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Saturday, March 10, 2012

You can't always get what you want...

Machu Picchu. The name alone evokes an exotic, wonderful destination, like Kathmandu or Timbuktu, yes?

Perhaps it's the "u" ending. But then, how do we explain Breslau, Nebraska's total lack of popularity?

It's a mystery.

What was even more of a mystery, to me, anyway, is that I, for some inexplicable reason,  never especially wanted to go to Machu Picchu. (Mike was so perplexed and surprised by this the first time I said it I think he stuttered.) Now that we were actually there, why wasn't I thrilling to the experience, the landscape, the history?  I have a degree in anthropology, for crying out loud -this should have been the trip of a lifetime.

What I felt instead was tired, a little grouchy, even irritable. This gnawed at me, which, no surprise, made me even more irritable. Had I grown tired of travel? Had I become a spoiled, hard to impress snob? Had other sites like Ephesus in Turkey and Jerash and Petra in Jordan ruined my ability to enjoy...ruins? Where was my excitement?

The narrow path up from where the buses spit us out was positively clogged with men coming down, straining beneath unwieldy loads of cables, amplifiers, plywood, speakers, and one guy with an inexplicable but obviously very heavy stack of round barbell weights.

Love the shirt.

A massive light and sound spectacle had taken place the night before to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Machu Picchu's rediscovery, and now all the equipment had to be humped out.

So we climbed stone steps in the thin air and tried to stay out of their way. Especially the guys carrying plywood. Those guys could take you out.

Finally the path opened up and the iconic view spread out beneath us, absolutely postcard perfect:

We'd gotten perfect weather, a clear day, and the ruins, situated in the middle of nowhere, are stunning. Maybe it had never made my bucket list, but wow anyway.

Our russet-skinned, almond-eyed guide, who may or may not have been named Mario, waited patiently and with humor while all his wards caught up, then began what was obviously a well-rehearsed tour, introducing us to the lay of the land, then having each of us say our names and countries of origin to the rest of the group.

It was about this point that I began to realise the real source of my irritation: I didn't want to be in a stupid group, following a flag on a stick . I wanted to go explore, not stand around introducing ourselves. To be perfectly honest, why should any of us care where the other people were from? If we wanted to know we could ask, right?

somewhat aloof llama

This is not to say I'm anti-tour group, exactly; Mike and I had been in tour groups before, but with our kids. More often than not, with kids or without, we'd hacked our own way though places, and we'd never gone on a group tour when it was just the two of us. If there was no danger of getting lost, why follow like cows?

If I'd had half a brain I would've told Mike, "let's ditch this" and followed my instincts.

Mistake #1: I didn't and I should know better; ignoring how you feel is a recipe for discontent. This was our vacation, we should have done what we wanted to do, instead of being foolishly constrained by the idea that we should be "polite".  So we stood and listened while trying to disguise longing looks over the rest of the ruins, walked when we were told to walk, which included painfully waiting, exhibiting carefully arranged and held expressions of patience, for the slower members of the group.

The people in this category included an elderly woman who was both frail and determined to proceed without any assistance from others (I kind of admired her spunk, to be honest), those who had worn what I will charitably describe as unsuitable shoes for the terrain, (not just women!) and those who took pictures of everything and looked at their digital screens the rest of the time. These last folks were somewhat hazardous to the rest of us, stumbled a lot, and tended to walk into things, but no one was actually lost off the various and daunting precipices.

Our guide had the habit of stepping right to the edge and then turning his back to certain and painful death, perching there while giving his spiel.

It added some zest to his presentation, to be sure.

Mistake #2: Since we'd planned on being in the tour Mike and I hadn't read up ahead of time about the area. We had watched Nova's Ghosts of Machu Picchu and been dutifully impressed with the engineering feat, particularly with the terracing and water, but our group didn't get into that level of analysis. The tour focused more on the story of Bingham discovering Machu Picchu, the idea that it was  probably built as a place of worship for Incan royalty, and how it was created with an eye to the movement of the stars and sun. This was all relevant and good stuff, of course.

Mistake #3: listening to the guide's answers to questions posed by the group, we all began to realise they weren't answers at all, which led to the realisation that he didn't really understand English all that well and was giving the tour by rote. There was some grumbling. In other words, Mike and I could have gotten the same tour by ourselves, on our own time schedule, out of our guidebook, had I brought the guidebook. Whoops.

