Reflections on Peru

There is no word in Quechua for ‘friend’; one can only call another brother or sister. Nor does this ancient Peruvian language have a word for Goodbye. In place of this rather final sounding sentiment is a word meaning “till next time”.

To some, these two linguistic anomalies are nothing more than technical matters reflecting the difficulty inherent in all translations. Some even attribute the difference to a lack of precision in ancient tongues, reflecting their lack of intellectual evolution.

After all, modern languages like French and English have many more words conveying an ever increasing precision of meaning and nuance. And viewed from this perspective, some have concluded that Quechua meanings are simply echoes of a simpler – less complex culture and time. The lack of ostensible exactness merely a semantic relic; an archaeologic footnote.

Or so it seems to some.

The Modern World

Most visitors to Peru first arrive in Lima, the sprawling modern metropolis founded in 1535 by the Spanish Conquistador

Francisco Pizarro. More than 1/3 of the entire Peruvian population resides here, and for many it is the very quintessence of contemporary Peru. Walking its streets is akin to a stroll in New York, Mexico City, or any number of similar giant cities of the modern world.

Founded to facilitate the export of stolen treasure, its raison d’être is, and has always been, expediency. Lima’s concerns are rooted in the practical demands of today’s world; of the here and now. Her gaze is riveted on the commercial concerns of the moment. Little, if any, energy is devoted to looking backwards. The path from today to tomorrow consumes the attention of Lima; the cob-web covered road to the past is barely noticed – rarely traversed.

From the state-of-the-art newness and sophistication of Miraflores to the ramshackle slums of her outskirts – Lima is the capital of the present; the King of Now.

Into the Andes

Immediately upon arriving in any city of southern Peru you know you are in a world apart from that of Lima. If nothing else, the altitude at once grabs your attention as you struggle for breath in the oxygen thin air of the Andes.

From the relatively lower elevation of Arequipa’s volcano surrounded 2,335 meters to that of La Raya at 4,335 – the Peruvian Andes compel acknowledgement of their uniqueness. And in every corner of the altiplano you sense differentness; the unique is ever present.

Skins are darker, languages more diverse, colors distinctly vibrant and new as you reach the rarefied environment of southern Peru. Not only do you struggle for breath in this somewhat otherworldly terrain – but for focus as well.

The third-eye of your mind blinks again and again to clear the now from your consciousness as you are continually presented with something strangely other; something just beyond the focal-plane of your present-based gaze. Something decidedly un-now.

The Capital of the Inca

While the cities of Arequipa, Juliaca, and Puno are each captivating and deserving a visit – it is Cuzco that is the portal to the otherworld that travelers to this region strive so hard to bring into focus. Here is the center of the Inca culture and the gateway to some of the most fascinating and mysterious historical sites on the planet.

With neighborhoods climbing into the hills surrounding its ancient core in the Urubamba river valley, Cuzco is striking in both its locale and its history.

Its very name is a Spanish transliteration from the Quechuan original Qusqu or Qosqo, which itself traces its origin to the even more ancient Aymara language. Both tongues are still widely spoken in the Andes.

Indeed, the roots of history here stretch much further back than the time of the Inca. Archaeological research indicates that pre-Incan civilizations can be dated to 7000 BCE.

So the basic psyche of the aboriginal Peruvian culture had been formed during many millennia prior to the Spanish conquest of the Inca in 1533. And that ancientness can be sensed, in a thousand different ways, just beneath the surface, in and around the Cuzco of today.

Still Waters Run Deep

One gets an odd feeling sitting in the main cathedral of Cuzco today. Everywhere you look you notice that each pillar and wall is constructed of the stones taken from destroyed Incan temples and buildings. The Inca were forced to worship their conqueror’s God amidst the reconfigured remnants of their own past.

Yet as I stood one morning watching my ostensibly Christian Quechua guide demonstrate to me the proper procedure for giving coca leaves to “The Gods” before ingesting them ourselves, I realized that this culture had only been subjugated; never conquered.

As you browse Quechua markets seeing ebony pumas, serpents, and Inca crosses everywhere – you can feel it. As you stare into the coal black eyes of Incan descendants – eyes that seem to look back from another place – another epoch – you begin to sense the depth of time and place that lies behind those otherworldly glances.

As you see festivals spilling spontaneously into the streets – the participants dancing steps with origins lost in the far distant past – wearing costumes which pre-date Christ – you somehow know that the cathedrals and plazas of the Conquistadors are but a ripple on the surface of a very still, and very deep river.

And as you begin to absorb these messages – you begin to see why the Quechua has no word for friend – only for brother/sister.

You begin to know why goodbye never entered their language; why all leave-takings are seen as temporary; ephemeral.

As I left my guide before my return home – I knew that I had been subtly changed in some way by contact with these currents; by staring into this river. No words can adequately convey the nature of that change in me. I only know that as I left – I was certain that I would see my brother again.

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