Is this the real life?
is this just fantasy?
Am I in a nightmare?
I have to pinch my skin red to prove to myself that this is real. Now the city of Cuzco from afar: terracotta tiles, whitewashed walls, the old Spanish churches, the dark mahogany shops and the shiny well worn steps – all enveloped in verdant green hills, all this conspires to make you feel at ease. Surely this is paradise on earth?
But there is something that bothers me, an itch, and the more time I spend here, the more I scratch this itch, the more it reddens, and the more ill at ease I become. There is something not right, something that is bothering me, something utterly diabolical, something simple, something that only a devil could conjure, something most people are blind to, something so depressingly sad and heart breaking – that I am compelled; at times, to impulsive random acts of charity – to ease the rift in my soul.
This city has two faces. The well to do imperious tourist faces – strutting their stuff, haughty, aloof, god-like – and the faces of the ordinary working citizens of Cuzco, who feed off the tourists. Sitting in the central square for only ten minutes it all becomes clear to me. One is accosted and approached by all manner of ‘bottom feeders’ – there is the nine year old boy who sells ponchos. He has tried to sell me a poncho four times already. I feel compelled to buy one just for him, but alas – I resist. Then there is the old women begging for her pension money! The young kids trailing behind their mother, the youngest crying on the mother’s back, and the others bored and restless…I overtake the mother, and she has tears in her eyes and she is only a child herself! She has tears and her little one is crying too! I stuff 20 soles into child’s hand and flee…they look on bewildered at this random act of kindness – from a stranger. It’s nothing really. Why did I do it? – It was the little kid on her back, dirty cheeked, eyes red, and the mother – barely 17, shuffling along hardly able to stand on her two feet – and trailing behind her, her old mother. A family! A family of peasants lost in this big, unfriendly city where nobody cares.
When I stuffed that note in her hands, a woman passing by looked to me, blessed me with her hands. Blessed me! This is ridiculous, I am anything but a saint – but this place, seems positively evil. These people shuffle about the city, from noon till night, like rats scurrying from place to place, person to person, earning a pittance, by begging us, begging me, to buy their wares. To go to their recommended restaurants (so they can earn a small commission) – the shoe shine boy wants to clean my shoes, the little girl watches me eat my ice-cream. I can’t take it anymore so I buy her one. This is a theatre of the devil. A city where good folk strive and struggle all day long, all week long, all month long, all year long, all life long – to eek out a living, to feed themselves and their children and families. Is this a life? This is merely an existence. I don’t know, maybe they have happiness in their lives? What do I know? Maybe it is the simple happiness of coming home, legs tired, hungry – and filling your belly with a warm hearty meal, followed by a blissful sleep in the cradle of drugged out tiredness. They must sleep well. They have no uncertain future. There are no surprises. No highs and no lows. Just the same routine day in day out.
And do my fellow tourists see this? Of course not. They are blind to this suffering in front of their eyes. They haggle for one Soles worth of change. They browbeat the old woman for a five Sole discount. We travelers, penny pinchers – think and assume they are ripping us of somehow! Tell me something, how can the woman who is miserly poor, with aching bones and dark sun tanned rubbery complexion (from a lifetime in the sun) be ripping you off? What does she have? A mansion? A fancy car in her driveway from a lifetimes worth of overcharging tourists?
The devil’s theatre continues into the night. The hawkers, the touts, the beggars, the sellers, the opportunists, the oily sales pitches, the fawning at the mantle of my feet. The man wants me to buy a painting. The ubiquitous wrist and waist-band woman begs me to buy another hat. Another! I have plenty! There is the woman carrying a wooden shelf loaded with sweets around her neck like a yoke. The Spanish yoke shook off to be replaced by a new one. Her neck aching from carrying her tray all day long. I ask her to sit down on the bench next to me. To rest her poor tired legs. She looks at me as if I am mad. I give her ten Soles and she sits down. Another act of charity. Another person bewildered. What’s my game? What’s the catch? She feels embarrassed sitting on the bench in the Plaza. She is tired I can see it in her eyes. I smile at her – she knows I understand. Does the rest of this place understand? Does it? Who understands? I feel like screaming at these blind people – where is your Christian charity? Where goes your loving kindness?
There is a mad old man chatting to himself and squealing like a pig in the middle of the square- has the devils theatre finally got to him in the end? Or does he understand and see? Is he is the sanest one of all, who has figured out the sick joke around him? There is the little girl peeing on the pavement as the van full of tourists pulls to a stop in front of her – they stare at her gawking with their cameras. There is the boy with the colourful clothes and live Llama who earns a Sole per picture of you standing next to him – as if saying:
“I am a human zoo. Please take a picture of yourself next to me, so folks back home, can see what you saw”…
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. I knew it existed. I have seen it before – but you have to be reminded now and again – to feel alive again, to feel sad again, to feel life again, to feel misery again, on the blessed benighted faces of the masses. Oh world! You one vast bottomless sea of ache and pain. What are you?! What is this? All I know is that I am fortunate enough to be a lucky one, living on an island in this dark world-sea of tormented souls. It beggars belief.
The devil is laughing. I can hear him. He is watching over this city of Cuzco, and every day and every night he watches his devils theatre, and claps his hands in glee – laughing his devilish laugh, grinning through his black teeth, his forked tongue, clicking around his black dead lips.
He was never here. His churches – so magnificent and fine looking, may look the part here in Cuzco, with their ample naves and soaring ceilings – their fine gold-leaf altars, but they are just bricks and mortar, and their echoes are empty. Empty to the prayers of the flock.
The devil is at work here. The devil’s theatre is showing here. The cast and stage the city of Cuzco. The script the same since time immemorial. And there are no hero’s.