The Age of Rocks Pt. 3: Pining for a Priest
This is based on a true story I “collected” in the town of Witihama on the island of Adonara (East Indonesia).
“I could break you,” Pak Heli said, rising from his chair and pointing a finger at the man at the foot of the far table, quiet as a fish. The room lacked motion, apart from the groom’s uncles who stroked the old man’s thighs (to calm the man down, although such a breach of personal space would incentivize any Western man I know to bite a hand off). The groom’s family watched Pak Heli’s body pulse in fury. Despite the fact that he, as the advocate for the bride’s family bloodline, was outnumbered 20 to 1, his authority thundered into the senses of the bulky men and their mothers who crowded the living room.
(Above: The start of the meeting, before tensions rose. Pak Heli sits in front of the red stripe on the wall.)
The bridal price was to be decided that day, or blood from both clans would be left to curdle, potentially splash, until an agreement was won.
In the Eastern Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, bridal price or “belis” remains a focal point of identity. The bridal price secures the departure of the bride, spiritually and physically, from her birth family. Her husband’s ancestors become her ancestors; his family becomes her burden. For such a transition, the bride’s family demands a price.
Depending on the man’s ethnic lineage, “payment” varies. In Ende, central Flores, the demand can be a fleet of horses. In Sumba, a water buffalo. In East Flores and Lembata, brides’ families demand ivory tusks, multiple for women who are highly-educated.
What happens if there are no horses or elephants left in this region of Indonesia, and the region’s economy already rubs the mass-majority of faces in poverty? Do old requirements still stand?
Tough: there’s no disappointing the ancestors in a place where departed spirits package the prayers of the living; and ancestors, like most old folks, tend to like the same old thing.
Now younger generations work to negotiate bridal prices to align with existing resources (ex. families discuss ivory as a symbol, while the fruit of the exchange comes in the form of a pig or sheep, or even cash). This works in response to global demands to educate children rather than thrust them into debt. In most urban parts of NTT, locals trust that ancestors—sympathetic to their own blood—will warm up to the times. Hell, the youth still have to get married, and there’s enough trouble already with younger generations pumping out babies out of wedlock.
But some bridal reps refuse to budge from dated demands. The island of Adonara is famous for its exacting requests; women from Adonara commonly ask for 3 tusks of ivory, with negotiations only flexible regarding time-until-delivery. A woman’s bridal price might be fulfilled 30 years after vows are stated. So much for saving for post-retirement by the pool.
Pak Heli, back in the living room in Adonara, identified proudly among the intractable reps. “This isn’t the price of an item we’re negotiating in a market,” Pak Heli stated. “This is our mother’s milk.”
The “mother’s milk” in his family, of the Kedang region (Eastern region of the island of Lembata), demanded a gong. A gong, a simple metal ritual instrument, might require a year of the groom’s savings. But Pak Heli wasn’t satisfied with his own milk; he wanted the groom’s, passed down among the Atodai people of West Lembata.
Ivory. To acquire a meter of ivory (which must be imported from outside Indonesia), pocket-fishing could reach $10,000 deep, which—we’re talking Indonesian salaries, here—would shove the groom’s entire family of drivers and laborers into decades of I-owe-yous.
The first response had come from the groom’s youngest uncle, guardian of the “traditional house” who spearheaded the negotiations before the wedding. “Where were you before the wedding?” he had asked Pak Heli after initial demands were made. “If you intended to make demands outside your own tradition, we should have known about it before the vows.”
First mistake: Never directly challenge an elder, especially during deliberations perceived as sacred.
Second mistake: Never argue from an emotional state, especially if the family we aim to represent hasn’t had the chance to regroup.
The manifestation of these two mistakes by the groom’s youngest uncle sent Pak Heli flying, and not in a charming way.
Pak Heli’s skeletal face, his cheeks that caved in like eye-hollows, captured shadow as he pointed his chin at the uncle who false-spoke.
The anger, rolled and powdered, was almost impressive with the poetry it unleashed.
“I have been trusted for decades because I have CHARISMA! It has been passed down for generations from fathers to fathers. You, listen! I am not a young dud, like you! I am not drunk, like you! I am smart and you are stupid! I am an old man, wise! I’m generous and give with class, unlike you who only think of yourself!”
The groom’s other uncles, who sat on either side of Pak Heli, continued to pet the old man’s limbs. “I have the charisma, I say!” he barked. “I could ruin you!”
The groom’s grandmother, a sharp woman with a lazy eye, sat with her sons and leaned also towards Pak Heli. She mumbled apologies under Pak Heli’s tirade, saying “my youngest son was drunk when he spoke. He should have talked with the family first, our apologies.” She repeated this like a mantra.
