Bullied at the Border

‘We made it! I don’t know how,’ I said as we stepped into John F. Kennedy airport.

‘Sheer necessity,’ John said. He looked stoically at the mass of humanity in front of us, much as a steppe warrior might survey the vast, unforgiving plains. ‘In a hundred years, people are going to say about us, “How did they cope with death?” And the answer will be, “They had no choice.”’

The Texas televangelist Kenneth Copeland, defending his preference for private jets, once described flying in commercial planes as ‘getting in a long tube with a bunch of demons.’ John supports this view because every time he gets on a plane he is swarmed by microscopic demons in the form of viruses and infections. This time the symptoms included an upset stomach and red eyes– hence his less-than-rosy view of the whole thing.




The trip had been grueling. We’d left the previous afternoon from Lima, had stopped in Mexico City where we’d snatched five hours’ sleep and then had risen at 5 o’clock in the morning to go through a two-hour check-in process where travelers to the US were marched to a special area in the airport–and then marched back again because the lines were too long. We had to answer three ‘security questions’ and get a sticker on our passports, without which we wouldn’t be able to fly. By the time we’d checked in our bags and cleared security, the plane was already boarding. I had a pounding headache and gulped some Aspirin down with an illicit bottle of water as soon as I got into my seat.

I don’t remember too much about the flight except that I listened to supposedly relaxing lute music, planned a healthy 4-week menu and read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a teen romance by Jenny Han. Breakfast was inadequate but made up for by three cups of coffee. John was already suffering torments with his stomach but for me, by our standards, it was not a completely bad flight. And yet, I felt uneasy.

The truth is, I never look forward to going through United States customs. There is something about US border policing that feels an awful lot like bullying. I’ve been in a lot of other countries and they don’t tend to do things this way; border guards may not be very friendly, but nor do they enjoy their jobs quite so much. In the past, US border guards have variously taken exception to our car, to Arabic letters in our passports, to our dog, to our queuing in different lines (because ‘This is America and American families stick together!’) and to our queuing in the same line (‘Ma’m, you are not a US citizen. The line for foreign nationals is over there.’). And every time this happens, not matter how unreasonably, I get horribly scared.

Part of it is that I’m an inherently nervous and guilty person. As far as I know I have not committed any actual crime, and yet I’m certain that Fate has a long-term prison sentence in store for me. It’s only a matter of time. As long as I have access to a word processor or pen and paper I should be able to survive. I’ll have an exercise regimen of star-jumps and man-style push-ups.


My future


But I’d noticed, when applying online for my ESTA visa waiver, that there were more steps to follow than last time and that the officious cloth-eared legalese had exploded like a worsening infection. Not only was I required to be free of plague and terrorism, I also had to declare that I was not a member of ‘the foreign-language media’. This set off little alarm bells.


Let me guess…this is some anti-Russian thing, right?


There were other factors contributing to this state of unease. Firstly, exhaustion. No part of plane travel is restful because you are waiting for every single stage to be over, and we’d been on ‘the road’ for 20 hours. Secondly, there are different queues for US citizens and visitors so John and I had to separate. Thirdly, there were a bunch of new computers on which you had to register yourself and a helpful volunteer insisted on showing me what to do. He helpfully pressed the ‘travelling alone’ button and before I could muster enough energy to correct him on that front, he produced a receipt and ushered me over to the line where we had to wait for a human border guard.

Standing in the long queue (the computers seemed to have slowed things down rather than sped them up), I had plenty of time to reflect on my error. I thought I should go back and re-do the machine thing so that it said I was ‘travelling with a family member’ rather than ‘travelling alone’. But there were dozens of people behind me. I decided just to bluff it out.

I am travelling alone. I am here visiting friends. I am here for three months,’ I coached myself. All of which, except for the ‘alone’ part, was true.

An airport usher directed me to wait in line for window 17. As I set my bags down at my feet—they were heavy because I had all my books in them—I heard a loud, derisive laugh. It was coming from the booth where my border guard sat. He was a blond young man with a pencil moustache and excessive energy. Some hapless traveler had said something he considered stupid and now he was loudly and publicly shaming the guy.




Great,’ I thought. ‘Perfect. Of course I get this line.’ But then I told myself not to be so ridiculous. After all, look at the hundreds of people in the hall. Why would anyone want to go out of their way to bother with me, a boring English-speaking woman from an affluent country? It didn’t make sense. That’s what I told myself.

