March 10, 2012 – La Huaca Pucllana
“Have you been to the Huaca Pucllana yet,” Rodney asks me when we’re getting set to leave our Thursday writers’ group meeting.
“Alright. We’ll go there on Sunday then,” Rodney says.Sunday morning I lather my face in sunscreen, put a bottle of water in my bag and head out early. Per his weekend tradition, Rodney is already in Miraflores having breakfast with a couple of friends at Café Zeta. They’ve come and gone by the time I arrive and Rodney is sitting alone at a table with a book. I interrupt him from his first time reading of To Kill a Mockingbird and make him wait while I eat my second breakfast. The panqueques con fruta (pancakes with fruit) are my splurging breakfast of choice. I’m in no way disappointed; the mango, banana, and strawberries are exceptionally fresh, the pancakes warm and the syrup just lightly coated enough to sweeten things without drowning the differing flavors. Thus fueled, I’m ready for our adventure. Rodney leads the way and we head across Miraflores towards the Huaca.
The morning air dial is clicking up towards hot and I wipe the sweat from my face. The café americano I had with my panqueques has loosened my tongue and I’m chattering nonsense as we go. Rodney doesn’t seem to mind and chatters back at me.When we get to the ticket gate, he generously pays our entry fees and we obediently wait the five minutes for our English speaking guide to come collect us. We’re bunched in with a group of about fifteen others; some passing through tourists, a volunteer church group, and us. When our guide, Percy, sees Rodney his face lights up with recognition.
“Amigo!” he says. “It’s been a long time! Where have you been?”Rodney, over the years he’s been in Lima, has brought several of his visiting friends to see the Huaca and as a result of his natural friendliness has accumulated many new friends, not just at the Huaca but throughout the city.
“I haven’t had any visitors to bring in a while,” Rodney explains. Even though he’s been to the Huaca before, Rodney assured me he didn’t mind returning since the recent excavations have uncovered several new layers which he’d been wanting to see.They chitchat a bit more then Percy collects all our tickets and we’re set to start.
“My dear friends,” Percy says, kicking off the tour. “Welcome to La Huaca Pucllana.”
Huacas (pronounced wacas) “are commonly located in nearly all regions of Peru (with the exception being the deepest parts of the Amazon), in correlation with the regions populated by the pre-Inca, and Inca early civilizations. They can be found even in downtown Lima still today, the city having been built around them, in almost every district of Lima. Huacas within the municipal district of Lima are typically fenced off to avoid common graffiti vandalism.” – Wikipedia
The word Huaca is a Quechua word for an “object that represents something revered, typically a monument of some kind.” –Wikipedia. So mountains, impressive rock structures, things of exceptional beauty, places that are astronomically aligned, or the pre-Incan monuments built for the dead were called Huacas.I have to learn most of this information after I’ve completed the tour and returned home because as we’re taken through the Huaca Pucllana I find myself lingering behind, snapping pictures, spying on our tour companions, eavesdropping on conversations and whispering with Rodney. I catch just enough of Percy’s instruction to know enough to not really know anything at all.
For years, decades, perhaps even centuries, this Huaca had been covered—just one more giant dusty mound making a topological rise in the cityscape-- even used as a trash pile by the Limeñas until 1981 when someone came in and started to excavate the site. The pyramid layers are still being uncovered level by level and reconstructed brick by brick. Several years ago mummies were discovered in part of the site, but that section is not open for public viewing, at least not yet.
“And then it’s still really only speculation after all,” I muse aloud. “Because how can we really know exactly what happened or how things were? For instance, if some archaeologist in the future found my room they may have an idea of what I used things for, but they couldn’t really know how I actually lived day by day. They could piece together a hypothesis of what I did, but they couldn’t know my actual daily habits or what I really thought, how I really lived.”Kicking up dust with my flip-flops, I think about the things I have in my room–the collection of things that survived the 2011 Relentless Purging of Things and how an archaeologist might form a view of who I was from those things. There’s a story there somewhere. The thought snags the edge of my brain. I file it away into the back of my mind and catch up once again to the group.
We’ve made our way around the ground level and follow the sign that says Entrance to the Grand Pyramid. “It’s like training for Machu Picchu,” Percy jokes. “Don’t worry, it’s easy to get to the top here in Lima.”I laugh. It’s true. Sea level air is much easier to gasp down into my lungs than Machu Picchu’s thin high elevation air is. Percy leads the way up the path.
