Stranger Than Fiction
"I have to say, in all modesty, I've been to some truly breathtakingly beautiful places by any accounts. Machu Picchu takes the crown." - Anthony Bourdain
For my dad, who taught me to never never never give up.
As always, I'd prepared myself for the worst. It looked like I was actually going to make it to Machu Picchu, as impossible as that was to believe. Still, I armed myself against a myriad of potential disappointments. I could get food poisoning the night before and be a miserable wreck the entire day. My aches and sores or dehydration could finally get the better of me, making the last few hundred metres of climbing unbearable. More likely than either of those, it could rain. No matter what happened, I promised myself with the utmost conviction, whether suffering through a migraine or the runs or soaking wet and shivering, I WOULD enjoy this experience. I'd been looking forward to it for far too long, and been through far too much to get here, to let anything spoil it. It would still be possibly the best thing I had ever seen and would ever see in my life.
It was six-forty the morning of June 18 when the train whistle pierced the chill in the air and the tug of wheels carried me away from the mountain village of Ollantaytambo. We'd arrived late yesterday afternoon, and Edwin had given me a tour of the ancient manmade waterways that still delivered clean running water to much of the town. He'd also pointed out the Incan ruins on the surrounding mountainsides, so intact you would have thought they were functioning buildings. "You want to go and see them?"
I thought about my back and knees, about the gruelling climb still ahead of us tomorrow. Edwin didn't wait for me to answer. "Not without Sufa?" He read my thoughts, smiling kindly.
"Not without Sufa," I echoed, relieved he understood.
He sat next to me on the train the next morning, looking like he still belonged on the trail in his jean jacket and cowboy hat. We rode for an hour and a half through some of the most dazzling mountains I'd ever seen while the sun burned off the fog around us. The weather was unbeatable. There wasn't a cloud in sight.
I relished the opportunity to sit comfortably for a while and not do any work. I used the time to think about the last four days. The horseback trek had been an external journey. With all the physical discomforts and exhaustion - and pleasures, too - I hadn't been paying attention to what was going on inside. Now, as I turned inward, I saw the landscape of my soul had shifted again. We don't notice ourselves growing from kids to adults, but other people do. They see the differences, triumphs and pitfalls that are too gradual for our own perception. This is how I watched myself now, as if from an out-of-body perspective. That young and flighty inner horse of mine had literally been bomb-proofed. Now she was as fearless and steady as Reina, the regal mare I'd ridden back in Croatia; sure of herself, secure and trusting of her own instincts.
The train came to its final stop in Aguas Calientes, a town nestled in a deep gorge below Machu Picchu. From there it was another half-hour bus ride (the big public city bus had to stop and reverse several times on the narrow mountain road to let other vehicles pass) to the last checkpoint before the ruins. We would have to walk the rest of the way.
I was huffing and puffing (what else is new?) but otherwise in good shape when we reached the entrance gate. Edwin stopped me at the corner of an ancient thatch-roofed hut to give me a brief overview of Machu Picchu's history, which I already knew from the multitude of books I'd read over the past year - guidebooks and novels and travel diaries and biographies... All the same, I nodded and smiled in polite interest.
Up until it was "discovered" in 1911 by American-born Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu was shrouded in myth, widely regarded as "the lost city of the Incas". Natives, of course, knew about the site long before Bingham did. Grave robbers had been pillaging the ancient city for centuries, so there was little more than the ingenious architecture remaining by the time it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected by the government.
No one knows for certain what forced the Incas to abandon the site in the sixteenth century. Although it was during the time of the Spanish conquest, Europeans didn't even know about the last hold-out hidden high in the Andes until Bingham's publication. During his first in-depth expedition, the American explorer found human remains in many of the houses. 75% were women, the rest children and elderly. This, he decided, suggested the Incas were at war, either with the Spanish or a neighbouring tribe. The fact that the bodies were never buried indicates that a lot of people died at the same time. If it did have something to do with the Spanish, the only plausible story is that a messenger carried the smallpox virus up to the citadel. There is still evidence that construction was going on to expand the city at the time of its downfall.
Things are never exactly as you expect them to be. At least that's what I used to believe. Travelling to Africa for the first time when I was fifteen, I remember being surprised not to be surprised. The poverty and scantily-dressed, fly-covered children were exactly as I'd seen on UNICEF infomercials. My first glimpse of Machu Picchu was the same view that was on all the postcards and travel brochures, the same dramatic angle of the same green peak backlit by the sun, the terraces and central courtyard teeming with stone ruins in the shadow of Huayna Picchu ("Young Mountain"). On the other side of the city, opposite Huayna Picchu, the Sun Gate precedes the lofty hike up the larger Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain").
Maybe it was the sudden glaze in my eyes, or the sight of me gripping my hair with both hands and all the breath rushing out of my body at once which caused Edwin to step back suddenly. "Take five minutes," he said softly. "Take your pictures. I'll be over here." After hundreds of visits to the site, I was sure the ruins hardly had the effect on Edwin that they did me, but he still seemed to understand the wonder and intimacy of the experience, the emotion so full it needed room to thrive in privacy.
But it was more than the view. Everything had culminated to this. Years of work, planning and stress. A pilgrimage across the world through unfamiliar countries (and selves) which climaxed in an even more difficult trek on horseback through the Sacred Valley. It felt as though I'd begun at the base of the iceberg and worked my way, slowly and gruellingly up, having my mind blown along the way by life-affirming wonders and demoralizing obstacles. And now I'd reached the pinnacle, the literal paramount peak. Did I ever imagine I would get this far? Not a chance in hell.
