It’s been two weeks and I’ve missed writing but I’ve been time-traveling! Or, at least, it felt that way when I visited Peru and allowed my imagination to carry me into another civilization for awhile. Now that we’re back home I have a quote that captures the trip’s aftermath.
(However, to truly make the point I’m splitting the verse. The first line follows; the second line fits better a little later.)
How small a single life seems in this vast universe.
This describes how I started out feeling about a visit to the ruins of a vanished civilization.
To Bucket or Not to Bucket
Let me confess: Machu Picchu has not been on my bucket list. Hidden deep in the Andean mountains of Peru the city was built nearly 600 years ago (around 1450) as the center of the Inca Empire’s political and religious life. Travel guidebook and Google pictures of Machu Picchu show a network of boulders, broken walls and stone stairways that sit on top of a terraced mountainside.
At 8,000-feet above sea level it is very high and very secluded. Carefully placed as a hideaway between two mountain peaks with a commanding view of a river valley it is often shrouded in mist and, if not cared for, would be quickly overcome by the surrounding Andean jungle.
I’d tried to prepare for the trip in order to appreciate the ruins more. For instance I read The New York Times bestseller, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, an engaging travelogue that tells three parallel stories: First, the history of the original Inca people constructing the city in the 15th century (then mysteriously abandoning it 100 years later) ; secondly, the 1911 discovery of the “lost city” by Yale professor Hiram Bingham; and then the author’s own trek retracing Bingham’s expedition.
Honestly, though, the unfamiliar Quechua language makes it tough to retain all the names of the historical figures in the book. There are a few maps and black-and-white photos of the original expedition but I kept getting the timeline confused so after awhile abandoned flipping to them and just read to finish the stories, learning about history I hadn’t known.
My son Eric is a history major (and family members Chriss and Doug); I’m not. So, from an historical angle, at the conclusion of the book I mentally voted: Interested - Yes. Bucket list - No.
--- o ---
This judgment did not square with my husband’s opinion. Machu Picchu headed up his bucket list. An open-minded believer in extra-terrestrials he had already visited the Pyramid at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to see its unexplained feats of engineering.
In a certain light the E.T. point-of-view is not so far-fetched. Both civilizations leave behind evidence of advanced astronomical and complex engineering knowledge. Puzzles -- how could multi-ton boulders have been moved up a mountainside? -- remain. Or questions like how a futuristic calendar could forecast centuries ahead of its time? (The Mayans credited Itzamna, a deity residing in the sky for bringing it to the Mayans.)
But most convincing, according to my husband, is the incongruity between the Mayan’s advanced mathematical knowledge and their ignorant ritual of human sacrifice each night to a “sun god” so that the sun would agree to rise again the next day. In his view if the civilization was so advanced how could it miss the natural rotation of the sun? Such ignorance could not exist alongside advanced engineering.
Now, he reasoned, since the Incan and Mayan civilizations existed only a few centuries apart, perhaps Machu Picchu also had an other-worldly connection?
I am unconvinced: Skeptical - Yes. Bucket List - No.
--- o ---
The last notion around how to think about Machu Picchu came on a trip to San Francisco earlier in the spring, I am given one more reason to elevate Machu Picchu to bucket-list priority. At dinner one night with my cousin Liz and her boyfriend Jimmy they shared they’d already visited Machu Picchu. However, instead of taking a nearly 5-hour train ride as most tourists do, they’d completed a rigorous 4-day hike on the Inca Trail. This original stone “highway” is a network of thousands of miles fanning across Peru. With the help of a guide Liz and Jimmy had approached the ancient city through the mountains, literally hiking the rough stone path the Incas themselves had constructed.
“You must hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu,” Liz said, shaking her head. “It is magical. There’s no other way to truly experience it.”
I look at her silently thinking, “ Experience it? What’s the deal?”
Curious - Yes. Bucket List - Tired, I give in.
--- o ---
For whatever reason the summer had taken a mental toll. Work felt burdensome, uninspired. Time seemed to rush by and the routine of daily living filled minutes but not necessarily purpose. The downheartedness came on slowly and wasn’t rational on the surface. Somehow my normal, perfectly fine days of a good job and a comfortable home and a loving family felt rushed and disjointed.
