A mysterious man was seen walking down Triunfo Street to the Plaza de Armas in Cusco in the middle of June shortly after he had arrived from Mexico. He was dressed in black. His back was as straight as his long nose. His glistening hair, the color of coal, was brushed back and tied in a pony tail. His eyes, glittering like two pieces of jet catching the light, were focused straight ahead. He was known as The Aztec. His name was unpronounceable, long and filled with tongue-twisting combinations of consonants and vowels.He was accompanied by an assistant, a paler version of The Aztec. He, too, wore black, but his skin was sallow, his nose slightly out of joint, his shoulders slumped and his long, raven hair, which hung loose, was lusterless. Like a shadow, he followed several steps behind The Aztec.
The Aztec had paid cash to rent an apartment. He announced, “I have come to save the Andean people. To show them the Aztec way, to convert them to a way of living far superior to that which they are accustomed to.” He distributed fliers describing the weekly one hour meetings that he would host in the living room of his apartment. Each meeting cost approximately four American dollars.Twelve men, intrigued by The Aztec’s fliers, attended the first meeting. They came from different backgrounds. Five were friends who owned businesses in the city; three had jobs with the City of Cusco; three were retired; and one was a lawyer who had just opened an office in Cusco. Each man was bored with the monotony of his daily routine. They all were seeking something new in order to regain their passion for life.
The assistant took the fee for the meetings, checked the names of the men who were present and then disappeared from the room.The Aztec introduced the first lesson by saying, “I will reveal to you how to interpret the Aztec calendar, how to live in balance by separating foods and beverages into categories and percentages, how to breathe, to sleep, to relax, and to massage your bodies. Precise formulas account for every aspect of life, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. As a result of these techniques, you will be healthier and happier.”
He required the men to keep the Aztec ways a secret. He laughed to himself as he ended the first class with a warning. “You can’t share what you learn here with anyone outside of this group.” Several thoughts passed through his mind in quick succession. If they knew that only a handful of men have been granted the privilege of teaching the Aztec beliefs, and I am not one of them, I am an imposter, they would run from me. What if anyone in Mexico discovered I was representing myself as an Aztec when I learned all the techniques and systems by eavesdropping on one of the approved teachers while working as a cook in his home. Keeping the beliefs secret will entice more people into the group, and I’ll earn more money.Before long, the members of the group realized that being a part of the Aztec world required a great deal of effort on their part. They struggled with the practices which would bestow harmony upon them. They wrestled with dividing the foods and beverages into the correct percentages to be consumed each day. Figuring out how much water they should drink daily according to each one’s body weight was a chore. The tortuous names of the systems were in Aztec, not in Spanish. It was difficult to remember the correct hand positions for the massage techniques. To practice them on each other in class, embarrassed them. They began to grumble among themselves on the street as they parted for the night.
“This is too difficult.”“I’d rather be home drinking beer.”
“It’s torture. I don’t want to be an Aztec.”Jorge, who worked for the City, summed up their feelings. “We prefer our own rituals and values centered on ayni(1) and honoring the natural world, Pachamama(2) and the apus(3). The Andean way is much simpler, more profound. Our long-established customs make us feel good. The Aztec way doesn’t suit us.”
The Aztec was oblivious to their lack of enthusiasm. He continued his nonstop lecturing and whacking his pointer against the chalkboard whenever he wanted to emphasize a detail he had written on it. “It was a good lesson tonight,” he would say to his assistant once the men had left.After each meeting, The Aztec would tell his assistant, “I am making headway with the men.” He would pat himself on the back. His self-importance and greed increased as he observed the men trying to grasp what he taught them. “Aha!” he would exclaim out of earshot of the assistant. “They will spread the word about the Aztec principles! The size of the group will expand. I’ll make more money.”
The final straw for the men was when the Aztec told them that there was to be no drinking and no partying, that coca leaves were forbidden. “What will we do during the festivals?” they asked each other. “How can we make a despacho(4) without chewing coca leaves or putting them into the despacho?” Tired of what seemed like endless lessons and angry at The Aztec’s arrogance at wanting to rescue them from Andean beliefs, the members met in a local coffee house following an evening class some two months after their first meeting.One of the business owners spoke first. “Let’s frighten The Aztec.”
A retiree asked, “Why not run The Aztec out of Cusco?”“Not just out of Cusco, but out of Peru,” another retiree added.
Jorge offered, “I’ll dissolve some pills in the water of The Aztec, and he will sleep.”“That’s the best idea we’ve heard yet,” the lawyer declared. The others agreed.
