Thirteen years ago, when Ana Maria Milla Hurtado was asked by her astronomy-enthusiast uncle Irwin to give a hand with guiding tourists at his newly opened, budget-constrained, tiny planetarium, she readily agreed. Over the years, the Quechua-Spanish astronomy guide has emerged as a sky expert hand-holding astronomy novices to the enchanting universe that the southern skies offer, and telling night sky observers about the Incas whose lives, death and afterlives were dictated by the moves of stars above their heads. Located in an adobe hut in the outskirts of Cusco, beyond Sacsayhuamán, Planetarium Cusco offers a quick and fascinating study of the southern skies and the Inca cosmovision. Snatches of conversation with Ana Maria, who was my guide on my journey across the Peruvian night sky last October, and a follow-up chat over phone this early April.
When and how did this initiative start?
My uncle Irwin is a long-time astronomy enthusiast. It was in 2007 that he came up with a concrete plan to start something small and this pretty much involved roping in the entire family. Over time we got around to starting this observatory with homemade instruments and for the first couple of years it was a wholly amateur project. Eventually we got better at curating our sessions as per audience interests and I assisted uncle Irwin with translating for non-Spanish speakers. Gradually, I became more confident about my expertise in the field and became the guide girl. With this project I reconnected with my childhood passion for the skies.
You ascribed your love for astronomy to your grandmother who was Quechua. Could you tell us more about her impact?
I was born in 1977 and when I was growing up in the 1980s I learnt about the Halley’s Comet because of the sighting in 1986 and then there was Carl Sagan’s cult show Cosmos on TV. But in those days people weren’t so open to girls going into science so when I went to college, I took up humanities despite my love for astronomy. Politically, too, it was an unstable time in Peru. There were no good books for children, no encouragement, there was only terrorism and political upheavals. It was hard. I grew up fascinated with astronomy but I didn’t have the means to feed my hunger for this pursuit.
My grandmother was among those few women in those days who went to work outside the home and she was a professor at the university in Cusco. She, too, was very interested in geography, history and the Incas and so when I started learning about astronomy, her knowledge about these subjects helped me to connect the dots and create a constellation, so to speak. She taught me about the interconnectedness of nature and civilisation, about how the Incas built their houses a certain way because of the climate, the various ways in which they figured out the seasons and eventually how they learnt what crops to grow and feed themselves–all of this came from watching the sky from morning until night. From architecture, culture, food to survival you cannot find an aspect in Inca civilisation that has not been influenced by astronomy. She taught me that looking up at the sky is to look within, and become aware of things that I never knew existed and how they have always been connected to my world.
Tell us about what fascinates you most about astronomy and Inca astronomy in particular.
You learn something new almost every day. There’s always something lurking in those skies that you don’t know about yet.
As for Inca cosmology, I find it fascinating that their very survival was dependant on skygazing. Their tracking of stars, of constellations (dark and stellar), and of the motions of the sun and moon, provided them with units of time and space, and a calendar system which helped them plan agricultural and herding activities.
What do you most enjoy about being the chief guide to these expeditions?
Everyday is exciting. People are often new to this subject and that gets us excited. We had a visitor, 79-year-old lady, who after looking through a telescope for the first time in her life said that she had never seen the night sky in such close and clear detail before and that it was the most wonderful thing ever. It was so exciting to see someone, with so much experience in life, to do something for the first time. It’s so basic but so amazing.
Where do you love to travel?
I love to travel, but I can’t as often as I’d like. I love the Galápagos and the Amazon forests running along Puerto Maldonado. When I visit these places, I feel that my eyes can’t take in enough. There’s so much life and greenery around. So much of everything. But now travelling doesn’t look likely in the near future. The pandemic teaches us what’s really important. We cannot stop, but we need to rethink our way of living. Pachamama (mother earth) is generous with lessons. If we don’t learn now, there will be more pandemics, er, lessons.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.