GOWANUS Winter 2002

In Search of an Inca 
(Buscando un Inca)
By Luis Nieto
Translated by Diane Johnson


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Laura Cristóbal—five centuries of remorse in her suitcases—disembarked in Cuzco, Peru, prepared to find redemption in utopia.  But right from the start, it was all penance, disagreeable tests that would have overwhelmed the patience of a saint.

The disappointments began at the travel agency when she stated her desire to visit an ayllu and they looked at here like an antediluvian insect: “You mean a peasant community?” When it became clear there was no misunderstanding, they took her to some villages that were not much different from any village in the mountains near Madrid, with the possible exception of the sullenness of the inhabitants who, at being photographed, were prepared to hurl rocks and thus unwittingly blow a nice tip.

Her experience with an anthropologist from Cuzco turned out to be more dangerous. He graciously offered to open the meanderings of the Andean soul to her. In order to do so, they had to climb up to the sacred hilltop of Huanacaure where, according to legend, Manco Capac buried his golden staff. Once at the top, after becoming engrossed in the beauty of the magical city spread at their feet, they ingested a potion from San Pedro. This horrible drink not only did not help Laura to understand the tripartite division of Andean symbolic space into collana, payan and cayao more clearly, as the anthropologist had promised, but actually made her lose her basic notions of up and down, of hanan and hurin.

Not even Aladino, the chauffeur of the mini-bus in which she made all her trips, could satisfy her other dream: to hear at least one of the fifteen versions of the myth of Inkarri from the mouth of a real runa. The careless guide--a fop who drooled at the very sight of her and who insisted on asking her to dance--told her he knew where just such a guide could be found and took her to a wrinkled old codger with no teeth who was barely able to mumble some rudimentary Spanish.  Instead of speaking of the return of the Inca, he started to tell her the story of a bear that kidnapped maidens. Laura, who had already had enough of plantigrades from the coat of arms of her native city, refused to listen to the rest of the story.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was her unfortunate incursion into the world of Andean magic. The ad on the radio directed her to one of the fleabag hotels near the market in search of Kallawaya, the Great Teacher. But, instead of an initiation into the ancient secrets of the highland people, she discovered a most impudent and unmagical attempt to paw her gringa flesh. Her inhibitions gone thanks to the effects of some alcohol, the great teacher insisted on undressing her and then passing a black guinea pig all over her body. Aladino manage keep the drunkard’s hands off her but, all the same, there remained for Laura the impression that Peruvians were a herd of zoophilists: maidens who became entangled with bears who in turn became excited by rubbing women with hairy rats.

Cured of her anthropological inclinations--of her zeal to meet history face to face--she decided to return to the fold and came to know Cuzco like just any other tourist, brandishing her camera while a swarm of trinket-sellers followed here everywhere. She also bought several sets of postcards by the Peruvian photographer Chambi and managed to convey in a few lines the illusion that she was getting along just fine. The encounter that finally turned things around for her occurred as she was scribbling away on one of these--the one with the family playing the toad game--in the Café Varayoc.

She had been warned repeatedly about bricheros, those Cusqueans who live just to seduce gringas, and that was how she immediately pegged the guy who had just addressed her from the next table--long hair, Tupac Amaru hat, vest from the Lago Titicaca island of Taquile and shaggy wool shirt. 

“Are you Spanish?” he persisted after receiving no answer. 

“Are you a brichero?” she replied, deciding to cut to the chase. 

“Don’t think I would hesitate to admit it if I were,” he responded brashly, sitting down at her table. “But, no, I’m not a brichero. I’m an Inca, surely one of the last." 

“And I’m the great-great granddaughter of Pizarro. Nice to meet you,” she said, offering her hand. 

“You’re not far from the truth,” he said, accepting the greeting at face value and passing on to her dreams. “I made love to you last night. Search your memory. You were at a high altitude--at first it seemed an Inca fortress to you, but it turned out to be the tower of a castle--and an eagle flew in circles above. No, it wasn’t an eagle, it was a condor. And I was that condor. I was circling you. I was preparing you for my lovemaking."