The bride, too, sat there, facing the representative of her bloodline while surrounded by her husband’s family, voiceless.
(Above: The bride (in white) rising from her chair after sitting silently for hours to the discussion of her “worth”)
“Don’t you dare think you’re greater than other people!” Pak Heli barked, still glaring at the groom’s youngest uncle. “I have been trusted by the people of Kedang to officiate bridal negotiations all over Nusa Tenggara Timur! Kupang, Manggarai, East Flores, Timor, you name it! I’ve seen it all, and never have I been so humiliated as I am today!”
He slapped a hand on the table. The whole house reverberated.
“Words are sharper than a blade,” he said.
Those of us listening were silent. The women in the room slipped out and reappeared with coffee and siri pinang (areca nut functioning as a sedative).
At last the groom’s youngest uncle placed his head in his hands and wept. Pak Heli’s jaw cracked down on an areca nut. “The wound has been made,” Pak Heli said. “Jesus could place a hand on a wound and recovery would happen in an instant. I’m not Jesus; I’m hurt, and I’m embarrassed. I leave tonight.”
At this point, the afternoon had carried us into the evening, and the number of people listening grew less and less as family members catered to reception guests who danced and fed on pork beneath the front-yard tent.
If we left the discussion at this point of tension, the future might look downright unsafe for the newly-minted couple, who had already borne a child. Everyone waited for a miracle, and for Pak Heli to suffer a change of heart.
(One of the uncles steps outside the living room to breathe)
The groom’s distant relative, Pak Bol, a public education monitor in Lembata and a man closer to Pak Heli’s age, seized the opportunity for diversion. “This lady here is interested in our culture,” he said, nodding his head in my direction and smiling. She must think this is all pretty interesting, eh?”
I swallowed. For the first time, Pak Heli looked directly at me. It was like watching a T-Rex turn its head.
“Do you have this kind of talk where you’re from?” Pak Bol egged on. Without an explicit cue I knew it was my turn to play along.
“It’s different,” I put in, trying to find the right words. “Traditionally in many parts of Europe and the United States it’s the woman’s family who pays a dowry, but times have changed.” I hesitated, but no one interrupted. “Both women and men have freedom to work and demand equal wages, so dowry is less important than investment in the future: towards educating children and self-sustainability in retirement.”
Pak Heli spat. “Women pay the men, ha!” He looked to the men around him as if, for the first time, they were all in on something. “Future!” His teeth clacked again on a nut, and I saw that the sedative had turned his dentures red. “Well we’re the opposite,” said Pak Heli, narrowing in. “While the West thinks about the future, we survive on our past.”
The groom’s father came to the rescue. Dinnertime had come and I was invited to bathe and enjoy the rest of the wedding reception, which already neared its end.
When I came back from a late meal and line dancing, I found Pak Heli on the living room floor, fast asleep next to one of the uncles. The younger man’s bear snores shook the room. Ivory or no ivory, they slept like empty pots. The groom’s grandmother came up behind me and ushered me to sleep.
“I’m glad he stayed,” I told the grandmother, looking over my shoulder and nodding towards Pak Heli.
“It will all be well” she said, letting her good eye settle on her temperamental guest. We have 100 days to deliver the ivory, and if we don’t…If we don’t, the negotiations will continue next year, when we can hope for more input and better favor. Although the hurt might always be there.”
I wondered how much wounded pride could be slept off, and—if it managed to contaminate “mother’s milk”—that milk could be spoiled for good.
(Above: the newlyweds after the church ceremony. Their four-year-old daughter is in pink.)
– A lizard the size of my forearm hiding in the cupboard shadows, croaking. When he burps, the entire room shakes.
– Poles of bamboo the length of a driveway draped and bobbing over 1980s-manufactured pick-up trucks. The platforms are stuffed with squatting, smoking men.
– Cracked-open coconuts laying meat-side up in the sun. Mounds of of empty coconut shells pile high as a human waist against homes made of wood panes three fingers thick.
– Forests palms envisioned by Dr. Seuss. Beyond: an expanse of sea with hairy islands a gum-drop green.
– Roads swerving through a lush landscape, the concrete continuing as if designed by a two-year-old terror with a scalpel.
– Drafts of rain assaulting pedestrians on valley roads. Those who don’t carry umbrellas protect their faces with leaves the size of street dogs.
– The roar of insects each time the car passes a stretch of trees.
IF ANYONE HAS COME WITHOUT HIS BIBLE, STAND UP AND LEAVE THE CHURCH.