‘Next! Are you travelling alone today?’


‘Reason for travel?’

‘Tourism, visiting friends.’

‘How long are you here?’

‘Three months.’

‘Three months?’ he stopped and I very much feared he was going to have another derisive outburst. ‘What are you going to be doing here for three months?’

‘Um, er, well, you know, seeing my friends, looking at museums…’

‘Do you have a job?’

‘Uh oh, this is a tricky one,’ I thought.

‘Yes,’ I lied.

‘And what do you do?’ he asked in what sounded like a sarcastic tone.

‘I’m, ah, a writer,’ I blushed. Well, it was somewhat true.




‘What is it that you write?’

‘Fiction and, uh,’ I realized this sounded pretty thin, ‘For money I write travel articles.’

‘Travel articles, huh?’

‘Yes. I travel a lot.’

‘And is your employer American?’

‘No, a New Zealander,’ I replied truthfully, because I am a New Zealander.

He thumbed through my passport, his nose wrinkled as if he smelled bad fish and finally got up from his seat.

‘Follow me,’ he said.

I followed him noting that he had a definite goosestep. We arrived at an interrogation room at the end of the corridor.

‘Do you have anything valuable in that backpack?’ he asked.

‘Um…I don’t…think so,’ I said, bemused.

‘Leave it here,’ he said, pointing to the floor outside the room.

‘OK,’ I said, wondering why. How long was I going to be in there? Were they going to get a bomb-defuser to explode my backpack?




We entered the room, where a bunch of plastic chairs were arranged in front of a raised platform where the booths stood, each one occupied by a uniformed officer.

I sat down with a hot face and noted that there were three other people, all of whom had the same tense, hunched posture as I did.

I wondered what John was doing and whether he was worried yet.

So stupid,’ I said to myself. ‘Why didn’t you just say you were here with your husband?’

I opened my teen romance to pretend nonchalance. Lara Jean Covey’s pretend boyfriend comes over to her house and helps her make cupcakes for her little sister. You can tell that they will soon start to really like each other. Bitterly, I thought that the high-achieving gynecologist’s daughter would never find herself in this situation. It would never occur to her to tell a bald-faced lie to a border guard. What’s more, she’d definitely travel first-class and never even mention it in the book either. Lies, all lies.




I overheard blondie briefing another officer.

‘She says she’s a writer and it looks like she’s planning to come right back again after three months.’

‘What a tosser,’ I thought, frowning at my book.

He stalked out and another be-gunned officer started talking loudly to another one about what he planned to have for lunch.

‘I think I’ll have some of those noodles they do over there, with the sweet chilli sauce, you know?’

‘Oh yeah, the chilli sauce.’

This conversation annoyed me. They didn’t have to rub it in our faces that they were so relaxed and carefree. In all likelihood, I was going to be marched off to the airport dungeon and all they could do was wiffle on about lunch. Such was their hard-heartedness! Probably the guards at Andersonville used to talk about biscuits and grits in front of their poor prisoners too.

‘Dolan!’ a woman’s voice called out.

I couldn’t see who had spoken –they were all hidden behind tall rostrums–so I went to the first one. The woman looked back at me, bored.

‘Right to the end,’ she said.

I went to the end. A young woman regarded me coolly.

‘How long are you planning to stay?’

‘Three months.’

‘And what is the purpose of your visit?’

‘Um, to see friends.’

‘What is their address?’

I fished my itinerary out of my purse and showed her the address.

‘It’s an Airbnb,’ I explained.

‘An Airbnb? I thought you were staying with friends.’ Her eyes narrowed.

‘No, we’re going to visit friends, not stay with them.’ I stopped myself from adding ‘Silly!’

‘“We”? Are you travelling with somebody else?’

Oops! Time to come clean…

‘Yes, I’m here with my husband. He’s a US citizen actually.’

‘Oh, you’re here with your husband?’

‘Yes. He had to go in a different line, that’s why I said I’m travelling alone…’ I laughed queasily.

‘I see. And does he live in the US?’

‘No, he hasn’t lived here for a long time.’

‘And what kind of work do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’




‘What kind of writing?’

‘I have a blog, About travel.’

‘And when you finish the three months, do you plan to come back immediately?’