Jorge appeared early at the next class. Hidden in the pocket of his jacket was a vial of Valium pills that he had borrowed from the owner of a bar who mixed the pills in the drinks of trusting tourists who flaunted their cash. He snuck into the kitchen. He opened a bottle of San Luis water, which always stood on the table, and poured a glassful. He added four pills to the water. There, he thought, we’ll fix him.Fortunately, the assistant was absent that evening. While The Aztec was collecting the men’s payment as they entered the apartment, Jorge handed the water to The Aztec who, not suspecting a hidden motive, thanked him for his thoughtfulness. After The Aztec had finished the water, he began to feel lethargic. He sat down on a rickety stool. The men waited until he fell asleep. With nothing to support his body, The Aztec tumbled onto the floor. The men kept silent until they were certain that their movements would not awaken him. Then, Jorge turned out the lights in the room. Signaling the group to be quiet, Jorge hissed, “Ssh, ssh.” As the men undressed The Aztec and piled his clothes beside him, the rays from a street light shown through a window, highlighting their smiles. After finishing their work, they filed out of the apartment and slipped away, each man to his own home.
Later that evening, the assistant returned to the apartment to find The Aztec groggy and confused. The Aztec recounted, “I fainted on the living room floor and came to a little later. I am troubled, because I did not have any clothes on. I can’t remember how and when I took them off. I even forget turning the light off. What a mystery!” Together, they decided that The Aztec had fainted because he had not eaten since breakfast. “You see,” he said to the assistant, “how important it is to adhere to the Aztec precepts.”The men, curious as to whether they had frightened The Aztec into departing Cusco, appeared at the next meeting to find him waiting for them. The Aztec unexpectedly proclaimed, “From here on, meetings will be twice a week for two hours, instead of once a week for one hour. There is so much to learn.” The men looked at each other in dismay. The same thought occurred to each one; rather than scare the Aztec as they had intended, the incident seemed to embolden him.
Of course, such a plan meant more money for The Aztec, so he lied to his assistant, “I am willing to give up more of my time so that the men will have every opportunity to study the Aztec system with me.” Meanwhile, images flickered through The Aztec’s mind of the soles(5) he would accumulate. There’ll be no more living from one day to the next he thought. I’ll have to find a way to send my assistant back to Mexico, so he won’t know how much money I’m making.After a month of classes twice a week, the men were exhausted. They struggled to speak up in class; they dragged their feet as they walked home; they were absentminded at their work place or with their families. The following week, the men congregated on a nearby, deserted street corner after class. One of the business men spoke up, “Our minds are confused by these complex and unfamiliar teachings. We thought our lives were boring before we joined this group. We didn’t recognize how good our days were. We took for granted our laughter, friendships and families. Now our life is a burden.”
It was Jorge’s turn. “We must leave The Aztec,” he said,The lawyer added, “All of us will regain our zest for life. We will resume our beer drinking, making sure we spill several drops on the ground as an offering to Pachamama before we take our first swig. We will tell jokes and laugh uproariously. Once again, we will practice ayni.”
“Si! Si!(6),” the men responded in unison, embracing one another.No one rang the door bell at the hour of the next class. The Aztec paced the floor of the living room expecting the men to appear at any moment. What could have happened to them, he thought. He angrily turned to his assistant. “No one has arrived. Why?” The assistant was silent. When it became apparent that the men had abandoned him, The Aztec cursed them. He would have to go without their payments for that night’s lesson.
I am a con man The Aztec reflected. I’ve had many careers in which I dupe people into handing over their funds. I’ve traveled throughout Mexico exhausting my opportunities, cheating at card games, pulling off scams and swindles, selling fake goods. I thought I’d try another country where I’d be a stranger. I decided to target this city. Now, it’s best to move on.At midnight, he swiftly packed his few belongings in a plastic bag and, without alerting his snoring assistant, he walked out the door of the apartment and vanished into the dark, never to be seen again in Cusco.
(1)Ayni: (Quechua): the principle which forms the foundation of the social and mystical worlds of the Andean: reciprocity among humans and the sacred interchange of energy among humans and the natural world.
(2)Pachamama: (Quechua): Mother Earth.
(3)Apus: (Quechua): spirits of the mountains.
(4) Despacho: (Spanish): an offering made to Mother Earth (Pachamama) or to the apus using a variety of items such as grains, seeds, candies, flowers, gold stars, a llama fetus. The items are ritually arranged on white paper, and prayers are infused. The paper, along with its contents, is folded into a bundle. The bundle is burned if the despacho is for the apus; it is buried in the ground if it is for Pachamama. Materials for the despacho can be bought in the public markets in the Andes. Coca leaves are an indispensible part of making a despacho.
(5)Soles: (Spanish): the sol (soles plural) is the Peruvian currency.
(6)Si: (Spanish): yes.