It’s ShowTime! I’ve chosen a trip to the “Lost City of the Inca’s”, Machu Picchu for my adventure this year, a whirlwind 5 day 4 nite blitzkrieg…. it’s typical Tuckertime. Planning is always tricky for me, I never know what my work schedule might be – in truth, I don’t HAVE a work routine. I work when I work, and I tend to work often. I’d just finished three days on General Hospital; hadn’t shot a soap opera in years, but it was offered and would pay for my journey below the equator. I’d never been to South America and below the equator only once before, on a shoot in Australia. Southern Cross! New constellations! Winter time…
Not an auspicious beginning. My astrologer had advised me I was starting during a ‘moon void of course phase’, and things bought, begun and entered into during such phases tend to go south rather quickly. I arrived at Copa Air at 10PM for a 1AM flight to Lima…and was surprised to discover a rather long and testy line. Seems our plane never made it out of Seattle, our flight was cancelled and they were suggesting we try again, same time same place tomorrow night. That wasn’t gonna work for me; once my chain of events was broken, everything would fall apart…connecting flights, tours, hotel reservations…
Spent several hours discussing classic rock, sports and current events with an engaging couple going to Panama, and at about 1 AM, I made it to the counter. A VERY nice woman, once she understood my situation went to work on her keyboard…and 30 minutes later, she’d rescheduled me on a 9AM Continental flight thru Houston, arriving in Lima at 11:30PM (not my earlier expected arrival at 2PM)
And she bumped me up to First Class, always an appreciated kindness. Too late to call the travel agent,
and I’d left my cell phone at home in any case, not planning any intercontinental chats. It’s now 2AM, gotta return at 4:45 to get a boarding pass, and there’s only one terminal open at this time of night with any chairs or services. I shlep my two carry-ons from terminal 6 to 4, find a chair and wonder, “Is this a sign? And if so, is it a good sign…or maybe the other kind?” I kill the intervening 7 hours and just before boarding, call a friend with my new itinerary, needing to insure that I can count on my pickup in Lima. I want no taxi drama at midnight in a city renowned for running transport games on tourists! Moments earlier, I’d looked up to a synchronistic moment. Late last night, while waiting to be handled by Copa Air, we’d discussed, (among so many other topics), The Bruce Springsteen Band, The Sopranos, and their curious casting choice of a rock sideman, Steve Van Zante as Tony Sopranos consigliere, Silvio And strolling by me just now in Terminal 6, wearing his trademark bandanna is Silvio, (aka Steve Van Zante.) Hmmmm…
I settle into my comfortable chaise and order the first of several straight up rum shots. It’ll help me sleep, right? Breakfast of Champions! My stews eyebrows raise slightly but she keeps them coming till I nod off. In Houston, I confirm my new schedule with my travel agent, who assures me I’ll be met by someone with my name on a sign. I also score a rather nice fifth of Guatemalan rum from the duty free shop, return to my seat and settle in for a loooong leg to Lima. No major dramas, the Lima airport is bustling, even at that late hour, but eventually I see my name on a card, and ignoring the entreaties for hotels, transport, coca, (whispered) Hmm…well, I AM in Peru.
Ivoldo, my driver is great, gives me a travelogue as we fight our way thru traffic to the highway. Lima is foggy, moist and chilly. It’s winter and this city is known, even to it’s inhabitants as ‘Grey Lima’. As we approach my suburb, I notice a number of casinos, one catching my eye, the Mariott Hotel and Casino. Hmmm. I check into the Farahona Hotel at 12:30 AM and request a 3:30 wakeup, my flight to Cuzco leaves at 7AM. One thing I’m still good at (one of a diminishing number) is shutting down my brain, at will. The sheets are somehow moist. Lima has 100% humidity, (tho only 1 inch of rainfall annually.) I’m reminded of my bunk in Vietnam, same kind of ambient dampness…tho never this chilly! I dial down my consciousness …and my recently enriched dreams take over.
Digression – (the first of surely many to come) In preparation for this trip, I’d acquired several texts at Borders and my library; additionally accessing the infinite resources of the Internet. There was much to consider and I tend to worry. I accept it as my process, the way I feel best prepared for whatever may come. “You trust your mother…but you cut the cards.” Among my concerns – altitude sickness, pickpockets, my lack of facility with Spanish, etc. Days earlier, I’d requested a prescription for Diamox, which helps mitigate any adverse reactions to altitude. (When I picked it up, I told them I only needed 6 tablets at most. I was told 1 or 50 would cost me the same co-pay, $20. “Health care costs soaring!” Wonder why?)