‘What? No, of course not.’

‘Oh, because I thought…’


‘Oh, that’s all right then.’ Suddenly she was no longer a cop.

‘Just out of curiosity,’ she said looking at my passport pages, ‘When is the last time you were in your country?’

‘New Zealand? About two years ago.’

‘And what all are the countries you’ve been to?’

‘Oh, you don’t even want to know!’ I say breezily and immediately wonder at myself.

‘No way!’ she squealed, apparently delighted. ‘I’ve heard about people like you but I never met one before. I was just reading on Facebook about a project called Women Who Travel, it’s kind of an exchange program. It seemed really interesting. So, what’s your blog called? Can you write it down?’

I wrote it down for her, confused by this sudden change. Probably she wanted to double-check the website to see that a) it existed and b) I wasn’t here to ferret out state secrets or something. Nevertheless I felt rather flattered. It occurred to me that flattery is so much more effective than threats when it comes to intelligence gathering.

She stamped my passport and said, ‘You’re all done. Have a wonderful trip!’

‘Thanks,’ I mumbled.

I felt about ready to faint and was just walking away on jelly legs when another cop outside the interrogation room boomed, ‘Miss!’

Oh Christ, what now?

He had to do something to my passport.

Please let it be over, I prayed. He took a piece of paper out of my passport and finally I was free. I found my way to the baggage claim area, where John was sitting dispiritedly with all our checked-in luggage.

‘What happened?’ he said.

‘I got interrogated and—oh damn.’


‘I forgot my backpack. It’s back there.’ So, with dread in my heart, I had to walk back to the scene, past the border guard who’d flagged my case, past the ‘Miss’ cop and right up to the interrogation room itself. Luckily, when I pointed to the bag, they seemed to understand what I was there for and let me take it.

Once we were out of the airport and in a taxi, I felt an extraordinary sense of freedom. It was one of the most perfect days I’d ever seen, with a cool sea breeze playing in the trees, bright sunlight straight out of the children’s TV programs of my youth like Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact! How wonderful it was, after all, to be alive and in a 30-km traffic jam on the way to Brooklyn! 




Pre-Colombian Art: Were they, In Fact, Having a Laugh?

Andean America, before Christopher Colombus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ was host to a wide variety of peoples with distinctive religious beliefs, cultures and artistic traditions. The history of these peoples is indescribably rich, endlessly fascinating and completely beyond the scope of this post.

What I plan to focus on today is the prominent goofiness of several important pieces of Andean art. While it might be tempting to say, ‘One person’s goofiness is another person’s sacred offering,’ I would reply, ‘Get real, let’s call a spade a spade.’ Not-with-standing all the llamas and child sacrifice, these people weren’t all that different from us. They chewed their quinoa before swallowing; they knew the difference between hot and cold; and sometimes, of an evening, they liked to giggle at pottery. Why not? The nights were frosty. If the mosquitos didn’t get you, the pumas would. Life was sufficiently grim already without boring old plates.

Only having become acquainted with this artwork three days ago, I admit I am no expert. However, I do have eyes, and I say the following ten exhibits argue that potters were partaking of silly sauce in the kiln come Saturday night.


10 Potato People

Two examples of potato-shaped ceramics from the Moche culture of Peru. L: Anthropomorphic potato vessel from 400 AD in the Larco Museum, Peru. R: Potato shaped vessel from the Larco Museum, Peru. L: Larco Museum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 3.0. R: Pattych / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 3.0


No one likes potatoes more than I do and, yes, I do appreciate that a lot of people relied on them to keep from starving. That said, the idea of potato sculpture is just inherently funny. Who knows, if the Moche had been hired to do Venus de Milo perhaps we’d all have more realistic standards of beauty.


9 The Winsome Tortoise


Viru ceramic bottle. North coast of Peru (1,250BCE – 1AD)

We can all sympathize with its sad, confused expression. “What am I doing on this vase?” it is wondering.


8 Belly Fisherman


Knife in the Machu Picchu museum

Well, more cute than whimsical: a fisherman in a turban tries to pull up a fish with a twisted line.


7 The Done-For Deer


Moche (1-700AD)

A deer is done up like a prisoner of war. I don’t completely get it but pretty sure it was a thigh-slapper


6 Zany Werewolf



“Aroo! The moon is my treadmill!”


