Ever since I met Br. Robert Baiocco, OSA, I had wanted to travel with him because he is quite the world traveler -having explored 49 countries! I love listening to his stories whereby I learn how other cultures solve human needs in different ways; for example, Br. Robert shared with me recently how in a town in Morocco where he lived, the main staple was bread, and there was just one large oven for the whole village, and each family would mark the dough with a unique seal in order to recognize their bread. Br. Robert’s particular experiences as a world traveler were the way in which Christ called him to follow him more closely and to participate in His mission.
Br. Robert has been Peru since September of last year, where he is doing his pastoral year. I was blessed to spend some days with him recently on vacation. The Rule of St. Augustine exhorts us to live in harmony and be on the way to God. It is a blessing to practice that with a brother, even while on vacation.
Br. Robert took some time off from his ministry as well, and met me in Cusco, Peru, where we spent time with the Augustinian friars there, and also explored together several ancient Inca ruins, including the citadel of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu has quite the reputation, being one of the wonders of the world, according to some lists. Although I had been in Peru on two occassions, I had not been to Machu Picchu before, and so I was happy to see such a place with an Augustinian brother who is also a friend. Machu Picchu was only discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer, and much of it is still a mystery to historians and anthropologists. We were both filled with wonder and amazement as soon as we entered. The visual impact of the place changed throughout the morning as the sun slowly dissipated the fog that first enveloped it. And as we made our way through the circuits of trails, we admired the skilled masonry and the impressive engineering of the Incas.
Machu Picchu was probably built in the 15th century by the Inca ruler Pachacutek, who extended the rule of the Incas from a small kingdom in the Cusco region to being the largest empire in South America before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. At the history museum in Cusco, we learned that the Incas displaced peoples, divided people into labor classes, and extended their empire not only by military might, but by controlling the supply of corn beer or “chicha.” By the late 15th century, the Inca Empire stretched from southern Colombia to Bolivia and Chile, connected by roads where runners carried messages between cities.
It was surreal to walk through the Inca ruins that witnessed the rise and fall of a civilization. Br. Robert and I walked through a town called Ollantaytambo, which was where the Inca ruler Atahualpa hid from Pizarro during some months. We remembered how in exchange for his life, Atahualpa offered Pizarro a ransom of a large room filled gold, but Pizarro did not respect the deal, took the gold and killed Atahualpa anyway.
That tragedy foreshadowed the many injustices that would occur in the Spanish conquest. Sometimes the Church defended the rights of the native peoples and sometimes it did not. Unfortunately, during the the time of the Independence movement, our Augustinian order sided with the Spanish crown, and our Church in Cusco was demolished.
Besides the physical ruins, we also experienced some lingering traces of the past such as the Quechua language, which was the language of the Incas and it remains spoken in that region of Peru. During meals with the Augustinian community, the Peruvian brothers would switch back and forth between Spanish and Quechua.
Now that I am back in the United States, the experience of a couple of days in Peru with Br. Robert has helped me to reflect on how to better be an advocate of peace and justice, and live my religious life from a better perspective. Having explored ruins where a civilization lived for hundreds of years, helps bring transcendence and depth to conversations I am now having with brothers in the United States about religious life. I pray this trip will help Br. Robert and myself live our religious life as Augustinian friars more authentically.