Traveling the Andes in good company

Wright, Ronald. 1984. Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru. New York: Penguin.

A young archaeologist hitchhikes through the Peruvian Andes, seeking Inca and pre-Inca ruins, and encounters the chaotic, bumbling but still beautiful society created by the clash of ayllu Andean, semi-feudal Hispanic and now global capitalist cultures. It's a bumpy mosaic of a book, pieced together from the author's travel notes, readings, lessons and even songs in Runasimi, the language of the Runa or "human beings" that outsiders call Quechua. The personal notes are the most engaging, for his lively descriptions of places and the vehicles he uses to reach them, meals (he never acquires a taste for chuño or char'ki) and people (drunken officials, giggling girls, foreigners of various nationalities and purposes, and a surprising number of blind harpists). And of course

"…the vagrant scholar (myself?) who turns the pages of this land and thinks perhaps he understands it, but really is only looking at pictures, adding captions gleaned from books. All of us are poaching on a dying civilization to still the hunger of our own." Refreshing bit of self-awareness there.

Wright gives me the feel of parts of the Andes I have yet to see; I spent a week on assignment in Lima some years ago, and from there got to Cusco (or Qosqo) and Machu Picchu (or Piqchu), but it was a too-quick trip; I have yet to see Chavín in the north) or Tiawanaku or Copacabana (Qopaqhawana, an ancient temple site) in the other direction, nor did I spend the time Wright has exploring the Valley of Cusco. I also appreciated the language lessons and, particularly, the "Note on Runasimi Pronunciation." Now I understand why some write "Qosqo" instead of "Cusco" (or, worse, "Cuzco"): q (in this language) is a "Guttural fricative similar to North German ch in Achtung." The closest the Spaniards could get to this sound in their system was a c.

Wright has since become much better known as an essayist and novelist than an archaeologist. I just discovered him by accident, while browsing the NYU library shelves for works on the Incas. This just shows that I know too little about contemporary Canadian literature. I'm glad I found him; in this early book, he was already very good at sharp description with subtle wit. Check him out: Ronald Wright on Random House; and, more fun, this 2002 interview by Linda Richards.

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