5 Wide-Eyed Nostril Man




4 Suspicious Llama Handle



This llama is not taking any guff.


3 Sweet lil Smiley





2 Little-Handed Whistley Man



Whistling a happy tune.


1 Scowling Head Bowls

Nasca ceramic bowls. South coast Peru (1AD-800AD)


When you look past some of the grislier aspects of these bowls, such as the thorn-pierced lips, they seem wonderfully cartoonish. Apparently the Nasca buried these sorts of bowls in the ground as if they were seeds since the head symbolized the regeneration of life.

There you have it. Goofy or not goofy? I ask you.




Celestial Bodies in the Incan Empire

Sometime around the twelfth century, a group of Quechua-speaking people lived in modern-day Cusco, in the Andean highlands. They spent their days herding camelids, caring for crops (potato, quinoa, corn) and worshipping the forces that wielded the most influence over their agriculturally-oriented lives: thunder, the moon, the stars and especially the sun.

They were not unique in their reverence for this life-giving star. From about 500 to 1000 CE the greatest pilgrimage site in the Andes had been Tiwanaku city, near Lake Titicaca. The people of this region, like the Inca after them, were skillful farmers who used raised-field techniques, irrigated fields, canals and artificial ponds. They developed techniques to freeze-dry potatoes and sun-dry tomatoes in order to make harvests last longer. As in so many farming societies, observing changes in the seasons and in the sky was a very important part of life. Their famous Gateway of the Sun seems to have acted as some kind of solar calendar.



Detail from the Gateway of the Sun


To the Inca, Inti was the sun god and the father of all Inca kings. According to the Inca creation myth, the Sun was so moved by pity and disgust at seeing the wretchedness of the naked, root-grubbing people that he sent two of his children to earth to teach them to adore him so that their lives would improve. In The Royal Commentaries of the Inca, Garcilaso Inca de la Vega relates the oral tradition told him by his uncle:


“Our father the Sun set his two children down at a place eighty leagues [from Cuzco], on Lake Titicaca, and he gave them a rod of gold, a little shorter than a man’s arm and two fingers in thickness.

“‘Go where you will,’ he said to them, ‘and whenever you stop to eat or to sleep, plunge this rod into the earth. At the spot where, with one single thrust, it disappears entirely, there you must establish and hold your court. And the peoples whom you will have brought under your sway shall be maintained by you in a state of justice and reason, with piety, mercy and mildness.”


The sun’s children the man Manco Capac and the woman Occlo Huaco followed their father’s instructions. The first place the rod disappeared into the earth was in the Cuzco valley, at a place called Huanacauri. In thanks, they built a splendid Temple of the Sun in the area and explained to the local people that the Sun had sent them to improve their lives and started instructing them in the different skills necessary to lead a civilized life. Because the two Sun children looked so splendid and strange (wearing exquisite garments and with big ear piercings), the locals believed they were divine and agreed to follow their example.


Artist’s impression of Manco Capac in the Plaza de Armas


The Sun Temple, for the god Inti, was called Corichanca ‘golden enclosure’ and was considered the most sacred site of the Inca World. The Inca temple in partial repair at the site today is the same one described by people in the sixteenth century. As the Inca believed gold was the Sun’s sweat, the temple walls were decorated with beaten gold sheets and its rooms housed golden statues, scepters, vases and masks to be used in religious rites.


Sun mask from the La Tolita part of the Incan Empire (Original image by Andrew Howe. Uploaded by Katherine Dolan, published on 17/05/2019 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms. Please note that content linked from this page may have different licensing terms.)


The sacred precinct was also beautified with silver and precious stones. According to Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, there was even a life-sized Garden of the Sun fashioned out of precious metals:


“They had a garden in which the lumps of earth were pieces of fine gold. These were cleverly sown with maize—the stalks, leaves and ears of which were all pure gold. They were so well planted that nothing would disturb them. Besides all this, they had more than twenty sheep with their young. The shepherds who guarded the sheep were armed with slings and staves made of gold and silver. Pots, vases and every kind of vessel were cast from fine gold.”


Mummies of Inca royalty were kept on the site to be brought out for special occasions. Worshippers were required to fast before entering and had to carry a heavy burden on their backs to emphasize their humility in the face of divine wonder.

