Monday, January 2, 2012

Salvation and the River of Bones

July 2003
At eight in the morning the streets of Cusco are usually almost empty. The city seems to start later than most, maybe because it lives at night. Its cafes and clubs are full till early in the morning, especially on weekends. Tourists and students keep the colonial section of the city dancing. There aren’t many tourists this year and you can feel their absence around the Plaza.
This Sunday morning the streets were filled with individuals and families of Cusqueños walking. Many had candles and were on their way to mass. Others were just walking. 
On the Plaza de Armas a reviewing stand was set up in front of the Cathedral while a sea of teenagers and school kids, dressed in white and grey uniforms mills around. On Sundays they hold a major civic ritual, the raising of the flag. Formal patriotism is strong here. The students will march around the square, the boys goose stepping, in that jarring gait that shakes the cheeks as their back leans to compensate for their flailing, snapping legs. 
Behind the reviewing stand, the doors to the cathedral stand open, as do those of the Company of Jesus, the massive Jesuit Church around the corner from it. Inside the Jesuit Church one feels the Spanish Baroque, lots of gold leaf on carved and twisting cedar, with massive paintings decorating the walls. The Cathedral is different. It is dark with light illuminating strategic spaces. While the Jesuits have benches for a congregation to sit and listen to mass, the Cathedral is primarily a place to stand and mill around in odd corridors and strange niches. It is almost a kind of spiritual labyrinth. Inside one of its towers the last Inca is supposedly buried. according to popular legend.  Some day in an earthquake he will come forth, they say, to change the world in a renewed Inca empire.
Today I cut through the crowds, my head down and deep in thought. It seemed that every time I had to bend my course to avoid another clump of people a vendor would approach to insist my shoes were absolutely filthy and that they must be shined that very instant and giving me their names as if someone were calling role and I had to check them off with full ponderousness. Or they just knew that they had postcards or necklaces that I absolutely had to have. Their seriousness seemed to imply that these were tokens that somehow would allow me to approach some kind of tourist or consumer salvation. I ignored them as best I could and tried to keep a steady pace. 
I left the plaza and found the street named Tullumayu lined with rough Inca masonry, unlike the very finely carved and fitted stonework of the palaces near the main square of this formerly holy and Forbidden City. The River of Bones is the name of this street. Under it still flows the river, I am told, like a secret current of desire, whether Eros or Thanatos I cannot say. I am not sure that Freudian and Greek contrast actually makes a difference here. On top of the hidden river that used to mark one of the boundaries of Inca Cusco I walk, past the Colegio Andino in a colonial palace on Inca walls, where I lived and taught a couple of summers ago. I continued past the Jatun Rimac Pampa, the big square of the Oracle, as the name means. This is a major landmark with ancient significance. It is a crossroads with significance. On one side of it is my favorite bookstore in Cusco and a great library whose collection of Andean materials is superb. I continue down the River of Bones for two more blocks to find a flagstone clad church with a metal steeple reaching to the heavens. All around the chapel people in white shirts mill. I do not see the women and girls in their finery, because the white shirts stand out as a blinding uniform. 
This is where the Mormon River of Bones ward meets. The name makes me chuckle. It has irony and depth in ways that most Latter-day Saint congregational names do not. I do not know whether I will meet the ancient Greek porter who will help me cross the river into the underworld or the Inca Supay, the Lord of the underworld who also governs riches and erotic desire. Instead I find people shaking hands and calling each other Brother and Sister.
Two years ago, while working on a manuscript on Mormonism in Latin America, I attended this ward every Sunday to see in real life the things that I was writing about. I finished the manuscript and sent it off to the press for formal evaluation just before coming to South America this year. And so this time I just came for myself, although I had forgotten to bring a tie with me and felt improperly dressed in my tie-less blue shirt, in a failure of my supposed native knowledge. The chapel was surprisingly full. On the one hand it felt Utahn. On the other hand you could easily see the global reach of the Utah based Church and the strong commitment many have to it, at the same time they subtly rework it to fit their needs and their concerns.
I left the Mormon chapel and walked to the Avenue of the Sun which sits on another hidden river, I believe the Watanay. I do not remember what its name means. It is the other boundary of Imperial Cusco and today is lined with ponderous financial, governmental, and Utilities buildings. I walked back up it towards the main plaza, which in Inca times was called the place of sorrows. I again walked against the crowd of pedestrians, many in gray uniforms and against the call of vendors. I walked past the Qoricancha, the ancient temple of the sun, with its field where the Incas sowed a garden of gold plants and raised herds of golden animals. On top of the temple rises the monastery of Santo Domingo, but the Qoricancha still stands out. Although it no longer controls the seasons and divines fate it still draws tourists, seeking authenticity and knowledge, from around the world to its doors, parapets, and Inca chambers hidden in Spanish Baroque rooms.
At the end of the street a row of Spanish palaces with colonnaded, shaded walks stands over the Watanay River. Behind them is the second Inca square, the counterpart to the Place of Sorrows, where the flag raising has just ended. Today it is a small, intimate square, with a fountain and lots of flowers called the Plaza of Celebration.  It is fun to sit on its benches, eat cake from one of the street vendors, and watch the world go by, as if it were one of the little birds flitting from bush to bush or as if it were the one of the pigeons cooing as they search for scattered corn on the square’s paving stones under a noontime sun.

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