I’d begun medication Wednesday night after I finished shooting General Hospital, preferring any reaction to happen here, rather than far from home. No worries. (Evidently, I go thru life rather lightheaded as a general rule) And whether because of them or not, I never had any physical issues with the 11,000 foot altitude of Cuzco and the 8000 of Machu Picchu. But like I said, my dreams, always interesting, started to get seriously colorful, (about which more later). Regarding the numerous reports of muggers, pickpockets and kidnappers, I knew I’d need to stay alert since I was traveling alone and had no genuine Peruvian street smarts. Friends scoffed when I mentioned this concern. “Tucker, come on, no one messes with you, you have that ‘look’ about you that discourages aggression”. And that’s probably true, I’ve been remarkably undisturbed and fortunate since returning home from Vietnam. I carry myself with a certain assurance and purpose…but I also know that I am no longer the fairly dangerous person I was 35 years ago. I am candy at this point in my life. And I knew, if confronted, I could neither fight NOR flee. I’d throw three punches or run ten steps and collapse, gasping for oxygen. “Coach, send in my replacement…or my stunt double!”
I considered adopting a more truculent posture…and was reduced to giggles. Think Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in STIR CRAZY. “Uh huh, that’s right! I’m BAD!” Bottom line, no hostile encounters.
I arose at 3:30, checked out and had a continental breakfast of rolls, fruit preserves; warily accepted the scrambled eggs my waiter brought and requested both coffee…and my first cup of Mate de Coca (tea from the coca plant). It was reportedly a palliative for altitude and a mild stimulant, aiding digestion. Wasn’t bad (no buzz, tho) and I continued to drink it thru my travels. It’s commonplace there, as well as coca leaves, coca candy, and the ubiquitous coca-cola ( a much sweeter formula in Peru) But it’s illegal to bring any of that back into the US. I’d saved a tea wrapper as a souvenir, as well as three coca leaves, (which WAS dangerous, imagine being busted by customs for 3 coca leaves!) but as I unpacked last night back home, I was horrified to discover a TEA BAG of Mate, which tumbled out of my knapsack!!! All’s well that ends well and it is occasionally useful to be recognized by airport officials; they tend to pass me along and chat about past projects rather than toss my luggage. But that was a very silly and somewhat creepy surprise, I’d taken great care to insure I’d returned with nothing I needed to lie about or sweat.
Back to the Lima airport, where I boarded a smaller flight to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire. They served more Mate and offered me Inca Cola, the soft drink of choice in Peru. It has the yellowish color of Listerine and resembles it in taste – medicinal and rather off-putting, at least to me. Apparently it’s loaded with herbs and minerals, but it’s an acquired taste and I just wasn’t willing to work that hard. Halfway to Cuzco, I looked out my window and noticed we were flying by a craggy, snowcapped mountain. Not over it. Beside it! We weren’t descending, it just happened to share our altitude, and the view was stunning; I’ve never seen anything like that on a commercial flight. It belonged in some IMAX screening. We banked steeply to make the valley approach into Cuzco, now flying between mountain ranges to it’s Altoplano mesa of 11,000 feet. As we landed, I was attuned, poised to access that moment when the pressurized cabin doors opened. There was no ‘whoosh’, I approached the stairs and verrrry deliberately descended to the ground. Tho the sun was bright at 8AM, it was COLD! Very close to freezing. Boy, was I losing respect for my internet weather reports, they’d promised a range of 60-36 degrees! So it goes. I was traveling completely carry-on, a knapsack and an Izod duffel bag, (courtesy of Alice Coopers golf tournament weeks before.)