Like other sacred sites, the Temple of the Sun doubled as an astronomical observatory. The Inca saw two different kinds of constellations. One kind was like our western star-groupings. The constellation known to us as the Pleiades they called the ‘seed sower’ because they watched it to know when to plant potatoes. The second kind of constellation took the form of a patch of darkness on the Milky Way. To them, the Milky Way was a river and the dark patches were animals that came to drink in it. 


Modern painting of some dark-shape constellations. Alpha and Beta Centauri form the mother llama’s big googly eyes


The great palace and temple complex on Machu Picchu was also used as an astronomy center. It was certainly used to calculate both the summer and winter solstices because two different windows are perfectly located to capture the sunlight on the dawn of each occasion.

The ridged rock on the floor seems to have been used as a measuring device with reference to a string weighted with a stone that cast a shadow


What’s more, a big mysterious stone that looks a bit like a sundial and has been (retroactively) named the ‘Indihuatana stone’ (sun-tying stone), clearly has an astronomical purpose. Dieter B. Herrmann, for instance has concluded that the gnomon was carefully designed at a 14-degree angle so it would not cast a shadow on the spring and autumn equinoctes. What’s more, on the December solstice, the sun sinks behind the Pumasillo mountain and at sunrise the light projects a triangle that highlights two concentric circles on the floor.


The Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu


On display in the museum of Machu Picchu are several little stone tokens in the shape of animals that were probably used to make astronomical predictions and measurements. Our guide suggested that a court priest or magician might have used them to perform some kind of sympathetic magic.


1-porcupine 2-bird 3-anteater 4-a holy mountain 5-a llama 6-spear head


It’s interesting to think about how important the sun, stars and moon were to the people. If they believed the Inca, their rulers, were blood relations of the sun, no wonder they were so content to be ruled (as Garcilaso says they were)! And it’s not hard to see why they believed that the Inca really were divine, considering the incredible magnificence of the temples, and royal costumes, decorated as they were with the ‘sun’s sweat’. What’s more, the elite skill of determining dates relevant to agriculture might have seemed miraculous to those who were not familiar with the astronomer’s techniques. 


A sketch by Joan Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui of what he saw on a wall of Corichanca–a constellation chart. The thing that looks like a football goal (bottom centre) is Corichancha itself.

Adjusting to Cuzco

Cuzco is one of the highest cities in the world. My body, which has mostly lived at sea level, is having some trouble with it. As soon as I stepped onto the airbridge connecting the plane to the airport, it started struggling to adapt to the thinner air: My breathing became heavier, my heart thumped harder than usual and a gentle incline of ten metres seemed a challenging hike.




This physical alteration preoccupied me on our taxi ride to the hotel. As beautiful as the surrounding landscape was, as fascinating as the city was with its beautiful people in distinctive dress, its old Spanish churches, modern murals and red-tiled houses, my breathlessness and growing confusion lent the scene a forbidding aspect. To my dismay, the taxi was going higher and higher– the historical district seemed to be right on top of a hill. When he dropped us off about half a kilometer from our hotel—some concrete bollards prevented him from going further—I felt a rising panic. Ordinarily, a short walk to a hotel wouldn’t be a problem, but being 3,400 metres up in the atmosphere, I got to thinking about what would happen if the hotel didn’t exist at all. The prospect of hauling a suitcase anywhere was appalling.




Thankfully the path leading to where the hotel should have been was mostly downhill so it was manageable, though I was still puffing hard. On either side of a narrow, cobbled alley, adobe walls were slowly reverting to nature, paint peeling to reveal the fibrous mud beneath, with scraggly cacti poking up on top. The streets were redolent of dog poo, and dazed tourists plodding up the street had to choose their footing carefully. Eventually we passed a big square where locals were selling jewelry and colorful textiles and stray, scarred dogs were dozing peacefully.




For the first few hours we felt non compos mentis. After putting our stuff in our room, we went to a nearby restaurant tried mate de coca – tea made with whole coca leaves, which is supposed to alleviate the symptoms of soroche. Whether or not this is true, the tea definitely had a soothing effect. We tried some of the local cuisine: causa rellena  (a kind of mashed-potato sandwich with mayo-and-veggie filling), pollo a maní  which is chicken in peanut sauce, and quinoa soup.


causa rellena


As we sat zombie-like in the little restaurant, we watched people pass by outside. Among them were three young women in traditional dress carrying baby alpacas in their arms, some of the animals wearing pink pom-pom earrings. Peruvianas wear broad-brimmed felt hats, white blouses with colorful woolen shawls, pleated woolen skirts and woolen stockings. They wear their beautiful black, straight hair in braids that hang down their backs. They carry their burdens and their babies in colorful cloth bags.

