Machu Picchu, from ‘machu pickchu’ in Quechua: ’old peak’
I’m overjoyed we trekked in the Cordillera Blanca - purest nature, feelings of infinity, love and the cosmos. All of that!
And now, my tourist thing. There’s a light buoyancy in the station and on the train to Machu Picchu. Windows in the roof of the train show the majesty of the Andes mountains as we meander through the Sacred Valley. Awe in all of us tourists, anticipation, many local people, we ‘ooh’ and ‘aaah’ without any inhibition at the sheer beauty of it all. The Urubamba River guides the railway track, with its name at a certain point meaning ‘sacred river’. I love that. The organisers of vast numbers of people hustle, answer questions patiently and with endless polite kindness, keep us all in line, record our passport numbers against our tickets, and eventually get us through the four hour journey with snacks, humour and not a little grace. We shift and undulate like ripples on the savannah in a breeze, and suddenly we have navigated the bus on the scary, windy road up the ‘old peak’, through the lines waiting to show yet another ticket and then into one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
The ancient Inca town itself is a million times more intense than any photograph. That’s one thing. But the surrounds! Urubamba River way down in the valley on three sides of the peak, vertical drop down cliff-face into the river, vast Andes all around, dense growth of incredible plants and trees, llamas, and a place that quietens even these crowds.
I find a side path upwards, where no one seems to be. And I walk and walk. It’s to the Sun Gate. I love the name, and the ancient celebrations of the sun I’ve read about. Up and up. When I look down on the stone town, I feel the genius. Layered terraces to keep the town from falling down the mountain, waterways and canals that were secure and amazingly built, rural sector, urban sector, warehouses in the lower town and temples in the upper. There is just too much to describe. Space for ceremonies, carefully located. Stone lined up perfectly for the solstice, to ‘tie’ the sun to the earth. Local stone, meticulously laid, not a drop of cement, to fit together perfectly.
At the same time, I feel a heaviness. The hiddenness of the city by nature for 400 years, evading the destruction by the Spanish conquistadors that occurred at many other traditional sites. The exposure of Machu Picchu by American historian, Hiram Bingham in 1911, bringing to light the ways of knowing declared ‘primitive’ by so many of the colonisers. My old ache comes back. It is not to romanticise, nor to hark back. And it’s so amazing to have the gift of places like Machu Picchu. (With all its ‘cccc’s’ :). Also, the dark, violent histories pad alongside my journey, glaring at me, lest I forget. Honestly? Sometimes I wish I could. The sense of pervasive loss, of ways of being that included expansive perception. Ways of building that connected sky, earth and nature. Ways of knowing that unhesitatingly rested in dreams, signs, symbols and community. Where we sang errants back on to their path. Music, dance, prayer, healing plants, sacred place, story - all of these have their roles for us as moderns. We will never not be modern. And our modern sometimes seems so dreadfully dry, boring, two-dimensional and narrow. (After all, it’s said that of the entire world’s population only 4% are so-called indigenous people. A handful, if that, who are un-contacted. Living in 80% of the world’s most biodiverse regions. And the rest of us blab on about ‘sustainability’? While we fly from place to place, in designer clothes, grandiosely theorising on about saving the world …)
Maybe there’s a kind of link in this gigantic story of massacre on a global scale to some of the deepest anguish we experience on a personal level.
The vast things - the un-just, the unapologetically unfair - these are massive and scorching moments. In human history, and in our own tiny sagas of the interior. They carve indelibly the scars that are not merely battle scars. They are bone scars. The engravings we take into our next lifetimes. They are the unfathomable symbols by which we are recognised. Ah… it’s you … a quiet nod of recognition and a knowing gaze into the soul. By comrades in being-never-not-broken. It could be that very brokenness draws light. It’s not the same as banging on about wounds, and finding others to draw into the downward spiral of wet and grungy nappy warmth of victimhood.
But where the soft, quiet, hidden, sacred has been violated, lied to and deceived, forced to believe it is the problem. Like perhaps tribes likely did land up feeling insecure, stupid and primitive. Treated that way, how not to? Where modern madness of addiction to more, addiction to images, addiction to substances has taken such eloquent form that it is psychologised into sounding sane. Where the violent, rampant abuser - whether conquistadors of the past or present-day loggers - is not really different to the abuse doled out in the destruction of simple, everyday life in the name of narcissistic discontent, called ‘self-development’.
This place has a doleful effect on me. Humbled, awed, overwhelmed, filled with horror too. We are indeed a very strange species. I write sitting in the ambivalence, tensions and contradictions of what it means to be human.
Then, crumple into bed after a very long train ride back, where the train in front of ours broke down. Our train tries to push it, but it’s too heavy. Some blockages are just too heavy. We wait it out. Something else happens, we move along slowly. Magically, although close to midnight, my taxi driver from the morning is at the station to collect me, waving like crazy through the shifting mass of people.
I wake in the morning, lighter. Something got left on that mountain, I suspect. Good riddance. I make my way back to Lima. This time I’m put onto a later plane because my confirmed plane ‘wasn’t flying that day’. I smile inside. It always works out. And my beloved travelling companions are happy I’m home to cook. Me too. I try out some delicious Peruvian dishes, and we are glued back together, laughing. Eating. Figuring stuff out. Being a family.