Like that proverbial hamster sprinting in the hamster wheel, determinedly going faster and faster, there seemed to be a lot of spinning but not much direction.
I couldn’t seem to find the time to write -- my new commitment -- and when I did sit down to do it inspiration eluded me. With each passing week the mental shadow lengthened and I felt further behind -- what exactly? -- I wasn’t sure.
This trip felt like one more thing to plan for, pack for, prepare for when it was not my choice. Of course I should be grateful, -- look at all the people who had Machu Picchu on their bucket list! -- acknowledge the privilege and move on.
Perhaps traveling to this mysterious place would make a difference.
Machu Picchu Speaks
We are here. A 7-hour flight to Lima, another 90-minute flight to Cusco, two days (to adjust to altitude) and then a 4-hour train ride to the town of Machu Picchu. A van carried us higher, crazily swinging up a nausea-tempting, hairpin-turn road to ascend 1,000 more feet up from the town to the ruins. We spend the night at a lodge near the site.
I am now sitting on a boulder, gazing out over the river valley below. The view is commanding, stretching across valleys and revealing the meandering silver ribbon of the Urubamba River far below. Deep precipices and sheer vertical drops of mountain cliffs cause a shiver of nervousness to travel up my spine. Shuddering, I lean back to steady myself. “Breathe,” I whisper. The air is cool, refreshing. Earlier a guide had explained that lichen growing on the granite rock is evidence of how clean the air is. I breathe again, a long and slow inhale and exhale.
Over my right shoulder is the mountain named Machu Picchu and to my left is its smaller brother mountain Huayna Picchu. I gaze alternatively from one to the other. Their peaks rise above me, ghost-like, through clouds. The Inca people believed that the mountains were alive and, when worshipped, protected them. Now, nearly 600 years later, their dark silhouettes against the sunlight feel majestic, sheltering, benevolent, even sacred. “Hello,” I greet each mentally.
Closing my eyes I listen to the ebbing murmur of tourist voices and imagine that they are the voices of Incans who lived and walked these same paths. I imagine the sounds of banging and chiseling boulders into shape, the crackle and busyness around cooking fires, the call of a mother to a child, the laughter from one friend to another as they work. “We are not so different,” I think.
I imagine the engineers who designed the surrounding terraces for the dual purpose of providing ample agricultural land to farm but also sharpening the incline up to the city so that any attack would be crippled. I think of the scientists that studied and checked the solstice to give them guidance, and administrators that kept a census of citizens and visitors with complex strings of knotted rope. Aqueducts carrying spring-fed water lace through the city; hundreds of carefully constructed granite stairways still stand. “Intelligence, ingenuity, empathy, courage, reverence, love,” I list the qualities silently. “Not so different.”
When I open my eyes the mountain Machu Picchu seems to gaze back.
It’s estimated the city of Machu Picchu took 70 years to construct; thousands of people lived there. Suspended in time -- some temple walls only partially completed -- it stands forever unfinished. We don’t know why the population fled, abandoning their city and vanishing into the Andean jungle. They were a part of the Incan Empire that dominated western South America in the 15th century. At its zenith the Incan civilization rivaled the impact of imperial Rome. Yet, like the Machu Picchu citizens, it too vanished in time.
Machu Picchu continues to gaze back.
“Time is nothing,” I think. “Measuring by hours, by years, by centuries...is the wrong scale.” I live in this moment. I am conscious of a feeling of expansiveness. While the illusion of the Incan people in my imagination fades, the evidence of their qualities of inventiveness, creativity and intelligence sharpens. “Life is now and it is radiant,” I think. Like old cobwebs I feel myself brush away the last of the sticky conceit that had fettered my mind this summer.
What is lasting then is spiritual.
“Is this your secret?” I ask the mountain. “Is this why people are drawn here?” Machu Picchu is silent but I know the answer for me.
How small a single life seems in this vast universe.
But it is really our conception of life which is small.
A reluctant note on a bucket list turns into a realization of peace.
Thank you for reading!