Friday, October 2, 2009

Walking with the Dead

San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs

In downtown Lima, yet another religious building takes up another city block. This time, the San Francisco Catacombs, housing some 25 thousand skeletons (or what's left of the skeletons) as well as present day Franciscan monks. The tour, I'm sad to say, was too short. We barely spent any time at all in catacombs, and didn't get to go in very far. I did, however, see my fair share of old, crumbly, dark skulls and long, hardy bones like femurs. The monastery/church part was quite nice as well. There are frescos on the wall were someone has removed the heads of all of the people - must've been ugly people! My favorite piece of artwork was the Last Supper, Peruvian style. As a main dish, Jesus and the 12 apostles ate cuy/guinea pig and were surrounded by children and dogs.
Fun fact: in both the Lima Cathedral and the San Francisco, the tour guides have said that there may or may not be tunnels connecting the crypts and catacombs under the churches and right underneath the crazy streets of Lima. The official story is that they dont know - its too dangerous to look because the structure is unsteady.
The unofficial story: Sergio's grandfather was commissioned to rebuild some of Lima's roads downtown and sure enough, he found these hypothetical tunnels. The reason the Church is vague on the subject is because the nuns used to go into to the tunnels to have and discard their babies. Evidently, abstinence-only education doesn't even work for nuns!

Continuing on in this macabre vein (started it, may as well finish it!), the next night we took a tour of Lima's oldest cemetery. We rode on the roofless top of a double decker tourist bus (bright red, so that everyone knew we were tourists) and were driven through downtown - beautiful at night - and through some neighborhoods few would dare to venture into on foot and/or alone.
With the San Cristobal cross keeping watch on a nearby hill, the cemetery is a staggering 20 acres and chock full of Peruvian history, literally: Presidents, famous artists, heros and more have all been laid to rest here, with their families, in gorgeous mausoleums. The artwork is eerily breathtaking - rivaling or even beating anything you'd find in a gallery. The heady feeling of so many important figures all buried in one place makes it a mecca for any history buff.

By the time the bus pulled up in front of the wrought iron gates, it was dark and coupled with Lima's perpetual fog, it was the perfect setting for either a zombie movie or a thriller tribute.

Flashlights in hand, tour guide chattering away into his megaphone, we explored. The cemetary is so large, and especially in the muggy dark, you can't see the end of it. It appears to go on, statue after statue, crypt after crypt forever.

Those who were not important enough to get an intricate mausoleum, crypt or statue were laid to rest in a manner that reminded me of a library. Above ground, the coffins, with face plates stating the who and the when and sometimes a poem, were stacked five high into a white wall that ran on into the night until it disappeared. Like archives of Human Beings Past.

The largest, most intricate mausoleum was for Peru's heroes. 300 of Peru's best and bravest were all buried in the same monolithic mausoleum. Unfortunately, it is owned by the Army and therefore locked. So we could only peer through the chained gates and glass to see the first floor. Which, naturally, was awe inspiring.

After walking with the dead, our faces cold with the wind and the kisses of spirits, we went to Barranco - the bohemian/bar district - to have a warming pisco and listen to some very much alive Criollo (afro-peruvian) music.

Lima's Huaca Pacllana:
Before getting on the bus to Cusco, Sergio wanted me to see one of Lima's intra-city huacas (ruins from old old civilizations, right in the city!). This particular huaca is quite close to Sergio's house in Miraflores and is surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings. It was uncovered in the 1980s. Before that it was just a large mound of dirt, that building construction used to dump their discarded dirt onto.
The huaca dates back to 500 A.D., and was built by the Lima civilization (200-700 A.D.). The religious section is large trapezoidal pyramid made of vertical adobe bricks and mud mortar. The bricks are structured into trapezoids as well and have withstood Peru's earthquakes since they were originally built.

The remains of between 20 and 30 young women have been found- sacrifices to the sea and moon gods (female dieties). The Limas used to make sacrifices when undergoing some sort of change in their society. Women were considered pure and symbols of fertility and all that, and so they got to be the lucky sacrifices. The whole village would gather to watch the young woman be beaten around the head with sticks and rocks.
If they wanted to thank the gods for something, the priest would smash pottery with religious insignia on it.

The huaca's ongoing excavation is partially funded by a portion of the proceeds of a restaurant that looks directly onto the ruins. Dinner in front of thousands of years of history, anyone?

October 2nd, 2009 (Today)

Arrived in Cusco after a 20 bajillion hour bus ride. Am officially on my own now, which is a little daunting, but I'm so excited to explore Cusco, this city is adorable.
I haggled with my first taxi driver, and probably still paid more than I could have, but this haggling concept seems to impinge on my polite canadian sensibilites. I'm sure I'll get over that though.
My hostel is on a steep hill a few blocks away from the Plaza del Armas. So the walk down to the plaza was fine, but the way back was wretched. Hill + out of shape + altitude = rough walk. I decided to take it easy the rest of the day, allow myself to acclimatize to the altitude, and catch up on some sleep!

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