I have come without my Bible to Flores. The island is 95% Catholic, statistics say, with adherents on the rise since the villages cast in their baton. Here at Seminary San Dominggo, Hokeng, I have come to pay my dues. My sin isn’t missed confession or a discarded bible; it’s idleness after quitting my job at a non-profit (where, in teaching children from immigrant families, I at least served as an extra hand) to travel across South America then live rent-and-responsibility-free with my parents as I applied for grad schools.
A month ago, I packed my bags for Indonesia, thinking I would prove myself useful.
I was told that, during my stay in East Flores as a volunteer English teacher, I wasn’t required to reclaim any part of my long-discarded Catholic faith. But here I find myself in the back of the church every Sunday, performing the sign of the cross over my head and chest, watching the heads of 300 aspiring priests commit themselves to Christ.
My first few weeks involved me discussing endless potential duties and shuffling around at the tug of middle-aged clergy who, between words of gratitude and nosiness, stuffed their faces with bananas and bread buns (the only culinary legacy left behind by the Dutch). I’m thrown into classrooms in which high school boys beg me to sing. They tell me in elementary words about their girlfriends who will wait for them at Love Mountain until the day they are ordained, their village’s whale-hunting practices, how much they both love their island and ache to escape it. They dig Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially when he’s pregnant.
I eat three meals a day of circulating fish variety, at the same seat, at one of the two long dining room tables where food is brought each day by two girls my age: Rina, who wears a Mickey-Mouse sweatshirt, and Rinti, with hair down to her butt-cheeks. I want to tell them that I’d rather dine with them in the outdoor kitchen in the late hours of the evening than with the tamed and feathered old men who take notes on my habits and likes as if I were a zoo animal. The worst is Pater Geby, who asks how much each of my belongings costs and who hogs all the avocados for himself.
On outings, I’m brought into throngs of squealing strangers who scramble over one another to take selfies. They shove their forearms next to mine and compare skin colors. Romo Alfons, my coordinator and supervisor, grins from ear-to-ear. To be fair, he uses these occasions to question other locals about landmarks and concepts which might serve my interests. “Julie likes coffee. Julie likes chilis. Julie likes culture, and especially myths relating to customs. Do you know of any place where Ms. Julie can learn more about the traditions of East Flores?” The strangers (although here there is no such a concept) sit agape, asking my chaperone questions about my origins and lifestyle as if their speech was beyond me. As phone calls are made, children come to peer at my plucked expression.
There are about 8 priests in all who live on the seminary, with aspiring priests adding up to about 15 “pure men.” Many of them teach as well as preach, since the morning hours operate as a normal high school. Female teachers (there are five) also work at the seminary. They live at the corner house between the seminary garden and the road which leads to the world “outside.” On rare but happy occasions I’m invited by these women for an estrogen balance over fried cassava.
I live in a Utopia where the priests maintain heavy discipline and a gentle order deems older men automatic “protectors.” They widen their eyes in worry at all that is new and different. I can’t walk around the seminary grounds without one of these protectors following in quick step. Without a motorbike, there’s no pointed glance I can run from, and no hand I can escape.
Today I hop on a truck to the closest city, Larantuka, where I will decide if I want to explore independence in that minor bustle or cross the seawaters to the neighboring islands of Lembata, Solor, and Adonara. In less than a week I will return. Either way, I intend to escape from “The Holy Land,” since The Holy Land knows little of the drives of women, and moral dues are hard to pay when saints prepare me to boil.
“Flores has no written record before the days of the Imperialists,” says Brother Angsel, stuffing his mouth with a spoonful of wet rice and sardines.
“So what do you teach?” I ask, incredulously. It’s a natural question, I think, since it’s Brother Angsel’s responsibility to teach Indonesian History to the 250+ boys at the high school Seminari San Dominggo. The Portugese didn’t arrive in Flores until the mid-late 1500s, and yet the island is home to some of the oldest humans (fossils of the homo floresiensis date back to 700,000 years ago).
“We go off the sources we have,” says Brother Angsel. “Other than that, history teachers in Flores take mostly from the history of Java and other islands where people have a longer history of written archiving.”
I stop eating my peach oatmeal, which has gone stale since I packaged it in Chicago. As I place down my spoon, my mind races toward possibilities for helping local communities revive and immortalize their nebulous history through written archiving; a false call to heroism that, despite coming from a drive to contribute, soils my motives.
I don’t know how to escape it. I’m about to start a PhD program in the Fall, and have no “calling” apart from a profound interest in cultural research that might very well benefit no one.
