The Magic of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. Such a well-known name, such a well-known image; just saying it to myself as I booked my tickets was like a mantra or an incantation, conjuring up one specific picture, and a vague idea of a lost civilization. It’s a spell any of us can cast, so firmly is the Inca ruin established in the popular mind. And I can say, without irony or embarrassment, that Machu Picchu is a magical place to be.

That's the picture we can all conjure up

That’s the picture we can all conjure up

I made it!

I made it!

Forget the hassle of deciding which convoluted route to take from Cusco to the ruins (bus-train-bus, bus-walk-bus, bus-walk-walk, train-bus, etc.), forget the 5am alarm, forget the massive line and hordes of fellow tourists. Standing on the ledge overlooking the ruins, surrounded by craggy mountains floating in the gray morning mist, I was transported.

Machu Picchu in the morning mist

Machu Picchu in the morning mist

This was otherworldly, in the simple sense that it was unlike the world I know. It was grander, and despite the crowds, quieter, as if the mountains absorbed any unnecessary sounds and left only my rasping as I breathed heavily after my climb in the high altitude. Even the rasping reminded me that I was breathing, that I was alive in a place long ago left to ghosts and sacred spirits.

The Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun

Because at least part of this place was sacred to the Incas who built here. Archaeologists have several theories about what, exactly, the buildings on Machu Picchu were for. Machu Picchu itself simply means “old mountain” and was not the Quechua name for the small town–that has been lost to history along with the function of the town. The most widely accepted theory is that it was a royal retreat for Emperor Pachacuti, and that the many religious structures and the orientation of the town itself can be explained by the fact that royalty resided here. The town is built on a precise axis in relation to several sacred mountains, and on solstices, the sun slices right through the center of the Sun Temple. Perhaps one section of town housed virgins dedicated to the gods. Perhaps one strategically placed rock was used as a solar calendar.

The Condor Temple (if you squint, you can see the beak on the ground, and two raised wings in the rocks above)

The Condor Temple (if you squint, you can see the beak on the ground, and two raised wings in the rocks above)

machu picchu

Much of the mountaintop is covered in the narrow terraces that make up the farmland of the Incas. One theory suggests that in addition to growing the usual crops, the Incas experimented with different types of plants here, as the steep terraces caused micro-climates that could imitate different climates throughout the empire. On the large, flat area in the middle of the buildings, llamas graze, keeping the lawn neat as they did 500 years ago.

Hard at work

Hard at work

I watched a bird build a nest

I watched a bird build a nest

machu picchu

My guided tour of the complex was uninspired, and most of what I heard I had already read in guidebooks: The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, which is one of the main reasons it is so celebrated, because they didn’t have a chance to strip it of all its valuables and rip apart the ingeniously constructed buildings, as they did everywhere else in the former Inca Empire.

Terrace upon terrace

Terrace upon terrace

Trapezoidal windows

Trapezoidal windows

Locals always knew of it, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the rest of the world learned about it. Hiram Bingham, in his search for the lost capital city of the Incas, was led to this spot by a local Quechua boy. He hired a team to clear away the vegetation that had overgrown the ruins, and in the meantime, he managed to clear away several important artifacts, which he took to his employer, Yale University. (Peru finally got all the artifacts back in 2012.)

Llamas have right of way

Llamas have right of way

Part of the reconstruction

Part of the reconstruction

At least 30% of what we see today is a reconstruction based on archaeological evidence. Unfinished stairs and roughly hewn rocks indicate that the complex was likely abandoned in the face of the Spanish and/or a smallpox epidemic before it was finished.

machu picchu

After my tour, I found a quiet spot on the eastern side of the complex, and I watched the rainclouds drift away and the noonday sun take over. I lay back on a large, uncarved rock and took a nap. I awoke to a guard sitting nearby, overlooking tourists on the terrace below and singing a traditional tune in a reedy voice. He smiled at me and apparently didn’t mind that I’d just lightly snored on one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. After all, as magical as these ruins in the mountains are, they were once inhabited by humans.

machu picchu

That, for me, is what appeals to me the most about places like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu: they are perfectly in tune with the magnificent nature surrounding them, but they were put there by the hard work and imagination of humans. They’re proof that we can have monuments to human ingenuity that celebrate, rather than diminish, the natural world. We can have both. That’s the magic.

My final view

My final view

Many, many thanks to Meredith Mann, Ted and Dana Calhoon, and Rog and Anne Findley, who generously donated to the Stowaway Fund and made my trip to Machu Picchu possible. I am extremely grateful. 

Getting Robbed Abroad

Check out my piece about getting robbed abroad over at The Billfold! (You read about it  briefly here.) It was a strange and mostly unpleasant experience, but it makes for a decent story. Here’s an excerpt:

I looked over to check the time, and my purse wasn’t there. My brain couldn’t quite process this. I checked behind me, in case it had fallen over. There was nothing. My brain started to catch up. I leapt to my feet and looked around frantically, but my purse was nowhere to be found….

