We know the story, vaguely. The Spanish came to South America. They met the Incan Empire. Through superior force, guile, and pathogens, they brought it tumbling down.
Centuries of oppression follow. Forced conversion to Catholicism. Slavery. The destruction of temples and palaces. The melting of hundreds of thousands of pounds of priceless gold and silver jewelry and art and its subsequent shipment to Spain.
The Spanish Empire fell, eventually, leaving a weakened shell of a state ripe for Francisco Franco.
But the Spanish influence remains in Peru, where there are racial constructs based on how light-skinned one is. Purer descendants of the Spaniards are favored at restaurants, hotels, and probably for jobs, over their darker-skinned, equally mixed-race cousins who descend from the Inca. The Catholic religion breeds hypocrisy and toxic masculinity. Pharmacists look at me askance when I try to buy condoms, which are available only behind the counter. A man tells me to be sure not to go out by myself at night. I am more at risk here, it seems, than I was walking down the street in San Pedro, Belize, where catcalling women walking was the national sport.
The locals still call the Spanish “conquerors.” A man tells me that the worst of the worst of Spain colonized Peru. The rapists. The pirates. The murderers.
In Qorikancha, the guide shows us how the Inca built their walls. The stone blocks fit together without mortar. Nary a knife blade can fit between the blocks. Someone else shows me a picture of what’s inside the blocks, not visible to the naked eye. Each piece has holes drilled into the center, which pieces on top fit into like legos. Each wall leans in slightly at an angle, braced against the neighboring wall. The windows and doors are trapezoidal, to stand as a brace against earthquakes. Massive pieces on the corners and in the center fit into their neighbors and serve as keystones, supporting the whole structure.
The Inca built stone walls without mortar, with stone tools, and moved each piece several kilometers from a quarry outside of Cusco, using nothing but human strength and labor. Their projects took generations.
In Qorikancha, a temple/museum/cathedral, I learn that the Spanish built the Church of Santo Domingo over-top the Incan Temple of the Sun. Two earthquakes brought part of the church down. The masonry stone and arches crumbled. In the aftermath of the quake, the foundations of the Incan temple stood prominent and proud among the rubble.
When Cascadia happens in the PNW, everything west of I-5 is supposed to topple down. Buildings built before the mid-90’s were designed without any real knowledge of the true scale of what is coming to us. Thousands of people will die in the immediate shake. Many more will perish afterwards, as FEMA, cash-strapped and mis-managed as it is, tries desperately to flood the entire region with water, food, and shelter. I wonder if a Republican-controlled congress will block emergency relief funding, as they’ve done to other liberal regions suffering from natural disasters.
Cusco is a little better prepared for earthquakes than Portland. They deal with them much more regularly — an 8.0 hit Peru just days before I arrived. Still, in my conversations with people here, climate change and the disaster it will bring comes up regularly. The cosmopolitan, westernized, English-speaking locals I can actually talk to (my Spanish is elementary at best) realize that their use of resources isn’t the same as what we in Norte Americano do, but that it’s problematic all the same. Recycling is limited or non-existent. The traffic here is awful. Cars are a necessity. Public transportation is a nightmare. Smog blankets the hills. I imagine many cities in Latin America are similar. The gas prices are pegged to an international standard — a bit over 15 soles, or somewhere in the $3 range. Same as back home. Our fates are tied.
Cusco, ancient city though it is, is just as connected to the global economy as anywhere else. Store after store offers all the latest modern capitalism has to offer. Cameras. Computers. High-tech down jackets for trekking in the Andes. Packaged snacks and candy. Every block has a tourist booking office or two. Hundreds of thousands of international visitors flood the city looking for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to hike to Machu Picchu, or to visit the Sacred Valley, or to trek to Rainbow Mountain. They drink and eat and party, filling the streets with a smorgasbord of languages. But we all wear western clothes. Even the Peruvians who pose with llamas in traditional garb outside Qorikancha go home to put on jeans and t-shirts.
The Spanish didn’t quite conquer the world. They left that open for the devouring forces of international capitalism. We are all trapped under that pressing heel.
When the global economy crumbles, and it will, unless you know of a way to move a ship shipping ships with wind power, Cusco will suffer just as much as anywhere else.
But the walls the Inca built will still stand. The walls were designed to last forever, says our guide. The Inca did not say to themselves, “Oh, I am only going to live for 80 years. I will only build to last my lifetime.”
No. They built for the future. Their walls, their temples, their palaces — what is left from the conquest and destruction of their culture, anyway — will outlast anything we moderns have built.
Our concrete is designed to last 50 to 100 years. Much of our current infrastructure will need to be replaced in the coming decades, with fewer and fewer energy resources available for such a massive project. What happens to lower Manhattan after it completely floods for the 10th time? How long will it take for the mass exodus of our coastal cities to leave the twisted remnants of our decaying infrastructure visible for just a few brief generations of wondering tourists?
Will they think we were giants? Or fools?