For the Night Sky Enthusiast

Hello Friends.
It may have been nine or ten days since my last entry; it feels like much longer! We left the coastal town of Huanchaco and flew up to the highlands July 10. For a large portion of the time internet access has been difficult; in addition, the institute has been super-tightly scheduled with activities, occasionally from 9 am- 9 pm with a few breaks in between. All of it so good I couldn’t miss it – unless I was laid low with the intestinal bug that moved through our group last week (Tupac Amaru’s revenge? Not the first time I have had an intestinal bug during a power outage in the Andes…)

I have to say that as much as I enjoyed our time in Lima and the North Coast, I felt a deep sense of re-connection the moment we flew into the highlands. Since my formative experiences of South America have been in the highlands, I feel much more at home here.

It’s funny to feel at home in a place to which you are physically not well adapted! I learned from our days with archeologist Michael Moseley that the cold and the lack of oxygen at these high altitudes exert a constant metabolic stress on all plant and animal life. It actually takes nearly twelve percent more calories to be active or even at rest up here. But it is harder to grow plants and livestock for the same reasons. In the 16th century it reportedly took 60 years before the first live birth was recorded to a Spanish couple in the highlands. Even today, it is usually native people who live at the highest altitudes; they have larger lungs and more blood circulating through their bodies.

We had an amazing week in the Sacred Valley which lies between the Inca capital of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Our organizers were wise to bring us there first to get used to the altitude gradually; the valley is “only” around 8000 feet above sea level as opposed to Cusco’s 11,000 (roughly parallel to the Cochabamba valley vs. La Paz.)

I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I must say it is very odd to be traveling in a tour bus with 26 North Americans, staying at fancy hotels and enjoying the sights with a constant stream of tourists from around the world, while the local people live in great poverty. Machu Picchu was built for the Inca emperor and about 1000 people to live in. On the day we visited, I think I heard that over 4000 people visited the site, which is now normal. Hundreds of thousands of tourists troop through the Sacred Valley each year and the physical and cultural erosion is really evident. People talk about “doing” the Inca trail, and that about sums it up: it is hard to go an inch without being pursued by a vendor of some sort, or to take a picture without lots of other photographers being in it.

On the other hand, what draws people here? And what did we see?
You can look at models and maps and photos of Machu Picchu, but there is nothing quite like looking out at the sky and mountains and stone gardens from within Machu Picchu. The green is a really soft green, it is the beginning of the soft rainforests that lead down to the Amazon jungle. There are mountains on all sides, and clouds and mist that interact with them.
The mountains are so steep and the ground so arid in much of the valley that the Inca mobilized people to build miles and miles of stone terracing to maximize farmlands and manage water coming blowing in from the east and melting from mountaintop glaciers.

Can you imagine walking along these terraces at another ruin (Pisac) at sunset, followed by a peasant man in a colorfully woven poncho who is playing centuries old tunes on a bamboo flute he has made himself? Never mind that the man makes his living this way (playing for tourists and selling them bamboo flutes.) I struck up a conversation with him after awhile and found out that he has made his living this way for ten years, ever since he had a family. I asked him about the strike going on in Peru and he told me that ever since the government recognized peasants’ rights to individually own the lands they have held communally for millennia, they have been holding protests and strikes. This is because they believe that the intention is for private land ownership to pave the way for corporations (for example, hotels, mining concerns) to buy the land and leave them with nothing. Unfortunately this is actually happening all over the Andes, intentionally or not.

So what is Sacred about the Sacred Valley? Maybe the meeting of mountains, which highlanders believe are the source of nearly all water in their lives, and rivers, which carry life giving water to places they can cultivate food. Food and water and life – the physical is sacred.

Let’s try to go further by exploring what Andean people see in their sky. A couple of our lecturers have referred to fabulous ethnographic/astronomical work by Gary Urton in a new book titled something like “At the Crossroads of Earth and Sky.” Apparently the Spaniards looked at the same sky here for the past 500 years and never gave enough credence to figure out what the indigenous people were talking about when they mentioned dark animal constellations within the milky way. It turns out they were looking at negative space within the milky way and seeing life-giving animals such as llamas and serpents; careful observation of the movements of these dark areas as well as the Pleiades helped them accurately predict times of major drought and flooding which occur periodically here with disastrous consequences.

But here is the amazing part for which I named this posting.
Mike Moseley pointed out to us that while Westerners and others have tended to look at large lights (sun, moon, stars) Andean astronomers looked at the biggest visible phenomenon, the Milky Way, and made it the focus of their temporal, special and social organization. The Milky Way is called “mayu” or “river” in Quechua and is thought to be intimately linked with cycles of water. It divides the visible universe in half for half of the year, and then makes a 26-30 degree flip which divides the universe in half the other way.

The Incas divided their empire into four quarters as well, with Cusco as its center. “Tawantinsuyu” or the land of four quarters, was its name. The four quarters roughly correspond to the major ecological and trading zones. Andean people developed a complex and enduring social order based on the principle of complementary duality (wet/dry, male/female, high.low, big/small, old/young.)
The Andean social order is intensely communal and reciprocal, but not at all equal. Using the dualistic system of social division for marriage and inheritance can cause a person or group to be exponentially advantaged or disadvantaged. In fact, the social order is deeply rooted in mutual dependence of highlands llama herders and valley farmers (as well as coastal fishermen and tropical people from the Amazon) None of these folks can survive alone in this tough environment, and at different times, conditions have favored different groups to flourish. For example, when there is drought in the highlands, the mountain people get three times less water than the highlanders; conversely when there is a wet period caused by el Nino currents, the highlanders do well while the coastal people get devastating floods. Sounds like the highlands would be the easier place to live, but remember what we said earlier about the lack of oxygen.

That’s all for now, folks.

1 thought on “For the Night Sky Enthusiast

  1. Bryan Godfrey

    I’ve long had Marxist leanings, so I’m very interested indeed in the dynamics of wealth and poverty you mention. It sounds like tourism is a real force there, which always makes me wonder: is the tourist dollar worth the cultural sacrifice? I suppose it depends on who actually gets those tourist dollars, which is sometimes far from immediately evident.It is sad, though, to think of “doing” a trail rather than “experiencing” it in a more, dare I say, traditional sense of the word. I recently taught an article called “The Loss of the Creature” by Walker Percy that speaks to the issue, arguing that nobody goes about seeing things in a worse way than tourists. It directly addresses what constitutes “authentic” indigenous culture as far as a tourist is concerned, as well as what it means to “discover” something. Feel free to let me know if you’re interested, and I can provide a copy. 🙂


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