After eating, we returned to our hotel feeling very sleepy, headachy and tired. That night I had a vivid dream about the city. I was convinced that there were …things, not exactly people or ghosts or gods or demons, but local supernatural entities with thin, shadowy bodies and stark, stern faces who did not want us here. Waking up, I could easily rationalize the dream as my brain’s attempt to explain the effects of being at altitude. All the same, it got me thinking about Cuzco’s history and whether spirits of the past might be lingering in more than just the architecture.


conquistador getting handsy on Avenida del Sol


The next day we visited the Museo Inka, an artistic and archeological summary of the human history of Peru, which goes back 14,000 years. I had no idea there were so many different peoples, each with their own customs and artwork. There were a lot of interesting ancient artefacts—gourd, ceramics, gorgeous textiles, an early edition of Comentarios Reales de Los Incas (1609) by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and an Inca princess. However, the most striking exhibit for me was a surprise and involuntary glimpse of actual Inca mummies. As soon as I saw them I was convinced that they were the figures in my dream and that they were highly pissed off with the whole situation. I exited that particular room posthaste.

By our third day here, I finally felt up to doing something relatively strenuous, so decided to walk to Saqsaywaman, an ancient Inca fortress/temple/ritual centre/astronomy node. My map told me that it was a 14-minute walk to the entrance gate, so it seemed an absurdly easy trip. I set off in the afternoon with a bottle of water and some quinoa biscuits.

About 20 minutes later, after being barked at by two bluffing dogs and taking several wrong turns, I finally reached the gate. A young man named Riccardo tried to talk me into buying a ticket for a horse-riding tour. I kept telling him I was afraid of horses and would have to decline; he responding by merely adjusting his sales pitch, saying that I wouldn’t be on the horse the whole time. Finally extricating myself completely, I went up to the ticket office, where another guy told me it was closed. He said I’d have to go to the main office, which was 20 minutes’ walk up the road.

“Taxi, ten sol,” he said hopefully.

“No thanks, I’ll walk,” I said rather grumpily, because I was already starting to feel that headache come on again. The walk up to the second gate was pleasant enough, though there was barely enough room on the verge of the road and cars hurtled down at a great speed. There were lots of eucalyptus growing in that area and the smell, as usual, reminded me of New Zealand. Bees and butterflies were dithering about and it felt good to be back in a natural setting again.

Up at the top of the hill, I paid 50 sol for a ticket into Saqsaywaman and found myself in a grassy area with several large rocky edifices in front of me. Seeing a sign with an arrow, I decided to follow it. Suddenly, I heard someone panting behind me.

“Excuse me, do you want a guide?”

I turned to see a woman in her sixties wearing dark glasses and a thick coat.

“Well, I only have 50 sols left,” I said doubtfully.

“Without a guide, all you will see are walls.” She had a point. I knew almost nothing about the Inca, to the point that I frequently mixed them up with Aztecs.

“How much?” I asked.

“And with a guide, you will know some of the important history and the names.”

“How much?” I asked again.

“Fifty sols,” she said.

“All right, but I’m sorry, I won’t be able to add a tip because this is all I brought.”

Maria, with the East behind her


“That’s OK. My name is Maria,” she said. “I was born in Cusco. I am a mestizo, like our great Garcilaso. My first language is Quechua. By the way, the quechua for ‘yes’ is arí. ‘No’ is mana. This place is called Saqsaywaman, which you can remember in English as ‘Sexy Woman’. Some people call it a fortress and yes it was, but mainly it was a temple for the Inca, the rulers of Cusco. In fact the rulers were buried over there,” she pointed over to a group of rectangularly arranged stones, “They were placed in foetal position, as they believed in reincarnation.”

She showed me a picture of a map of Cusco, over which was superimposed a drawing of a puma.




“The Inca called Cusco the ‘lion city’” she said. “The tail was here,” she pointed to the confluence of two rivers, “The body was where the main square is now, and the head is exactly here, to the north.”