When I finally got ahold of myself, Edwin took me down into the ancient city for a tour that lasted three hours. He showed me the Ceremonial Rock where Hiram Bingham hypothesized the Incas laid their dead to prepare them for burial, as it was located outside a temple and near what he decided was a cemetery. The head of the stone had been carved to look like a miniature of the mountain behind it, a phenomena that was common throughout the city.
We walked alongside walls made of huge boulders that had been cut and stacked so tightly, like Tetris pieces, you couldn't fit a knife blade between them. Edwin took me to the Temple of the Condor, where I learned the Incas had worshipped the condor as a sacred carrion bird, since it consumed death and kept the land clean and free of disease. Some theorize that the dead were left at the base of the Temple as an offering. We explored a tiny room whose purpose remains a mystery, since the Incas didn't have bathrooms (evidently they were too busy making scientific and technological advancements to improve the long-practiced tradition of peeing in the woods. They did, however, have running water, though they used a network of fountains that was more suited to the mountain slopes than the long gutters in Ollantaytambo).
Edwin pointed out the steep summit of Huayna Picchu and told me hikers had to book over a year in advance, because only four hundred people were allowed on the ancient staircase a day, to prevent erosion. Finally, we visited the Temple of the Sun, where the Incas' premiere philosophers, astronomers and priests conferred on the movement of the stars and solstices. It was only then that I realized I'd come to Machu Picchu only three days before the Winter Solstice, the most sacred time of year for the Incas. Orientation in time and place was crucial to the civilization. They regarded the alignment of the cosmos as equally vital in science and religion, as both were imperative to their survival.
As we explored and I learned that Machu Picchu was almost a thousand metres lower than Cusco, the truth slowly dawned on me. Machu Picchu was only famous because it was in ruins, the so-called "lost city", a rediscovered Atlantis. The capital of the entire ancient civilization, Cusco had been much bigger and more important during the time of the Incas. Consequently, it should enjoy more renown, in my opinion. Isn't the ancient city that is still thriving more interesting than one that's been dead for hundreds of years?
I thought of all the travellers who responded to this revelation with, "if only I'd known, I wouldn't have bothered coming." But to me that was missing the point. For me the point was in the knowing. The point was in the finding out.
After the tour, Edwin left me to wander the city on my own for an hour. I found a perch on one of the terraces with a good view of Huayna Picchu and sat there to write in my journal. I listened to my iPod to drown out the hum of tourists and put Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" on repeat. Even before I'd left home, it had been my theme song for the entire trip. Whenever I heard it, I couldn't help imagining the end achievement of Machu Picchu, how good it would feel to finally get there. Listening to it now, I was helpless to stop the tears from coming.
I didn't take any flowers or stones from Machu Picchu as I had from other monuments I'd been to, mostly because it was a national park as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site and I was afraid of going to jail, but also because I felt that looking at something material would do nothing to bring back this experience. It might even cheapen it. The best things happen only once, I say. The memory was more than enough.
Edwin and I got to know each other a bit better before the transfer back to Cusco. As with travel, with knowledge comes understanding. During the trek, Mary and Mary and I had felt that Edwin was perhaps not the most attentive guide. A lot of the time he seemed to be off in his own world, often leaving us behind on the trail or on hilltops. If we seemed to be having trouble, he never offered a helping hand unless explicitly asked. It was also a rare and wonderful phenomenon to see him smile, very unusual for a South American.
As we talked over post-Machu Picchu caipirinhas in Aguas Calientes, I learned Edwin was a cancer surviver. Ten years ago he'd had to have a lymphoma tumour cut out of his neck. He blamed it on the deet in the bug spray he'd continually reapplied on multi-day pack trips with no showers. He'd also recently guided a trek like the one we'd taken with a group consisting of people with polio and Down syndrome, as well as two who were completely blind. I commented on how challenging - perhaps even frustrating - that had to be for him, how heavy the burden of responsibility, but he described it as "the experience of a lifetime". It had left him in admiration and awe of the human spirit, he said. All at once I understood why Edwin didn't seem to give two figs about us on the trail; he considered us more than capable of handling ourselves. Dealing with three spoiled, ceaselessly griping North Americans had probably been more frustrating for him than ten severely disabled.
I asked if he'd seen a lot of people fall off. When he nodded solemnly, I understood that these weren't laugh-and-dust-yourself-off, I-was-just-grass-hunting kind of tumbles. Only then did Edwin tell me that in the twenty-five years he'd been a trail guide, he'd had two people die on the trek - one in a rockslide, the other when his horse's foot went through a rotten board on a suspension bridge...the same bridge we'd crossed at the bottom of the canyon near Urubamba.
The horse he was riding went down, too in the rockslide, he said. I listened in horror as he described a desperate and chaotic scramble over a torrent of boulders, years of knowledge and experience rendered useless as horses panicked and the awesome power of nature ripped away any hope of control. Edwin had bailed off his horse when the rapids of rocks swallowed his legs and began to drag him backward. "But it was a miracle," Edwin said. "He was okay. Afterwards, we saw some rocks moving, and we rescued the horse."
"Was that the horse you're riding now?" I wanted to know, my heart breaking at the thought of the bay youngster trapped under a mountain.
"No," Edwin replied. "That was Sufa."