Within this is a hope that cultural research might be made more accessible through the arts, both for the locals informing my research and for people in the US. My faith stems from a personal history of reading books that have taken me beyond my home in the suburban Midwest to where people thrive on a variety of alternate values, struggle under power dynamics—some factors of myth and religion—that have caused me to loosen up on my definitions of reality.
Is there a possibility that I, like my personal heroes, might channel print or performance media to share a portal between realities on alternate hemispheres, with storytelling both as a muse and a canvas?
Over afternoon tea I speak to Romo Alfons about my interests in, down the road, perhaps enabling oral history projects dictated and run by locals. Wouldn’t it be grand if the rich history of Flores might be written down, fragmented as it might be, for everyone to appreciate?
Romo Alfons smiles at me. I: a child fussing over an empty wallet. Not so simple, he tells me. History is not always meant to be written. “According to our tradition, we value togetherness over reality. Truth isn’t in the facts, but in the solidarity of believing what is and isn’t true.”
History is transmitted orally. Collective decisions define truth, which informs identity. Never static, history moves like a beast with a rubber spine, whipping its head from side to side, sometimes morphing its features entirely depending on what each community finds essential for conservation.
Is it possible that some histories can’t be captured, transcribed, or recorded?
I recall my stint as an after-school teacher for immigrant children in Chicago. I remember the struggle of finding history books touching in equal part on the lives of minorities as well as white Christians. How are historically underserved communities meant to receive the proper attention if they aren’t given adequate representation in what we read, see, and hear? If we fill the canon with media of the minorities, won’t this solve the social imbalance leading to prejudice and its afterbirth?
Eastern Indonesians, overlooked by the Javanese as being primitive in its economic and cultural assets, certainly deserve voice. I was a fool, and am still, in believing that by documenting the Flores landscape for an audience I might stabilize a small platform from which local voices can project themselves.
Maybe this is all because I have no roots of my own.
No one is asking me to transcribe the oral histories of Eastern Flores. No one is asking me to write a children’s history book on ethnic groups pre-Catholic era, or to run around with a tape recorder. History lies with the beast, and it seems that beast would rather die than be contained.
What can I do? I can surrender the hope that my research might be useful to the Indonesians I work with, and resign to the fact that my path of interest might be a solitary one. To the working laborers of Flores, documenting local lifestyle in writing looks like idle play in a rain puddle.
And as I continue to write about culture, I can alert myself to how the act of transcribing cultural narratives can both conserve and kill the spirit of a tale, which acts as another one’s reality, and—in any case—isn’t necessarily mine to touch.
Romo (Father) Alfons and Suster (Sister) Emma in front of a cave shrine in Hokeng’s convent. Despite being wed to Jesus and His Mother Mary, the Catholic clergy foster the strongest culture of intellectualism I’ve witnessed in Indonesia outside university settings, and actively work alongside local traditions: evidence for why the Catholic religion is alive and well in a landscape still presided over by ancestors and folk spirits.
It was the first college lecture I’d delivered in 3 years. I was invited by Sekolah Vokasi, Universitas Gadjah Mada (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) to lead a discussion on spiritual landscapes. While my focus is primarily on Indonesia and I’m not nearly as versed on American Folklore as I’d like to be, I used the help of suggestions from friends via Facebook, as well as online research, to construct a presentation on the evolution of Bigfoot, Champ (of Lake Champlain), The Wendigo, Mothman, The Jersey Devil, and Slenderman. The “ghost” was tacked on as an umbrella category at the end.
The last forty minutes of the class were dedicated to student reflection, in which small groups were asked to compare a mythical creature from the US with one from Indonesia. Here’s what they came up with:
The Indonesian Genderuwo vs. The American Bigfoot
The Indonesian Kuntilanak vs. the American Ghost
The Indonesian Kuyang vs. The American Mothman
Two groups went their own route and compared the Indonesian Kuntilanak with the Irish Banshee. I enjoyed their descriptions and drawings.
A group of seniors in the back compared two mythical characters from film: Jerangkung (from the Indonesian film) and Annabelle (from the American). Let’s hope these figures never escape fiction.
Thanks to Prof. Mbak Andri and Prof. for reaching out with this opportunity to explore the invisible across oceans.
The oldest man, Methusaleh, according to the Bible, lived until age 969. Now he comes to life every few minutes within a life-size fiberglass dummy at The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. You’ve traveled hundreds of miles to witness “the truth” behind pseudoscience, and here it is prefaced by an animatronic figure dressed like Merlin. “Whatever God Says is True,” says Methusaleh, extending a robotic arm to you. Whether you believe the old man’s statement or not, his theory will carry you throughout your pilgrimage.
