Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Peru I was confronted with the one moral question that I was never quite able to solve; to this day I'm not sure what's right. It seemed, when I got there, that I was meant to be confronted with this problem, and it stuck with me long after I returned.

I was invited there as an ESL professional, to do a week-long workshop on reading skills for EFL Reading teachers at the Catholic University of Arequipa in Arequipa, Peru. At considerable expense they had flown me down there, but I stayed at the director's house, where his wife would prepare very nice meals and they fretted over a family crisis; I believe a grandchild was being born in a difficult birth situation. Nevertheless they were excellent hosts, and he took me out every noon for a long and luxurious lunch at any place I chose (I was happy with the most pedestrian of Peruvian lunch spots, in fact preferred them); it turned out that they believed in long, maybe two-hour lunches, but then would make a habit of working until well after five. This was a gruelling schedule for me, but it was only a week, and I was determined to do my best. As it turned out, I probably wasn't born to be a teacher-trainer.

The city was called "The White City" because many of the buildings were made from ash from the huge volcanoes that ringed the town. These volcanoes were awesome, and in view from every spot in the city. The white buildings had arches and were quite beautiful, but the most beautiful structures were the churches; apparently they saved their best architecture, and their finest gold, for God and the Virgin. You have to go to the museum, they kept telling me, but for some reason that wouldn't be possible until Friday. We went out to the country once, by a river, where there was a fine restaurant and a more relaxed atmosphere; it seemed people could breathe a little easier out there, literally on the edge of the volcano itself. Does it ever blow? I asked. Yes, they have, occasionally, they said, but actually earthquakes were more of a danger statistically. The weather was gorgeous. Every day, stunning blue sky, perfect temperature, a light breeze, absolutely clear Andes air. I asked them if they went to the sea often. No, not much, they said. It's only a hundred miles or so, but it's treacherous road, dangerous and unpredictable, and the weather's not so good down there.

To the other side of us were the Andes; going northeast it was the Inca empire going up to Maccu Pichu; on the other side, to the southwest, it was Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. Straight south about a hundred miles was Chile. The town was full of colorful, restored Volkswagens, which reminded me of Mexico in the seventies, but there was another unusual element; though most of the city residents were modern, and dressed accordingly, a fair percentage of them were clearly still Inca, and dressed in peasant dress, proud to wear and sell Andes woolens and colorful shawls, etc. I saw them wear these without the tourist impression, without trying to impress anyone or doing it to sell more. The Andean Inca culture was alive and well, and selling garden vegetables or homemade clothing.

Finally Friday came around and we went to the museum, which was essentially dedicated to a 13-year-old girl who had been found and removed from a high mountain burial site about five years earlier. The best they could figure out, she was a goddess to the Incas; she had been raised in Central America, but had walked all the way down here, had come up into the mountains with some men, had been killed by a blunt trauma and buried with all kinds of gold and silver. They didn't know if she was aware that she was going to die, but they had evidence that she had been drugged pretty heavily, and they showed their evidence. She had clearly lived well while she was alive. They pictured her journey in the museum, and showed some of the jewelry and finery that she was buried with. At the very end, we saw her herself, encased in glass and constantly frozen so as to ward off any rotting or decomposition.

A movie showed us the aggressive activities of the German archaeologist who had gone up there and arranged for her to be removed from her mountain burial. Did anyone object to this? I asked. Oh sure, they said, but in the end, they agreed to do it. It wasn't a unanimous decision.

This is where I got stuck. I'm not especially attached to the remains of the dead, five, a hundred or 800 years old; bones are bones. She of course was more than bones; she was an entire girl, with a slight frame, a face that could have been pretty in its time. I could see the archaeological justification for bringing her down, and studying her, her DNA, her diet, her physical condition, etc. I have students now who are very absorbed in this kind of activity, and don't think twice about the morality of it. What bothered me was that she was a religious figure, as if they had plundered the tomb of Jesus, or Mohammed, or a Pharoah. If this were my religion, I'd have trouble with it.

Then again, if it were my religion, what would I be doing going along with the ritual killing of a 13-year-old girl? What kind of religion is that, that you take a girl up into the mountains, and kill her?

The problem is, we'll probably never know. The people at the museum were friendly enough, but one of the things I got out of the trip was this: Though they've brought down maybe a half-dozen bodies out of the Andes, and they showed me the various sites, they only know so much about why they were there, what kind of sacrifice this was, whether these people even knew what fate would befall them. There were only so many things that they could get out of the grave, in terms of physical evidence that showed anything for sure, and they had to admit, freely, that they didn't know a lot of the answers. So in spite of plundering a religious site, bringing down truckloads of gold and a frozen corpse, all they were left with was a massive refrigeration bill, and a very interesting museum.

The plane back up north cut right over the Andes and in Lima. The next one went over the Panama Canal, which I could see way below; then it cut straight across Cuba, which it could not have done had it been an American plane. I had plenty of time to reflect on the flight back and in hours of waiting in Miami. It had been an interesting trip, fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine, showing me what it was like down where the earth spun backwards. I never really got into the Andes, though I flew over them, and didn't really see the sea either. But what I saw was enough, and stuck with me for years, even now.

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