It must be said there are many questions about Machu Picchu that may never be answered:"Why and for whom was Machu Picchu built? How was it built? and why did they build it in such a remote location?" Then there is the favorite factoid that everyone repeats: you can't fit a knife between (some of ) the stones at Machu Picchu, despite the lack of mortar.

rather like a really heavy jigsaw puzzle.

Honestly, you can't pick up anything about Machu Picchu and not read about the knife thing. Sometimes an enterprising individual substitutes "piece of paper" for "knife" but you know, that's neither as vivid nor as impressive sounding.

Perhaps they could sell commemorative knives at the site to tourists so everyone can have a go at it?

Then again, maybe not. Those stones have been there for a long time and while the government has wisely limited the daily visitor count to 2500, that's still a lot of people. Tourists should probably not be given sharp objects as a general rule, anyway.

Especially cranky ones.

At one point our guide asked the group how we thought the masses of rock had been brought, some from far away, and then shaped without the benefit of either the wheel or iron tools.

Mike raised his hand and said with a grin that he didn't know how they'd done it, but that he had seen how they were moving all the tons of equipment back down the mountain.

Which made our guide throw back his head and howl with laughter.

Mike looked pleased with himself. That was a high point.

The Sun Temple. Yes, very nice. Again, no sharp objects allowed.

Actually, they don't allow a number of things into Machu Picchu. Including bottled water. We ignored this rule, deciding that not having water at altitude was a really stupid idea. 

just outside the gate they'll sell you a can of pop for $5.62.

Also, they don't actually search your bags. You're supposed to check them, but we'd also read that it isn't the greatest idea -things stolen, lost, and kind of a pain to wait in line unless you're stowing a backpack and tent. 

The question that kept bobbing to the surface of my mind was why do we marvel today that the Incans worshipped the sun and were strongly aware of the seasons and stars? As farmers and religiously driven people trying to make sense of their world, they should have be aware of such things, much more than we are today. We have central heating and calendars, television and internet to distract us, so we're not motivated in the same way.

The guide probably wouldn't have been able to answer that one. Then again, maybe he would. I spent my time being quiet so the tour could end sooner rather than later.

I liked how even the most inexpert eye could see the different types of building techniques used,

and I tried not to roll my eyes when the group showed great interest in the titillating details of human sacrifice, the guide trying to both please his guests and to put a positive PR-friendly spin on it.

I began to think that my anthropology background was a drawback.

Then there my personal favorite, and I suppose I'm being gently sarcastic here, the Intihuatana stone, translated as the "hitching post of the sun".

People approached with reverence and stretched their hands over the roped off area to the sacred rectangle to feel the energy emanating as warmth or even visions from its surface. I, myself, would call that particular magic retained heat from the sun, but as no one ever got popular or rich by being a skeptic, we'll leave it at that and let you make your own decision.

I think, had we gotten to wander guide-free, despite the lack of interpretive signs, we would have had a much better time. And, as I've heard over and over again, if you hike the Inca Trail, earning your Machu Picchu experience, if becomes something utterly different.

porters along the Inca Trail

I wished we could have been there at night, or at sunrise, that we could has the time to climb up Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, and seen the view and temple there,  not following but instead discovering and marvelling and learning for ourselves.

but it was not to be.

The tour ended. Warned repeatedly to catch a bus back in time to board our train, we were hot and tired and any impetus for wanting to explore had faded like a forgotten dream. We gave the guide a tip, probably for laughing at Mike's joke and not falling backwards off a cliff. All we wanted to do was to find a quiet spot,  and rest and eat the nice snacks packed for us by our hotel and look over the landscape. Preferably away from the constant whistles that were sounded by site guards every time a tourist trespassed somewhere they weren't supposed to. Which was constantly.

Interestingly, it was perfectly OK to be an idiot and lean over precipices and the like. They weren't trying to save lives, just the site.

Fair enough.

Fortunately for my mood, (and for Mike who chooses to put up with me,) there were llamas...


  1. I so like your writing style and sense of humor!!
    Machu Pichu does look amazing...bucket list or not.


    1. Hey, thanks Marc! Almost as amazing as your son...now THAT was a photograph. :) http://feelgoodeating.com/2012/03/my-son-is-awesome.html in case anyone else wants to marvel at his kid, find some darned tootin good eats --that are good for you!---and e-hang out with a guy with super positive attitude and zest for life.

  2. Melanie here! I enjoyed this piece, please email me--I have a question about your blog. MelanieLBowen[at]gmail[dot]com

  3. I so enjoyed this... sorry... getting caught up with you in a bit of a random order...

    as always, gorgeous shots, lady. among the amazing pictures of the landscape... adore the photo of the laughing guide.