“Those trunks,” Rodney tells me, pointing out a grouping of tree trunks sticking up out of the gray dust, “are thought to be totems representing the ancestors.”I like the thought of tree ancestors and file that away for a future story too. It reminds me of all the Greek mythologies where fleeing virgins chose to be turned into trees rather than be raped by some lusting, pursuing god. Better to be a tree. Better to be a trunk, perhaps.
“Where are you guys from?” a man asks Rodney and me.“Originally from Illinois,” Rodney says, “but I live here in Lima now.”
After I tell him I’m from Texas and we compare notes on Houston where he’d visited for business a time or two and I had visited once for a judo tournament, I ask, “Where are you guys from?” He tells me they’re from Oregon and explains that they’ve been here with a church organization helping out at an orphanage in Cieneguilla.Well, well, it’s a small world after all, as the song says. “Was it Westfalia?” I ask. That’s the orphanage I’d gone to one day with Walter when I was living in Cieneguilla.
“No, not Westfalia,” he tells me. “It’s the other one.”“So,” I start, thinking the world just gets smaller from there, “do you by chance know Geraldine?”
After Geraldine had quit working for Casa del Gringo and had returned from her month long visit to her mother’s family in the remote mountainous areas of Peru she’d volunteered at an orphanage in Cieneguilla.“Of course!” the man says. “Geraldine! But she’s not there anymore. She’s living with her sister in Lima now.”
I’d been meaning to call or text Geraldine since I returned to Lima in January and getting this second hand information about her delights me. I fall back into a few Geraldine memories as I trail behind yet again.Moving right along and heading back down the slope on the other side of the pyramid, Percy is talking about the early civilizations’ worship of the sun and the moon and the ocean. His words drift over to me while I’m planning out the text I’ll send to Geraldine later on and taking pictures of this old world with the new world in view just behind it. I love the contrast.
One of the men from the church group lingers behind me talking with a Peruvian girl. “Human sacrifices,” he says. “I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand how these people thought that a human sacrifice would satisfy the gods. Why would they think that?”
I have a moment of ironic marvel at him. The back of his shirt says Community Bible Church. Christianity is based on blood and sacrifice too, I think. Maybe he forgot that. Maybe, as Caiaphas said, “it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people” but the repeat sacrifices made by these civilizations are just too foreign to understand.
I’m dwelling on death and sacrifice and religion when I pass a little dead bird. I crouch down and whisper something to it. Something like, “Rest in peace, little friend.” Death happens, whether sacrificially or not, and this is what we try to understand, to accept, to make provision for. This great pyramid, this Huaca--a place to store the dead, a place to revere the ancestors, a place to perform rituals to the cosmic deities—in its monumental impressiveness, speaks to me of the transient nature of things. We all just want a recording of our existence whether in the image of a giant pyramid or in the telling of a story. Don’t we all just want to be remembered?Our group trudges down the slope and then past the Peruvian Hairless dogs whose origins come from the pre-Incan civilizations. They’re sprawled panting in the shade until two leashed dogs with their owner in tow pass the gate. Then they rush up to defend their Huaca, barking loudly.
I stop to talk with the llamas on the way out. They’re drowsy with the heat. They eat lethargically and blink slowly at me. They don’t have much to tell me on this day.When we’re at the end of the tour Rodney slips Percy a couple soles tip.
“Next time you come, amigo,” Percy says, “you have to tell me beforehand! I’ll bring you some of my mom’s estofado de pollo (a Peruvian chicken stew) and we can have lunch!” He writes down his email address for Rodney and all but makes him promise to write. As we’re leaving, Rodney explains that he and Percy had talked about estofado de pollo the last time he’d come.“Nothing against his mother’s estofado de pollo,” Rodney says, “I’m sure it’s really good, but I make a pretty mean estofado myself.”
Rodney and I head across the street to a pretty restaurant for a glass of wine and a dessert. We both know we’re lucky to be able to live the way we’re living at the moment. We feel like all those artists who hung around Paris in the 1920s, mulling over ideas, creating, plotting, dreaming, drinking wine, drinking coffee and agonizing over words.Today, living like those artists, we talk about death and burial and writing and travel.
“I want to be cremated,” Rodney says. “And have some of my ashes scattered at sea, some near the mountains, some in the city. That way I can take vacations. Spirit vacations. I don’t want to be trapped.”Freedom. That’s what I love too. Freedom to be. I don’t want to be caged up. Not ever.
After we talk more over lunch at the Vegetarian restaurant we’re beginning to frequent on a regular basis, we bid each other good afternoon and part ways.I’m sunburned, walk-tired, and content. I text Geraldine from the bus on my way home.