids. I intend to stay in Cuzco and explore for several weeks. My stay here will culminate on June 24 with the Inti Raymi – festival of the sun – an Inca religious ceremony in honor of the god Inti in observance of the winter solstice. Yes, it’s winter here in Cuzco and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, but the sun shines bright and the mornings and afternoons are still warm. Bundle up at night.

So I arrived at the right time in Cuzco because it’s the 100th anniversary observance of the “discovery” of Machu Picchu. The celebrations have already begun. The photos you see are part of that grand celebration. Much has been happening in Cuzco and the place is teeming with even more tourists than usual. It’s high season, too, and of course all this means higher prices for everything, including lodging. I am still in the planning stages of my ascent to Machu Picchu. By whatever means I get there, it will be just a real high being there.

Chatted with these young people in the square in Cuzco for nearly an hour. They wanted to know about me and I wanted to know about them. A great bunch they are!

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