Maria then took me up to the top of the hill where three towers had once stood whose foundations are now all that remain. One had been a circular water tower, one had been a rectangular granary, the other had been an armory. When the Spanish conquered the city in 1537, they took all the stones they could carry and used them to build Spanish Cusco.

Near the top of the hill was a grove of trees with grey-green leaves and shaggy red bark. I asked Maria what they were and she replied that they were queñuel (Polyepis incana), a tough tree that goes easily at over 4,500 meters above sea level. Its papery bark forms a warming, protective layer over the trunk and the small waxy leaves prevent too much evaporation.




The stone walls are almost incredible when you imagine how they were built. Each block of stone was dragged by rope from the quarry, which would have required amazing manpower and very strong rope. There were no work animals like oxen or elephants—llama would not have been much use for such heavy-duty work. Then there is the matter of how precisely the stones fit together. Pedro Pizarro, who participated in the siege of Cusco in 1537, marveled at their construction:


“And in the lower part of this wall there were stones so large and thick that it seemed impossible that human hands could have set them in place…they were so close together, and so well fitted, that the point of a pin could not have been inserted in one of the joints. The whole fortress was built up in terraces and flat spaces.”


As Maria pointed out, more than four hundred years later, in a zone known for its seismic activity, these stones stand just as solid as ever.

The snake’s head is the big rounded stone; its body curves around the corner


Apart from its value as a defensive stronghold, there are intriguing reminders of the structure’s religious purpose. The walls include gates topped with lintels that are designed to welcome the rising sun, particularly at winter solstice, which was an important Inca festival. Even in modern times locals celebrate Inti Raimi (the sun festival) on June 24. And then there are the ways some of the stone work has been constructed to suggest the shapes of sacred animals. Maria pointed out stones in the shape of a llama, a guinea pig, a puma’s paw print, a hummingbird and a snake. It is probable that these stones and indeed, much of the surface of the walls were covered with plates of gold, but the Spanish quickly stripped it for commercial and religious reasons.




After viewing the three tiers of walls, Maria left me to explore the other part of the area on my own. She had told me that it was a mound used as a sacrificial altar, mainly llama were sacrificed. The mound itself seemed to be designed around a natural crop of stone with beautiful rounded, rainbow shapes. Children were sliding down the rocks laughing and yelling.


Sacrificial altar (right hill); the royal graves are on the flat grassy area beyond 


Beyond this sacrificial mound lay the ruins of something else. Maria had shown me an intriguing artist’s impression of a round lake in which the Inca used to star gaze, but I wasn’t sure how the image fitted into the ruins I saw nor even if I’d correctly remembered her explanation. So I contented myself with merely admiring it. At the far end, a little old Peruvian woman in brightly colored apron, hat and skirt was hobbling along to sit on a stone.


Farmers on strike. The women wear broad-brimmed hats, skirts and carry cloth bags


To my left a herd of alpaca came bumbling along, either harassing or being harassed by a yellow dog. The shaggy brown herd leader made a final lunge at it and the dog zoomed away as fast as it could, its tail between its legs. It reminded me of the time when I’d gone for a walk with my dog May in the hills near Vancouver. We’d heard a very strange sound, a kind of high-pitched singing growl, and I barely had time to notice the cougar a few feet above us before I saw May running as fast as she could, already half-way down the mountain, leaving me to my own devices.

Walking to the edge of the ruin area I looked down and saw a football game in progress. There was a festive feeling in the air. Children were playing on the edge of the field, families were picnicking and it all felt very relaxed. The locals, it seems, are very proud of their history but it is part of their everyday life, not something to put aside and revere from a distance.








Introducing Asunción

As mentioned in my last post, we suddenly found ourselves grounded in Asunciόn, capital of the Republic of Paraguay. John felt terribly sick and couldn’t bear to face a five-hour plane flight, so we’d convinced the flight attendants to leave without us and our luggage.