I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t believe it; this couldn’t happen to me, but it did. I’m mad at myself for being careless. I’m furious at the thief. I’m ready to leave town.

Feel free to leave comments at The Billfold and spread the story around!

Helpful Advice When Someone You Know Is Robbed

Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Just Been the Victim of a Nonviolent Robbery (all true things I heard within hours of having my purse snatched in Peru)

“You really have to be careful with your things.”

“So you were just sitting there writing? He didn’t hold a knife to you or anything? How did you not notice?”

“You know the police aren’t going to do anything, right?”

“They’re only material items.”

“Oh, you’ll be upset for a couple days, but after that you’ll feel so free and unburdened by the things of this world.”
Note that it is particularly vile to pontificate thusly while holding an iPhone 5.

 

The One Truly Helpful Thing to Say to Someone Who Has Just Been the Victim of a Nonviolent Robbery

“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry! Can I buy you a drink?”

An Artist’s Vision Realized: Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre in Quito

In a misunderstanding straight out of a sitcom about traveling in foreign lands, I almost didn’t visit Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre when my language school offered an excursion there. The school sign simply read “Capilla del Hombre,” which my friends and I correctly translated as “Chapel of Man.” I didn’t connect this to the much-lauded museum mentioned in my guidebook, and I dithered about whether we wanted to go to yet another church; it seemed like I’d been to a lot of churches lately. Happily, I did decide to go, and once our taxi shuddered to a stop at the top of the steep hill the building’s located atop, I made the connection. Oh, this is the museum and house of the famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Grand purpose

Grand purpose

The Chapel of Man, designed by Guayasamín himself, is pitched as a tribute to the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the indigenous of South America, and in fact is a museum for many of Guayasamín’s works. There’s nothing wrong with that, and his commitment to social justice is apparent, but I do take some issue with using exclusively your own art in a building dedicated to all of humanity.

La Capilla

La Capilla

Still, his art is amazing. He was a Cubist and Expressionist, and he painted huge canvases of elongated figures, huge eyes, bold colors. He had three major periods, which have been dubbed tears, suffering, and tenderness. Darker colors in the first, brighter in the second, warmer in the third. One painting was called “The Mutilated,” and it showed pieces of bodies torn apart by war. He painted them on six panels, and those panels can be moved around in different configurations, to show the random cruelty of war, the way we’re all reduced to body parts when violence takes us. The panels themselves are fixed in place by the museum, but there’s a computer nearby that lets you move them around on the screen, in a sort of gruesome game.

I snuck just one photo inside

I snuck just one photo inside–photos were not allowed, so please Google Images his work and see some great stuff

One of my favorites was a reworking of a 14th century Pieta, which removed the halos, stigmata, priest, and Christ’s clothes of the original and put in a blood-red background and Mary’s hands held up to heaven in grief rather than pressed together in prayer. It stripped away the religiosity and presented a mother’s grief, a man’s death. It was striking and beautiful.

Many pieces were dedicated to the enslaved indigenous peoples (Mayans, Quechuans, Incas, Aztecs—not much seemed to be made of the fact that many of these were conquerors themselves, that was not his focus), and enslaved Africans. The walls boasted several quotes about helping each other, being the light in the world. One said “I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet.” The center of the museum contains a giant bowl with an eternal flame inside, because when he was dying, Guayasamín said, “Keep the light on, I will be back.”

Not a bad view from your front yard

Not a bad view from your front yard

Unfortunately, the museum guide knew about as much English as I know Spanish, and our school guide had much more interesting asides, so I wish our group had just gone around alone with the school guide. Also, the museum guide would ask for interpretations of the paintings and then tell us we were wrong! As in, “What do you see here?” “I see despair.” “No, not despair. Anyone else?” A different approach to appreciating art, for sure!

Not a bad front yard, either

Not a bad front yard, either

The ticket price includes admission to Guayasamín’s house and studio, which are on the same grounds. We caught up with a tour midway through, but I zoned out for most of it and just stared at the amazing number of beautiful things Guayasamín amassed during his life. A handmade guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, erotic statues from various parts of the world, Catholic icons, traditional paintings, etc., etc. It would be a privilege to wake up in this house every day, never mind then going to work in your own cavernous studio next door.

I’m glad I didn’t let my own ignorance get in the way, and I decided to go to the Capilla del Hombre. It was my first introduction to Guayasamín, and an impressive one at that. I saw his art in all sorts of places after that, seeing his style and influence through Ecuador (including in the governmental palace in the center of Quito).

Final resting place

Final resting place

Guayasamín died before construction was quite complete, but he got to see the beginning of the realization of his vision. He’s buried under a tree in the corner of the yard. Flowers dot the ground and wind chimes sing in the breeze over his final resting place, with his chapel just behind and his city in the distance.

A postcard showing one of his pieces from the "Tenderness" phase

A postcard showing one of his pieces from the “Tenderness” phase

Touring the Colca Canyon: Part 2

Colca Canyon: Part 1 can be found here.

