Over a gorge, a bridge to the Incan past

An annual ceremony involves smoke, rope, prayer, guinea pigs – and lots of company.

Nothing about all this weaving is necessary, strictly speaking.

But every year, hundreds of people gather here for three days of round-the-clock work to weave thousands of pounds of sturdy, stout straw that grows in these Peruvian highlands. They turn the straw into rope, the rope into braids, and the braids into a bridge, just as their Incan ancestors have done for centuries.

Perhaps the last bridge of its kind in the world, it is rebuilt every year as part of an intricate ceremony. It is narrow and, for outsiders, wobbly. Even a light wind along the Apurimac River, 80 feet below, sends the bridge swaying. Braided handrails six inches thick help crossers keep steady as they make their way over what is really a series of thick tightropes strung side by side. It takes a few minutes for a foreigner to crawl his way across, but a local can do it in no time.

Knowing how to cross the bridge, after all, is part and parcel of knowing how to weave it.

As many as 200 of these bridges once straddled gorges throughout the Andean mountains. Their construction connected communities, but also helped defend against attack: In the event of an invasion, the bridges could simply be burned.

Today, few people have reason to visit, let alone invade, the mountain community of Huinchiri in southeastern Peru. This village of 300 people is quiet most of the year; people farm and raise livestock to keep themselves and their families fed. When they need to go into town, they take the nearby wood-and-steel bridge, built more than 30 years ago.

During the three-day reconstruction ceremony, however, all that changes. Folks from neighboring communities pitch in to weave the rope, and even a trickle of tourists makes its way from the city of Cusco, five hours north, to witness the ceremony. The district invests some serious municipal cash – $13,000 this year – in showing locals and visitors a good time. The k'eswachaca, as the bridge is called in the local language of Quechua, rules the day.

Cayetano Ccanahuiri, a lifelong resident, is torn about all that attention. The village's misayoc, an indigenous priest, Mr. Ccanahuiri is master of ceremonies during the celebration. This is not, for him, an excuse for a party. The k'eswachaca is one of the last things his people have left to remind them of what it means to be Incan.

Up and down the Andes, there are few living reminders of the Incan empire, which once spread from its center in Cusco as far north as present-day Colombia and south to what is now Argentina. But the grass-rope k'eswachaca of Huinchiri, unlike Machu Picchu and other big-name Inca attractions, is more than just a ruin.

"This bridge is part of our lives even if we don't use it every day," says Ccanahuiri. "We cannot let it disappear, because we would lose our meaning."

The bridge, for Ccanahuiri and other village elders, is a symbol of the Incan traditions of collective work and reciprocity that have allowed communities to survive, even thrive, in inhospitable lands. It is also about conserving a relic that has been passed down through the generations.

On the other hand, the grass rope represents a simple supply issue: Huinchiri is located in a vast plain more than two miles above sea level, where nothing grows as quickly as q'oya, the grass. Llamas and other camel-like animals depend on it for food; humans use it for thatched roofs; and, of course, it can be woven into rope capable of holding, villagers say, up to 10 people at once.

Locals begin gathering q'oya a few weeks before the weaving gets under way, harvesting it with machetes and storing it until the ceremony starts. Women and children put the grass in pits or barrels and soak it until it is soft enough to weave, usually at least a day.

Here, they pause: This work requires ritual. Ccanahuiri, the priest, is called in to inaugurate the first of many ceremonial payments to the gods. The offerings begin small and grow in complexity as bridge-building progresses. The first involve blowing smoke and spitting a fermented drink over the ropes to guarantee their strength for the coming year. Ccanahuiri and two fellow elders also chant Quechua incantations, asking the gods, collectively known as apus, to bless the bridge and those who use it.

"We must pay tribute to the mother earth and gods of the hills to protect us and the bridge," he says. "Without the tribute, the bridge turns on us. It sucks people in, giving them to the river."

Hundreds of people from neighboring hamlets join the Huinchirians to weave the q'oya into cords. Volunteers are provided with plentiful food and drink in return for long hours of work.

Some cords are more demanding than others: the bridge will be about 200 feet long, but the support cables run longer, leaving ample length to secure them to rock abutments on either side of the gorge.

The bridge is really a series of 25 cords braided into six-inch-thick cables that serve as the base and railings. These are run across the gorge and secured to stone posts. Once these are in place, the bridge builders – always men – inch their way along the cables from each side, weaving what will be the bottom edge of the bridge to the railings they hold. Last, flooring is added, made of more grass, twigs and other natural materials gathered in Huinchiri and neighboring areas. The floor must be six inches thick to keep people and animals from stumbling as the Apurimac roars by below.

The whole process takes three days – and at each stage, tributes are made to the gods. The final ceremony, performed before the first person crosses the new bridge, is the most elaborate: the sacrificial burning of two sheep and offerings of guinea pigs, a delicacy in today's Peru; coca leaves, an age-old antidote to hunger in these hills; and local produce.

Even the elaborate bridge celebration may not be enough to keep a 21st-century village connected to its ancient Incan roots.

The young people of Huinchiri are leaving for better opportunities, breaking their ties with the past. The regional government recently banned the consumption of a sugar-cane brew popular in the highlands and with volunteers at the reconstruction ceremony ("It makes people stupid," the regional president says), and the Peruvian government wants to wipe out all but a small amount of coca leaves that are used for chewing, in teas, and in ceremonies like the one here in Huinchiri.

Organizers lament that people are more interested in the party than in helping with the bridge. Ccanahuiri says that villages at lower altitudes in charge of bringing twigs for the bridge floor simply overlooked the task this year, making the flooring a bit more precarious.

The local government hopes the ceremony will bring in tourists – so much so that the district mayor frowned on the ritual tributes, saying they are archaic and could scare away people.

And then there is the bridge itself, all ceremony and little function, difficult to see as a symbol of a culture's vitality. As it slips out of use, its stories are disappearing.

"What we know about the bridge does not come from books or school, but from what our parents and grandparents told us," says Ccanahuiri. "The stories come from the time of the Incas, but we are not transmitting them anymore."

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