A wedding among the ruins

CUSCO — I am in Peru and I’m writing from Cusco, possibly the highest city in the world at 12,000 feet above sea level. Resting on a basin completely surrounded by the Andes Mountains, Cusco is the “navel” of the ancient Inca world known as Tawantinsuyo. A fusion of old dreams and young aspirations has brought me and my wife to this enchanted city at this particular time.

Foreigners visit these parts mainly to see the magical ruins of Machu Picchu, a wonder of architectural and engineering ingenuity. Karina and I have come here primarily to witness the union in marriage of our son CP to Ani, the bright and lovely daughter of Virgilio and Lynn Almario. The wedding party is small and private. It will consist of the bride and the groom, the two sets of parents, one of the godmothers — Karina Bolasco, who has traveled alone all the way from Manila to join us, and the officiating priest, Filipino missionary Fr. Allen Aganon, who has lived here for over three years now, ministering to the religious needs of Quechua Indians in a remote village outside Cusco. The wedding will be held in the evening at the Jesuits’ La Compania Church.

It was the couple’s extraordinary request to have their civil wedding affirmed and solemnized in Catholic rites here in Cusco, a place that is so spectacularly out of the way that it is doubtful whether any Filipino couple has ever thought of it as a venue for a wedding. Why Cusco? That is a question both sets of parents have been asked repeatedly by friends and relatives alike. I’m afraid there is no easy answer. The couple’s quick answer is, why not Cusco? I’ve heard of this place before, but not, of course, in the context of a wedding.

In 1952, when he was 21 years old and barely out of medical school, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado reached Cusco, after traveling for three months across the Andes cordillera, partly on a Norton 500cc motorcycle but mostly by hitch-hiking. These young Argentinians had run out of money by the time they entered Cusco. Subsisting entirely on the generosity of people they met, they managed to stay in the city for almost two weeks, using it as a base from which to explore Machu Picchu and the nearby ruins along the stretch of the winding Urubamba river.

This entire region today serves as a magnet for thousands of young backpackers from all over the world who have embarked on their own personal pilgrimages. I can only suppose that if you’re young and you have read “The Motorcycle Diaries” of Latin America’s most famous rebel, you cannot not include Cusco in your wish-list of destinations. One could sense from reading Che’s diaries that this is where the seeds of his permanent campaign for a free Latin American continent were first sown.

“The impalpable dust of other ages covers its streets, rising in clouds like a muddy lake when you disturb the bottom.” Cusco evoked in the young Che lyrical reflections like these. Visiting its magnificent churches and stunning ruins, he was completely overwhelmed by the traces that the Quechua, a previously nomadic tribe led by Inca rulers, left behind. At once, he became conscious of the pillage and degradation that this proud indigenous people bore under the Spanish conquerors.

Successive earthquakes have visited this city in the recent past, bringing down the proud domes that capped the conqueror’s majestic churches. In contrast, the Inca walls on which they had stood remained unshaken. There is surely a lesson to be learned here, Che muses, but it must not be exaggerated. “The grey stones have grown weary imploring their gods to destroy the hated race of conquerors, and now they show no more than the fatigue of inanimate objects, fit only for the admiring cries of some tourist or other…. The six-meter walls of the Palace of Inca Roca, which the conquistadores used as foundations for their colonial palaces, reflect in their perfect form the lament of the defeated warrior.”

Cusco evoked many clashing sentiments in the heart of Che Guevara, but I am certain none of these included Cusco as a romantic setting for a Filipino wedding. Yet anyone who comes to this city cannot fail to be impressed by the long-term vision that must have inspired the Inca rulers when they set out to spread their empire from North to South of the whole American continent. In just 200 years, the Incas built a state that would easily surpass any of the West’s modern states in grandeur and achievement.

It is amazing to watch today’s Cusco being crisscrossed by swarms of modern backpackers. Young couples like CP and Ani undoubtedly draw much inspiration from this ancient monument to human imagination as they begin to forge their own future together. This is after all where every pilgrimage to Machu Picchu begins. Most young visitors take the Inca trail on a 4-5 day journey on foot, reaching the site of the Inca’s most ancient monument just before daybreak of the last day. Resting their backs on ancient stones, they await the rising of the sun from behind the sharp peaks of the surrounding mountains, exactly in the manner the Inca told the time and mastered its rhythms. Historians say Machu Picchu was where the Quechua people first settled; it also became their final refuge.