Enter the Creation Museum, and you feel you have walked into any large-scale exhibit house. Then you’ll stroll along the Dragon Hall leading to the ticket desk, and you’ll realize this is the only museum you might visit in which centuries-old myths stand as evidence for ancient life. After being handed your $30 ticket, you’ll walk past three armed guards wearing guns, tasers, badges that read “Answers in Genesis,” then a fudge stand that looks like a truck-sized version of your childhood play-dough kit. Little do you know that you’ll be embarking on a journey of Christian politics at the height of its craft.
The entrance aisle stands between a raised display of a raptor standing beside a kneeling cavewoman and an aquarium full of live amphibians. An archaeology scene welcomes you with your first splash of rhetoric. You walk up to a true-to-size sculpture of two paleontologists standing over a half-exposed dinosaur skeleton. One identifies himself as a Christian and the other an atheist. They each explain their processes for dating the bones beneath them.
“Every person must start with their own arbitrary philosophy as a starting point for evaluating everything around them,” states the Christian archaeologist.
It dawns on you that biblical literalists have systematized a semi-scientific method for construction of a timeline beginning 6,000 years ago. You wonder if it works like condensing an image file: downsizing the scale, but conserving proportion.
You walk through the Garden of Eden, which smells like wet wipes and sunscreen acid. Words form Genesis vibrate from a ceiling speaker spouting Bible passages recited by the deep and lyrical voice of a Polish Rabbi. Fake trees populate this womb-like oasis. Here is Eve, whose skin, facial structure, and waist-length auburn hair remind you of the paddle-tennis-playing suburban housewife who used to employ you as a dog-sitter. Her long hair covers her breasts, and she reaches one hand out to touch Adam’s hand. Adam leans back from Eve as if she’s transmitted an electric shock. A dinosaur poised on a crag cocks his head at the budding romance.
This was the time when nothing was eaten.
There was a time when nothing was wrong.
You enter another wing of The Garden which, literally, walks you through the extent to which perfection reigned before The Fall.
“No poison!” barks one sign.
“No burdensome work!”
This pre-knowledge world instills such serenity that you’re tempted to pet the raptor poised beyond the rope separating you from the display, but a sign explicitly prohibits raptor-petting. You remember that even in the most idealized Abrahamic times, certain privileges were forbidden.
From here you learn about Noah’s Ark. You read how God doesn’t love Evolution, but He does love Unity, and how appreciation for the perfection of God’s design demands us to embrace people of all races and abilities. Near the conclusion of the exhibit, you’re spit into a book store in which you can buy more fudge, and you finally exit through a world-class insect collection which teaches us to appreciate the dirt-crawlers designed to eat our refuse. God does think of everything, after all.
Thanks, Methusaleh, for sticking around.
Two strains of rhetoric stuck out the most:
The Creation Museums goes as far as to say that the foundation of Christian faith rests on the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
What is it that makes biblical philosophy stand at odds with pure science?
According to the creation narrative, there was no death before the fall. Deny this, and the foundations of Christianity crumble. Pure science tells us that dinosaurs died before humans, but Christians know there was no death before Eve brought sin to The Garden.
Some Christian theorists have tried to reconcile science with Genesis by saying the days (“Yom” in Hebrew) in which the earth was created could have each represented hundreds of thousands of years.
This doesn’t fly with the literalists. The expanded interpretation of “yom” would mean that death would have existed before humans arrived on the 6th day. If we are to combine the truisms from Methusaleh and the Christian paleontologist–whatever God says is true and all must stem from this philosophy–there’s little wiggle room for literalists and scientists to shake hands.
Humans and dinosaurs found death from the same fruit, and there is no getting around it.
2. Christianity’s emphasis on “rule” sustains empowerment for faith-based communities.
You may or may not find fulfillment in the small town landscape, where Christian fundamentalism finds its common home. Some might call this “Forgotten America,” though within recent political developments this demographic is rising to the fore. We wonder what empowerment looks like for those of us who rely on faith. While I’m no expert on Christianity in the US, it makes sense that Christian literalists might find purpose, and even power, in the spiritual climb.
Walking through the wings of the Creation Museum, I took particular note of the rhetoric delivered by ambient biblical interpretations and wall plaques. One part of the message was clear: God invented man so he could “rule over His creations.”
As an aspiring anthropologist intrigued by people’s relationships to their surroundings, I wonder if devout Christians who are ambivalent towards academic or social elitism aspire to elitism in other ways. Don’t we all want to feel important, after all?
We are meant to benevolent rulers, insists The Creation Museum’s strain of literalism. The earth is humankind’s turf to govern, take from, and also protect. But even when guided by God, haven’t we learned from history (Biblical and other) that all rulers grow drunk with power?