Every single town in South America has a central plaza, often called the Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor. It’s the colonial influence–the Spanish built the main church in a central plaza and a grid system of streets emanating from it. (I’m not sure what it’s like in Brazil, where the Portuguese held power.) Even tiny towns have a central plaza.

Condor takes wing

Condor takes wing

Nice little backdrop to your church

Nice little backdrop to your church

The one in Chivay has been renovated in recent years, and it’s a pleasant place to spend some time while you’re, say, grinding your teeth in frustration because guides and hotel staff alike assured you that you could Skype in this town but it turns out even the internet centers are so slow that they don’t download Skype and the call centers don’t make international calls and you have a phone date on your birthday with your parents that you have to cancel via basic HTML email. Just for example.

Inside the church of Chivay

Inside the church of Chivay

The night of my two-day, one-night tour, most people opted to go to Pizzeria El Horno, a large restaurant only open for dinners, which caters to tour groups on a nightly basis. Our group got the head table, right across from the tiny stage for the musicians, and right in front of the bit of floor used by the dancers. The food was mediocre to fair, but the entertainment was terrific.

The band, on the tiniest stage I've ever seen

The band, on the tiniest stage I’ve ever seen

This was a peña, a popular Peruvian dance hall event (as with most local traditions here, there’s a range of peñas, from the small and local to the large and touristy–guess where this fell). The band leader called out the names of the dances and then away they went. Some of the dances were clearly based on important traditions, like one involving agricultural symbols and movements. Others just looked fun.

The dancers wore different outfits for each dance

The dancers wore different outfits for each dance

Probably the one that had us all the most entranced was the condor dance, which involved the man moving like a condor flies, stealing an onion from the woman, taking a bite, and falling to the floor on his back, at which point the woman takes out a strip of cloth and beats him with it, eventually putting her skirts over his face to revive him. He gets up and it repeats with her stealing the onion, etc., and then he picks her up and spins her around until they’re both dizzy. Probably there is more to it than that, but it was a sight to see.

By the end of the night, the dancers had dragged half the audience onto the dance floor for a big circle dance, and then they put costumes on people. The kids in the crowd loved every second of it.

By the end of the night, the dancers had dragged half the audience onto the dance floor for a big circle dance, and then they put costumes on people. The kids in the crowd loved every second of it.

The next morning, we got to see actual condors fly. (I did not notice any onions, beatings, or resurrections.) Condors are magnificent birds; they’re the heaviest airborne bird, and their wingspan can reach 3 meters, just under that of the albatross. They mate for life (males sometimes commit suicide if their mates die first), and they can live until they’re 75 years old. Because they have such a long lifespan, their aging process is not dissimilar to ours; they spend two years in the nest and are able to start reproducing at age 15. When they’re young, they’re brown, and they gain black feathers when they’re older; males grow a white collar around their necks.

Stunning sight

Stunning sight

Young condors--one of them stayed huddled on that rock the whole hour I was there

Young condors–one of them stayed huddled on that rock the whole hour I was there

Apparently, the Andean condor here has just one predator–a hummingbird! Hummingbirds are very territorial, and if condors get too close to this one type of hummingbird’s food supply, the hummingbird will use its long beak to go for the condors’ eyes. Never would’ve guessed it.

colca canyon

Because of their weight, condors try not to fly unless they have a little help, so their most active time of day is in the mornings, when the thermal drafts of the canyon are strongest. They don’t fly in the afternoons or evenings. Instead, they stay in the nests they build in holes in the walls of the canyon. We were lucky to see at least 10 condors soaring on the wind, against the glorious backdrop of the green, rugged mountains.

The adults flew above and away from the young ones, sometimes dived below (to get to a nest or a snack?), and only occasionally stopped by to check on the young ones. They must not have been too young.

The adults flew above and away from the young ones, sometimes dived below (to get to a nest or a snack?), and only occasionally stopped by to check on the young ones. They must not have been too young.

(A woman at my hostel in Cusco informed me that the reason that particular site is so popular for viewing condors is that the national reserve staff push animal carcasses over the edge of the canyon, drawing the non-hunting birds. If that’s true, it means the animals aren’t quite as wild as I’d thought, but I don’t think it diminishes the experience.)

Happy birthday to me

Happy birthday to me

When I asked some people in my group to take my birthday photo for me, they burst into “Happy Birthday” in Spanish, which was embarrassing but sweet. Later, the group took a one-hour walk along the canyon’s edge, taking more photos, learning more about condors, and appreciating being away from the crowds at the Mirador del Condor.

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

Little white bees that apparently do not sting and leave in these holes.

Little white bees that apparently do not sting and live in these holes

We had a quick lunch in Chivay and then began the journey back to Arequipa, this time with no stops. My last glimpse of the Colca Canyon was of a bright yellow flower swaying in the breeze on the edge of a cliff, while the green mountains stood watch behind.

We took an alternate route back through the canyon and got to see the river up close

We took an alternate route back through the canyon and got to see the river up close

There were a lot of pretty yellow, red, silvery, and red flowers along the canyon

There were a lot of pretty yellow, red, silvery, and purple flowers along the canyon