Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Last Rope Bridge

We crossed the last remaining Inca rope bridge, across the Apurímac Gorge north of Cuzco. I didn't dare look down. But then, just before I got to the lowest point, I caught my boot in a rope guardrail, I looked down. Watched something fall into the night-dark pool. A pebble? a twig? something from my backpack?

I froze, causing a traffic jam. John yelled: No! Don't Look down. Look to the far pillar. Look at me. He was throwing me a lifeline. The water swirled like a vortex, sucking me down. His eyes were the color of clouded winter skies.

They say the Q'eswachaka rope bridge was the inspiration for Thorton Wilder's novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." I still have an original 1927 copy in my bookshelf, it belonged to my lovely Argentinian Spanish teacher. I feel bad that I never returned it, she's long gone now, having crossed over the bridge decades ago.

Once there were numerous rope bridges in the Andes. It is mid July. Anniversary of the bridge collapse. Am I Doña María or Pepita? Please don't let this one collapse, I prayed to any gods who would listen. If it collapses, it is God's will.

Every June, the rope bridge reinvents itself with renewed braids of ichu feather grass and sedges. Yes, there is also a modern bridge but this is not about convenience, or about the modern world. It is a longstanding cultural tradition dating back 600 years or more, the bridge is a gateway the Inca Trail.

They say this is the last rope bridge of its kind in the Andes. Family clans on both sides of the gorge make bundles of grass-ropes and plait them into long cables, they bind rock pillars on either side of the gorge to honor their ancestors and to honor Pachatata and Pachamama.

On each side of the gorge, the villager twine and plait the ropes carefully, untold lives depend upon their strength and fortitude. Spans that once held the weight of an invading army on horseback. The handrail is the width of a man's waist, the woven floor, punctuated with boards and twigs, grows new grass in the crevices, seed-holds, both its origin and its destruction.

It takes a week to renew the vows of bridge and trail, of sky, water and rock, and it ends with festive rituals honoring the apus, or mountain guardians. They say Apurímac, headwaters of the mighty Amazon, means gods of the laughing river. Or more accurately, divinity oracle.

The oracles in the gurgling river were laughing at us, all right. It seemed like it took a lifetime for me to cross that bridge to get to the other side. There was no thought of turning back. It was also the beginning of the end. We could only go on from there.

Some links:
Inca rope bridge, Wiki

More here on weaving the bridge. Daily Mail

Spectacular Peruvian Rope Bridge, last of its kind, carries forward tradition of the Inca Ancient Origins

A Dozen Indigenous Craftsman From Peru Will Weave Grass into a 60-Foot Suspension Bridge in Washington, D.C. Smithsonian

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