“Take a look around,” he said. We stood in an ancient Inca enclosure. Some of the surrounding partitions amounted to homes without roofs, with door-frames bolstered by ancient wood and rectangular window-like nooks set three meters above ground. No one but myself and my new friend, who happened to be the hostel receptionist, stood in view of what I perceived to be a masterpiece.
Sensing my interest in local identity earlier that day, Francisco had promised to take me after work “to a spot where no one goes.”
He delivered. We parked his motorbike by the side of the road near the top of a mountain. After climbing to the crest, we passed through sticks on hinges into a clearing. All around me stood abandoned settlement. I felt a deluded sense of privilege as if I had stumbled upon a dead animal.
The city before me wasn’t my discovery, of course. It was a hushed treasure, kept well and at peace.
Francisco urged me to wander at my own pace. Inside the first home I entered, the nothingness felt nothing like nothing. The wind and light and wrapped around the outside of the stone walls. I could hear it, see it. Inside the Inca home I was removed from the outdoors. The walls lent a shadowy sense of solitude that, even without the roof, enfolded me in shelter.
Five hundred years after the conquest of the Incas at Ollantaytambo, the structures stood with as much functioning potential as they once did. Grass grew within square perimeters. With such limited space, it was hard to imagine residences filled with eccentricities. Inca society, according to the the Quechuan concept, “ayni”, unified its micro-communities under the idea that people kept only what they needed. There was no pomp and no stretch over one’s neighbors.
Through the windows I could see the knees of mountains. Their heights didn’t impose upon me from where they stood. They stood level with my breast. Looking over the edge I could see terraces from where the motorbike began its mount, some of the farmland still framed by ancient rock foundations.
Circling back, I found Francisco lying on his back near the gate. He lay under the sky, legs extended, hands cushioning his head. When I walked towards him, he stood.
“You like the city?” he asked.
“It’s an image from a fairy tale,” I said, stupidly. There was another impression I kept hidden. The space felt haunted. More a hive than a fairy land, it was too perfect and genius to stand empty.
“Do you ever resent what happened here?” I asked. Earlier at the hostel, he had told me that his sister was an anthropologist on local history. He held a similar interest (albeit a non-academic one) in Ollantaytambo’s history, and identified strongly with the successes and losses of his ancestors.
Francisco shook his head. “The conquest happened because it had to happen. Society is changing, even now. When people choose to value things over people, the outcome is war and destruction. It’s an evolution. It started happening long ago and continues now.”
We strolled into a a section of houses I hadn’t yet explored. Airy green pathways fed from house to house. The clusters of residences were organized in a circle at the crest of the mountain, all surrounded by a stone membrane.
For a moment we both forgot about history. “Look at the windows and doors of this one!” said Francisco. “From outside the house it looks like a face!”
We reached one of the highest structures and looked through a square window. He pointed out the famous fortress near the city center.
Ollantaytambo’s fortress remained the main source of tourism for the city, attracting hundreds of visitors and thousands of dollars a day. Now it poised hundreds of meters below. We saw little shapes with limbs collecting in clumps along different tiers of hill.
“How is it that we’re the only ones here?” I asked Francisco, turning back towards our settlement on high. The sun was setting. The shadow of a mountain let its skirt flare over the valley.
“Every resident from Ollantaytambo knows about this place,” he said. “The locals have just chosen not to make it an attraction.”
We walked back to the clearing into which we originally entered and sat on the grass.
“So do you want to keep working in tourism?” I asked him.
Francisco tore at the grass between his legs. “No. I’m 27, and I’ve been working for other people long enough. You saw the home we passed on the way up? I built that. It’s a nice space, and I can rent it out to temporary residents. Besides that, I have a small bit of land so I can grow all the grains and vegetables I need. There’s even a stream, so maybe I can farm some fish. The goal is to be totally self-sustainable. ”
Francisco pointed to a far mountain. “You know some people still live really high up? Higher than this? I lived with them for a while. They have no watches or electricity, so they wake up when the sun hits, around four in the morning, and go to sleep very early. Everything they need is grown around them. All else is given away.”
We passed a woman in braids on the way down. She sat with her baby and llama. Crafts lay sprawled before her knees.
She must have seen me on the way up. I remembered what Francisco said about the history of self-sustainability and, as I walked past with a wave, hoped her livelihood didn’t depend on frugal travelers like me.
As Francisco revived his bike, I took one more look back at the fence of the abandoned city. I encoded the remnants of its tale.