In spite of the sickness and stress, the taxi ride to the hotel was interesting. It was as if we were on a strange new planet, and every detail was potentially unique. Although Paraguay is not so far from Buenos Aires, the climate, geography and fauna were completely different. It was warm and humid here, with those big piled-up clouds sitting on the horizon. The air smelled damp, and to the right of us was a huge green area, Guasu Metropolitan Park, where people were walking and jogging. ‘Guasú’ means ‘large’ in Guaraní, the language of the eponymous people who traditionally live in Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina, southern Brazil and Bolivia. They have given their name to the Paraguayan currency – one guarani is equal to 100 centimos (and 0.000156514 US dollars).


sums it up


I know something about the history of the country thanks to John’s essay “Paraguay: A Brief History of National Suicide” and the recent podcast on Radio War Nerd where John and Mark interviewed Thomas Whigham, author of The Road to Armageddon: Paraguay Versus the Triple Alliance, 1866-70 . As you may infer from these titles, the history is not necessarily a very happy one. In the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), Paraguay fought Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and lost at least 50% of its pre-war population and about 30% of its territory. John has always had a soft spot for Paraguayans because of their insanely brave and doomed stand against unbeatable enemies. For that reason, in spite of our current uncomfortable circumstances, one compensation was that we’d get to see a bit of this legendary place.

When John was settled in the hotel room, I set off for a jog, hoping it would help me calm down and that I’d see something of the city. First, I passed the big mall opposite us. It looked remarkably big, shiny and new considering a huge portion of the population is very poor. It looked like any mall, in Milan, Dubai or New York, with the same brands and architectural design. Almost as soon as I’d passed it, I found myself on a narrow little road cobbled with uneven, rather jagged rocks. It was uncomfortable to run on, and can’t have been very good for car tires. I went over to the sidewalk, which was much better. The street was line with tall smooth-barked trees with veinous roots.

At the far corner of the block was a public park with overgrown grass, rusted playground equipment and broken benches. This was more like the run-down city I’d somehow expected. At the same time, the houses seemed pretty wealthy, with tall gates, tidy gardens, shiny windows and attractive courtyards. The roads were in disrepair, with huge potholes and broken traffic lights, but the private houses were beautiful. I saw a few people sitting in chairs on the sidewalk selling tropical fruit—pineapples, papaya, mango and oranges. There were even a couple of tiny cafes, advertising the usual: juice, coffee, empanadas and sandwiches.




Turning right onto the big street Santísimo Sacramento, I saw the Holy Trinity Church, which was built in the nineteenth century but somehow looked older thanks to its big arcade and ancient well. The area past this seemed much humbler than the streets near the big mall. The buildings looked crumbling or closed-up. There was a line of women at a bus stop sitting behind tables topped with thermoses and Tupperware containers. They seemed to be selling something but I didn’t know what.




Further on were the botanical gardens. The traffic was relentless and not about to stop for pedestrians, so it took some concentration to cross over to the park. I walked through the grand entrance which, however, seemed a little run down, and breathed an air that was immediately different. On the streets of the city everything smelled hot, dusty and diesel-soaked. Here, there was complex organic aroma of flowers, saps, grasses, barks and rich wet mud.




The first little garden was called ‘The Lady’s Garden’ and featured a couple of flower beds and a small water feature. I caught a flash of color and saw that a kingfisher was perched on a rock near the water. On a shrub nearby, a bright orange butterfly settled on a flower of the same color.

On the lawn across the road, a group of teenaged boys in football uniforms were stretching, talking seriously and doing pull-ups on monkey bars. Ahead of me, a younger boy was walking up to a grand colonial-era building called the ‘Natural History Museum’. I considered following him in but I was covered in sweat. Instead, I fixated on a big old tree that looked as if it might have been struck by lightning. Indeed, a storm was gathering as I looked at it, and lightning flashed on the horizon.




The next day, John was improving and we’d managed to change the flight date to Lima, so I celebrated by going for a walk towards the historic city centre. I set out along Avenida España. There were very few other pedestrians and I soon saw why; the traffic was very congested and the air was so full of fumes I felt dizzy. I was glad we hadn’t taken a taxi to the centre as we’d considered, because it would have taken about an hour.




The road was lined with businesses, large mansions, churches (including a giant Jehovah’s Witness temple), pharmacies, medical clinics and huge supermarkets. It seemed like an endless strip mall and might have been anywhere. That said, a lot of places were draped with the Paraguayan flag, and I saw several people wearing a flag-pin on their clothes.




The walk seemed to take ages and I felt nowhere near anything that could be called an ‘historical city centre’. Discouraged, as soon as I saw a couple of big old buildings I decided to turn back because it was already dark, my feet were sore and that ominous lightning was cracking the sky. The mystery of Paraguay was still a mystery to me.