Monday, July 28, 2008


There are more ancient civilizations in South American than I can hope to remember. They all had their time, location language and culture. Some of them spread out from their points of origin and submerged others, like the waves I watched racing to the sand on Iquique beach a few days ago. The winners are the ones that we tend to remember. In Peru, the last two big winning waves were those of the Inca and the Spanish Conquistadores. On my one healthy morning in Arequipa we got a close up view of the faces of both of these cultures.

Juanita, as she is known to us today, was an Inca noble. She was about 12 years old when she walked hundreds of kilometers from Cusco to the volcanic mountain called Ampatu, about 100km from Arequipa, in the company of adults. Priests. They all climbed this mountain of more than 6000m, in sandals, using rough paths previously laid out in straw. In reaching this height - challenging even for today's well-equiped mountaineers - they were entering the world of the mountain gods. The rarefied air and exhaustion had already altered their states of mind. For Juanita, the privilige of walking amongst the gods with the priests, and the thoughts of what lay ahead, took her even further into a state of trance.

When they eventually reached the summit, Juanita was given some chichi, a beer made by the Incas. In her weakened state, the chichi made her lose consciousness. She wouldn't have felt a thing when one of the priests made a single blow to the right side of her head, just above her eye. That was all it took to end her life. In all probability, she was always destined to die this way. As part of a noble Inca family, she would have been selected early and educated with others like her about her role. She was priviliged. Her fate was to join the gods themselves, who according to the Inca priests had an appetite for young, beautiful and pure children, especially girls.

Almost six hundred years later, in the Universidad Católica di Santa María, at the end of a well-guided tour, we came face to face with Juanita. She never made it to the realm of the mountain gods. She lives in a Japanese-designed transparent freezer unit, alternating between the display location and the reseach lab (a routine she shares with the remains of several other sacrificed children of Inca times). She still bears the marks of the final blow. And you can still tell that when she was alive, she was very beautiful.

Not long after Juanita's death, a new wave broke on the West coast of South America. The conquistadores were armed with better germs, weapons (including horses) and political organization administered through the written word. The Inca were swept away.

About four blocks away from the Universidad is the Convent of Santa Catalina. It was founded a mere 100 years after Juanita's death, as part of the cloistered Dominican order by a wealthy widow of Arequipa. Aristocratic Spanish families would pay massive dowries to have their second daughter accepted as novices as the age of 12. This daughter would remain enclosed within the ever expanding walls of Santa Catalina for the rest of her life. Once a month she would be allowed a monitored 15 minute conversation through opaque grills with her family. She was permitted no news of the outside world. If she considered leaving the convent, her shamed family would have disowned her. She had nowhere else to go. She would live a comfortable life, with servants and even slaves (some of the servents were lower-class, Indian nuns), silently praying, conversing only when sewing. When she finally died, she was laid out for a day in the mortuary before being buried in the convent's own graveyard. Her family was not invited to the funeral.

As I stood looking in though the mortuary door, with my own two daughters beside me, I noticed it was lined with the portraits of many nuns, each with their eyes closed. The guide explained that while they were still alive, it was considered vanity for the nuns to have their image painted. Only when they were dead was this permitted.

Then the portraits were sent to the dead woman's family.

This last detail hit me like rabbit punch. Up until now I had been scoffing my way through the tour, making all the predictable comments that you'd expect from an unbeliever when shown the harsh and pointless regime of a misguided cult. But sending the portrait of the freshly-deceased daughter to the family that had gone without her company since she was 12!? This seemed like the unholiest of cruelties. Spiteful. I remained silent for a while, trying to collect myself, and looked at my own second daughter, shuddering at the idea of her being born into another place or time than 21st century Europe. Into Juanita's time. Into the time of Santa Catalina.

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