For me it was a testament to the extent to which beauty could be gutted by greed. But for Francisco and the other the locals of Ollantaytambo, it was a place for reflection. It was whispered of and adored, and, from what my own guts could gather, a dignified reminder of identity.
(Above: The entrance to Ollantaytambo’s fortress)
(Above: Two dances from the independence festival at the city center, which carried throughout June)
(Terraces at the skirt of the mountain where Francisco and I began our ascent)
Machu Picchu averages about 2000 visitors a day. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world, but a Peruvian will never tell you Machu Picchu is the greatest city ever built, nor will they tell you it’s the greatest triumph their ancestors ever accomplished.
The greatest masterpiece of the Incas was Cusco. Cusco was once considered the center or “navel” of the world. Incan chroniclers documented that the city was once 100% veneered in gold. The boundaries of the city were constructed in the shape of a puma, with the head serving as the fortress. The heart of the city held the temple, Koricanche, the most sacred of Inca sites, where the gods were worshipped and the bodies of Incan kings were preserved. Courtyard buildings, shrines, and plazas filled the metropolis, reflecting supremacy of artisanship that only took 100 years to perfect.
These spaces have long been either emptied or laid flat, pillaged by Pizarro, afterwards emptied and burned by Franciscans, bricked over and stuffed with colonial rococo-style figurines imposing white supremacy. But not all is lost. Much is still preserved in the culture and language of the local people.
A four-day, three night tour to Machu Picchu lent the first hint at what remained of Quechua identity. My Machu Picchu tour was registered with a company called Lorenzo Expeditions. Our guide, Wilbur, was a middle-aged local from the Sacred Valley who claimed he had been hired by every tour company in the city. I could see why: he in many ways embodied the intelligence and identity standing since the days of Incan reign. He was as much a relic as the ancient walls.
The tour brought us to local villages, some tucked into the highland jungle. There was a varied pace of hiking and stopping, and in the latter stretches we would receive explanations of the significance of the spaces we passed. Wilbur brought us to coffee farms. He fanned out coca leaves in wild forest groves. He explained the critical connection between his people and their land and did not leave out details of injustice brought on by foreign misconceptions.
You want to understand our culture, he said? First learn our language. Then you will know the ways of our people.
Naturally none of our 10 trekking members knew the local speech, but Wilbur did his best to explain the trials and collective identity of the Sacred Valley descendants.
The Incan empire was not soft on its people, but it paid mind to general needs. While the imperial and ceremonial center was foiled in gold, the currency lay in exchange of services. Civilians of the empire were required to perform tasks and labor (primarily in agriculture, mining, construction, and artisanship) and in return were delivered provisions by the State. The remainder of goods were exchanged through a bartering system.
The real measure of wealth was not measured in money or gold, but in textiles. Only the Incan kings and nobles could wear them, their elaborate designs woven through the toil of mit’a (the strenuous work quota appointed to commoners).
After the Europeans came, currency took precedence over craft. Pizarro pillaged for gold, and Atahualpa, the Incan king in today’s Ecuador, filled two rooms with the mineral to buy his freedom. He satisfied the ransom but was executed anyway after betraying his brother.
Peruvians know Pizarro as the man who claimed all the gold in Peru, including Cusco. He also brought a lesson: wealth in currency allowed one to wield horrifying power worldwide.
Five hundred years later, this lesson still holds true.
Today the people of the Sacred Valley hold similar occupations as they once did, primarily in agriculture, with others in construction, weaving, and mining. While the work restrictions are nowhere near as imposing as they were during the days of Incan rule, the payoff is nowhere near fair.
Tourism is Cusco’s leading industry. It’s hard to find a good tour to Machu Picchu without paying at least $300. A backpacker’s hostel can earn $10 from each laundry service, and a restaurant in the city center charges over $50 for a family meal of fried rice.
Meanwhile, farmers in the fields earn hardly enough to sustain themselves. They return to wooden shacks with no electricity and no plumbing. Delicious mangoes and avocados bring in $3-4 for every package of 100.
The coca leaf industry is a whole other ordeal.
US and European governments point at Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, for the impact the cocaine industry has had on their societies.
Holding out a handful of inconspicuous leaves he picked from the forest trail, Wilbur said, “The greatest problem in our country is not drug addiction, but diabetes. Here we drink too much soda. Do we blame the United States for the production of Coca Cola?”
Coca leaves have been used since the days of the Incas. They were not—are not—used by Andean locals for the production of the cocaine (most of cocaine industry is concentrated in the jungle regions). Coca leaves have long been perceived as medicinal and sacred. The ancients knew that chewing the leaves led not only to health benefits, but facilitated a connection between humanity and the gods.
