Q’eshwachaca - Phyllis Cullen

When I worked as a volunteer physician in the Andes, I saw this bridge made of ichu fiber, It seemed like an appropriate subject for a “Bridges” challenge. The Incas, who built (and yearly, rebuild it ), specialized in making things from fiber: from armor to weapons to ships. (They even communicated in fiber, developing a language of knotted strings known as quipo, which has yet to be decoded).

Five hundred years ago, the Andes were full of these suspension bridges, with massive cables braided from ichu, a tall reed which is about the only thing that grows on the Altiplano (and that feeds the llamas). Gradually the bridges fell victim to the elements and disuse. Except for one, the Q’eswachaca, a saggy 90-foot span that stretches between two sides of a steep gorge, near Huinchiri, Peru.

It’s made up of four parallel ropes of twisted and braided ichu with a reed mat from side to side, anchored at both ends by ties to great rocks. Thick rope railings are connected to the walkway with ties of smaller cords. Reportedly it can support the weight of 56 people spread evenly across its length. I’ve only crossed it once!

As in years past, the bridge is renewed yearly, with a sacred ceremony, as families from the four surrounding towns each bring 90 feet of braided grass cord. The old bridge is then cut down and dropped in the river. This means that the bridge's ownership passes from generation to generation as a bridge not only across space but also across time.

To make this piece I finally realized that I would have to construct the bridge myself, braiding and twisting the cords, with great admiration for the original designers!

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