Saturday, April 16, 2011

Machu Picchu: Why Do We Travel?

Why do we travel? To see interesting places and have new experiences outside of our normal routine. The great waterfalls and mountaintops, the luscious jungles and pleasant, sunny beaches titillate our senses and remind us how big, how diverse and how amazing our natural world is.

But even more captivating than the sights and sounds of exotic plants and animals are those of the people who live and travel in these foreign places. However intriguing a hairy llama, or a rabbit-like rodent peering at us from atop a crumbling rock wall, the llama’s owner, dressed in colorful garb to attract the attention of camera-loving tourists, or the ancient indentured builder who created those now half-fallen walls, draw us in on a deeper level. While it may be the natural features that attract our attention in the first place, it is the human element in each new environment that links us to it and makes it meaningful. The majesty of the Manchu Picchu site, surrounded by towering rocks that jut vertically on every side, is awe-inspiring and beautiful in and of itself. Add the amazing ancient development, human-conceived and human-built, and the scary switch backs of the modern road that brings us to it, and our minds reach for more than just a simple appreciation of the greenery amongst the impressive rocks. It is the people, past and present that make traveling to this place special.

During both the planning of our trip and our visit to Manchu Picchu, we interacted with a wide variety of people. The professional tour guide, who sold us the expensive tickets for both the train ride and entrance to the site, works in Cusco, the largest city in the region. She wears what we would call business casual, sitting behind a desk on the main tourist drag in the main tourist city. She speaks English and seems every bit the modern city woman, with neat, shiny, black hair that hangs down to her shoulders and rosy, polished nails.

Some of our fellow hostel dwellers, new age hippie types, wear patterned, gauzy harem pants with the inseam hanging down below knee level. They look as if they have come straight from smoking a hookah at a middle eastern bazaar. Others wear patchwork pants and unapologetic, multi-patterned clothes that hide stains easily: the traveling garb of professional wanderers. These people speak in eloquent terms of the healing power and the spiritual aura of Manchu Picchu. They come to commune with other like-minded searchers in an ancient and powerful place full of historic profundity. They burn incense in their rooms and leave their dirty dishes forgotten in the community kitchen.

Along the way to the famous archeological site, we moved through the now familiar Castellano hustle and bustle of taxi drivers and food hawkers in the modern cities of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. But, as we stepped onto the only means of transport to Manchu Picchu, the tourist train, it was like falling into a suburban American outpost, hidden within the narrow walls of the sterile, light-infused train compartment. English was spoken – loud and clear. People all of a sudden were three shades lighter and thirty pounds heavier. Seating was assigned, but it seemed the ticketing agents used a random selection method for every group. A game of musical chairs ensued until families were seated together and friends sat near friends. Almost as soon as we had all settled and the train jerked into motion, the family across the aisle from us whipped out a grocery bag full of junk food and spread it across their table. Among the delicacies that we didn’t know you could purchase in Peru were Ritz crackers, cookies, an aluminum squeeze container of mixed peanut butter and jelly, fruit, soda pop and other typical, big city foodstuff.
Upon arrival at Aguas Caliente - the city that serves Machu Picchu’s tourist needs, such as $5 hostel beds and $5 pizzas - we witnessed an architectural style reminiscent of the Mercado (the open air market). Buildings squeezed up against one another in a very busy, cacophonous, vertical design. Restaurant owners stood outside their establishments vocally advertising their specials (all of the specials are the same in Aguas Caliente – competition for tourist dollars is strong). The town rises up steeply from a muddy, raging river within the confines of a small footprint of buildable space. The main road winds up about 5 city blocks to the top of the town. There is situated the famous hot springs for which the town is named. You know you are drawing near when the vendors’ capitalistic mating call changes from “pizza – 25 soles” to “towels for rent – 5 soles”.

The people here hawk hard. There seems to be a quiet desperation beneath their calm and sunny faces. The entire town of Aguas Caliente depends solely on tourist dollars. There are no bakeries or butcher shops here; no services for the residents themselves. This town exists only for us – the rich Americans coming to see one of the world’s most famous archeological sites. There is a rumor that UNESCO, the governing body of funding for special sites like Machu Picchu, wants to close it to tourism to halt the heavy toll of so much human use. If the rumor becomes a reality, entire segments of Peru’s population would become unemployed overnight. Aguas Caliente would cease to exist. Peru itself would fall into an economic depression unheard of since the drying up of jungle resources in the last century. Desperation would rise exponentially.

Our family spent the night in a flea-bag hostel (literally – I have the bites to prove it) with windows in the rooms that looked into the interior corridor. They did not lock and walls smelled of moldy plaster. Sleeping was a moist, noisy and uncomfortable affair. We got up early the next morning and took a bus up a long, winding road, listening along the way to a variety of Japanese, French, Spanish and English tour guides educating their clients.

When we finally reached the ancient Machu Picchu, the fog shrouded it all so thickly that we could barely see 20 feet in front of us. But the day improved with time. By 10 am, we had covered the entire site from within our veil of moist mist (we had arrived quite early). Matt and the girls decided to hike up an amazing pinnacle of rock connected to Machu Picchu by a thin saddle of land, called Huayna Picchu. They set off in the fog and were rewarded at the top with a sudden reversal of weather. Sunny skies blessed them with the best view of Machu Picchu and the Urubamba river that surrounds it like a snake encircling its prey.

The rest of the day was hot and sunny. We retraced our steps and re-visited the entire site again, touching the huge rocks carved with 32 angles to fit perfectly within the walls of an important religious building, and wondering at the Intihuatana, an erect stylus of stone believed to have been used to measure time and track celestial patterns. Katie, Georgia and I added on a trip to the perilous Incan Bridge. The bridge itself is only a few large planks of wood laid across a gap in the path – thus forming a rudimentary bridge. However, the real majesty of the site is the path itself, carved literally out of the face of a sheer granite cliff. This path was the most impressive part of Manchu Picchu that I witnessed, both in its engineering and its apparent lack of concern for loss of life of the workers who built it. Obviously, the indentured workers took great risks to create it. The vertical drop from where they carved out the width of the path - barely as wide as my shoulders – was thousands of feet, straight down the majestic, smooth cliff.

The people who made this amazing place were amazing themselves, kings and commoners alike. They built in a remote and jaw-dropping location, barely accessible and truly astounding in its natural and topographical beauty, not because it was close to resources – it wasn’t – but because these people thrilled at the sense of doing amazing things, living close to god in amazing places and doing the impossible. Andean people to this day seek out high points for a sense of accomplishment and celebration, running impossibly straight up to the top of the highest hill in long lines of dancing revelers during important ceremonies.

Andean people built Machu Picchu because they could. And that is what makes traveling to this incredible historic site more than just a photographer’s dream. It truly makes the visitor stop and consider why he himself exists, what she hopes to do with her life. Although our legacies won’t be 5-miles wide and built from stone, this site reminds us that we can set our sites higher; we can do the impossible. We should do it; because we can.