Countries demand that Peru limit its coca production. These governments promise they will reward those who farm coffee beans in place of coca plants. This, the governments insist, will lend new opportunities for farmers’ profit through increased demand for a globally-cherished export. But coffee beans can be picked only 2 times a year (coca plants every 3 months). And since Peru can not compete with countries like Costa Rica for production of coffee beans, the farmers see little payoff.
Still, though, the Quechuans are a hard-working people. They farm to survive, take what they need, and give the rest to the neighbors.
In the ancient days Wirocacha created the sun, moon, stars, time, and civilization. The apus, or lesser gods (the storms, the mountains and the rivers) served as the hands of the creator. Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, ensured fluid relations between all things.
At the height of the Incan Empire, the Incan Kings and the gods were worshipped in the temple of Koricanche in Cusco. It was said the 12 Incan Kings whose bodies rested in Koricanche were so well-preserved that they didn’t look dead. On notable occasions the royal mummies would rest on the shoulders of Cusco civilians and be paraded around the city so the strength of their spirits could bring stability to the empire.
When the Franciscans came, the bodies were burned. The vases used in place of the bodies were taken for an archaeological display by a Yale professor.
Today, the main spectacles in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas are its grand churches. Nearly everyone identifies as Catholic. Religious education is a required discipline in public schools, and the Catholic authorities hold great influence over the government.
When Wilbur, who never outwardly identified his spiritual orientation, tried to enroll his first child in public school, the very first question from the registrar was “Are you Catholic?” The second question was “Are you married?”
In spite of this, the locals still believe in the apus and in the great one, Wirocacha. And the Andes themselves: for the Quechua people it has always been, and still is, nature first.
Apart from the gods, the Quechua people maintain faith in their ancestors. Quechua funerals entail a large cross atop the coffin. Since this tradition’s inception, it appeased local Catholic officials who thought this a demonstration of obedience towards the Church. But truly it was a subversion towards syncretism. The cross atop the coffins do not commemorate Christ, but the living spirits of their loved ones.
Spiritual practice carried from the Incan empire is most prevalent in the fields. When planting new crops (beans, potatoes, carrots), farmers first pray to Pachamama with coca leaves. They thank her for providing nourishment and, once they eat their first meal, offer the first plate to Her.
Quechua once united the Incan Empire. In the 18th century the language of Quechua was banned from use by religious authorities, who once used the language to infiltrate local spirit beliefs with their own.
The use of Quechua was only allowed use again after Peru gained its independence in the 19th century. But by then the language had been lost to feelings of local inferiority. Younger generations perceived Quechua speech as belonging to the static, rural class. The way of the future was Spanish.
Now Quechua is seeing a minor resurgence. It is spoken proudly in the rural highlands and sometimes in the cities. This is an improvement from when Wilbur was a child, when native Quechua speakers like himself struggled to integrate into public schools.
Now more families teach children the ancient tongue, and, amidst the inundation of foreign influence from the tourism industry, traditional forms of expression remain the primary way of preserving local identity.
The Nature of “Discovery” and Conquest
Wilbur and I walked along the railroad that led to Aguas Calientes, the tourist city that led to Machu Picchu. We both had taken off our jackets despite the altitude. The flaps of his open collared shirt tossed with the wind which passed over the neighboring river. We paced up the metal and rock.
Wilbur and I spoke of conquest. While I condemned the nature of conquest in the Americas, I brought up the reality that conquest has existed everywhere, including among the Incas, since the dawn of human existence.
Conquest is different from destruction, he explained. Surely the Incas conquered many people, leading them to be the greatest empire in South America. But conquest does not require obliteration or oppression. Wilbur said that in both Quechua and Spanish, the word “conquest” could be used to describe the trapping of a lover.
During Incan conquests, the armies brought gifts to weaker communities, lent respect to local rulers, and, despite insisting on adoption of the Quechua tongue and the Incan ways, allowed freedom of local beliefs and languages within micro-circles.
European Colonists did not engage in conquest; they dealt in destruction. They did not aim to adopt peoples, as the Incas did, but obliterate “inferior” identities from existence.
They did not completely succeed.
Looping the Cord
Machu Picchu is a masterpiece, but it’s only a hint of what stood at the Incan center. In Quechua, the name “Machu Picchu” means “this whole mountain,” signifying treasure in the greater picture.
Back in Cusco, the center of the world might be defaced and buried by Franciscan churches and foreign feet, but the most precious remains aren’t at the top of the mountain; they are at the core of the human being: how Quechua people today embrace left chest to left chest, heart to heart.