Give up the zoophilism, Laura thought, already frightened by the fact that a stranger was reading her mind. She was sure--doubly sure because she just now remembered the dream--that she hadn’t told anybody about it, not to mention the state of wet excitement in which she had awakened.

“Your ancestors’ arrival was heralded by a bad omen: during the Sun festival a condor was attacked by several falcons until the mallki, the sacred bird, fell dead in the middle of Cuzco’s main plaza. I was gathering revenge, symbolic revenge. There was no other way I could have approached you, not certainly as an equal, but only as conquered or conqueror."

Their coca tea was replaced by a pair of pisco sours. Laura was now captive to the spell, to the magic of seeing a new world unfold. 

“The first beings of creation were the munay; they lived in the middle of chaos, loving only each other. Then the llank’aq were created, but since everything required hard work, there wasn’t much happiness. The third age was that of the yachay, the sages, those who combined love and work. You are a yachay, cold, pure intellect. I am a munay; I live for love.”

Laura slept uneasily that night. She dreamed again of condors that fluttered above without having yet decided to descend and attack her. “Gonzalo?” she thought incredulously as she opened her eyes, remembering that strange evening.  He had impressed and perturbed her, she had to admit, but all the same she decided not to think about him anymore. The moment for building bridges had passed. In her last days in Cuzco, any companion, even her faithful Aladino, would only be a burden and a nuisance. For that reason, with no better than a couple pieces of toast and some coffee on her stomach, she set out, following her first impulse, for Sacsayhuam.

Her mood couldn’t be better. She climbed the steep alleys with ease as if she had lived all her life among mountain crags. Raising her eyes to the profoundly blue sky, she felt capable of flying, felt liberated little by little of all tension, depression, fear--of physical bonds in general. Days like this, she thought...“Days like this are propitious for entering into relation with the ukupacha."

She stopped and looked around: Gonzalo was sitting at the side of the road, his black hat in his hand. Smiling, he continued,  “Don’t worry how. Come on, we have a lot to do.".

They left Sacsayhuam and headed toward Quenco. “The ukupacha,” Gonzalo explained, “is the world within, the inner world where the gods live. The kaypacha is the exterior world, the actual--the one we inhabit. The hanaqpacha is the higher world of promise and abundance, where one arrives after a painful journey following death. In this cave, Illapata”--they had in fact arrived at  a cave--“we will enter into relation with the kaypacha."

Gonzalo removed a bundle from the bag hanging from his shoulder and, explaining as he worked, began to prepare a shrine. Laura held her breath so as not to miss any detail, asking about each tiny seed, each little piece of wool, each coca leaf that Gonzalo, whispering strange incantations in Quechua, collected in his hands.

When the shrine was finished he said, “You can’t go around divulging that I’m an Inca,” as he steered a ramshackle Volkswagen toward Lake Huacarpay, thirty kilometers to the south of the city. “But, yes, I can tell you that I am a layqa, a sorcerer. My teacher was the altumisayuq Benito Kana of Huasao, the only person who conversed not only with the Pitusiray and the Huanacaure, but also with the mountain god Ausangate itself. Don Benito chose me. He bequeathed me his office."

The story--confusing but exciting, even perturbing--continued all the way to the shores of the lake, and then into the rushes where, burying the shrine for the purpose of entering into relation with ukupacha, the subterranean world, they began kissing, rolling over and over on the ground, entangling themselves in the physical accidents from which they were attempting to break loose: Laura, her suspicions put aside: “I understand why you say that you are munay." He, caressing her breasts as she toys with that rebellious head of black hair, tracing his angular features. His voice like the ululation of the wind at the Snow Festival, like the voices of the  devotees who climb to the top of the highest peak and bring back ice to Cuzco’s  Feast of Corpus Christi, where they ordain Andean priests under the very noses of the curates in the cathedral. Laura moaning with pleasure: “I want to be a munay!” He, unable to believe he has a woman so provocative and so beautiful in his arms. She, moved to tears at having finally found her Inca. He thinking, Damn my empire for her!...