Should have brought more sweaters and sweatshirts…layering is very important there, with broad shifts intraday of temperature and humidity. Lima’d had 100% humidity; Cuzco was close to 0 humidity. But I was breathing normally, everything quite bright and crystal clear in the crisp mountain air. I found my new handlers at the airport entrance, and again warded off the offers of hotels, tickets, transport, (coca?) and we made our way to the town square and the nearby Emperador Hotel. Many towns in S. America are built around a main central square, each commemorating some past holocaust or uprising (of which Peru has many.) Much like our own traditions I guess of parks dedicated to Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW1, WW11, Korea, Vietnam…I checked in and decided to crash for a few hours before my 2PM tour of the city was scheduled. A portable radiator provided heat, but I simply rolled under the numerous covers. I arose refreshed at 1, grabbed a cup of Mate and decided to check out some nearby sites on my own. One of the most enduring and remarkable qualities of the Inca’s was their facility with masonry. Their foundations of fitted stones, without any mortar endure to this day, despite time and almost continuous seismic activity. (Peru has earthquakes daily; they just don’t take note of tremors below 3…but I did. Just like old times in LA.) Many buildings still have the original Inca stones for their first floor, even the majestic Catholic cathedral in the square. The Spanish tore down many Inca structures and used their stones to construct new palaces and residents…but that trademark Incan stone work is unmistakable. Massive stones, fitted to a fair the well, not even a knife can penetrate their seams. I there photographed the famous ‘twelve angled stone’, each perfectly aligned with its adjoining partner. Whether coursed (perfectly symmetrical stones) or polygonal (multiple angled stones), their walls are elegant and unforgettable. I’ve a photo of a very pretty and colorfully costumed little Peruvian girl and her puppy, standing before this nearby wall. I returned to my hotel and was taken to the town square to begin my tour.
First we visited the cathedral, built on the site of the Inca palace. The Spaniards plundered the Inca gold and silver, melting it down and sending tons back to Spain, but much remains within the impressive halls. One vaulting altar is completely covered with silver, some 2 tons of it. There is an eclectic mixture of Catholicism and Inca paganism within, for the Spaniards employed the local artisans in construction, woodcarving, and painting. One elaborate altar has numerous and intricate repetitive wooden decorations. The Spanish expected the work to take 5 to 10 years…the Incas were finished in two. Men accustomed to working multi-ton stones made short work of carving cedar into delicate patterns of plants and trees and religious icons. There are numerous large oil paintings, inspired by the work of European artists, and many reflect the sensibilities of the Inca conscripts. One in particular, a rendition of The Last Supper is memorable. Judas resembles (quite slyly) the Spanish conqueror Pizarro, and the table centerpiece is a Peruvian delicacy, enjoyed to this day: roast guinea pig.
From there, we boarded a bus for Sacsayhuaman (sounds very close to ‘sexy woman’). A huge celebration is to be held there tomorrow, June 24th, commemorating their winter solstice, June 21st. I’d hoped to visit Machu Pucchu on that mystic morning, but missed by 24 hours. There are massive stones incorporated into this fortress, one of which weighs 125 tons. That’s right, tons. Tens of thousands of men labored more than 70 years to erect its imposing zigzagged outer walls. While in the cathedral, I noticed a very tall and striking dark haired woman, who seemed alone and quite comfortably, so. We exchanged smiles several times, but a tall Belgian made his move on the bus and they proceeded together thru the afternoon, making a very attractive couple. While atop this hillside military complex, I took my time and tested the waters, lighting my first cigarette in the thin atmosphere. What can I say, I tend to push envelopes. All was well s we visited an outpost selling crafts. (I’d noticed a sign at the airport, “Peruvian Crafts”, and the thought occurred, it should read “Peruvian Crap”. Not that it’s all crap, mind you, some of the work is quite beautiful…but we all go on vacations and we all buy chatchkas for family and friends. Most of it is crap; we know it, they know it. The implied thought is, “I was away from home and bought this crap to let you know I was thinking of you.”) So I shopped. I’m not a real avid shopper…but I do enjoy the give and take of bargaining. I grew up in the bazaars of Istanbul and Damascus, and I may not speak much Spanish, but my gamblers mind can add quickly, baby! Pretty soon, I’d selected two colorful scarves of ‘baby llama’( or alpaca or vicuna…) not really sure about their relative merits or differences, (tho llama IS tasty!) and a native wool cap, all of which I negotiated the asking total of 29 Sol, down to 16. (A Sol is about 30 cents.) My salesperson was cute and tickled with my passion in bargaining, but she soon realized I was quite willing to walk away. I also asked our guide, Odelia about coca leaves. She told me to check at the counter and for 3 Sol, I soon had a cellophane sleeve filled with coca leaves. I immediately rolled three, placed a chaw between my cheek and gum and began experiencing the Incan secret to their high (no pun intended) altitude endurance. Runners along the Inca Trail (which began at Cuzco) would do as much as 150 miles a day, workers would toil with stone and crops from sunrise to sunset… it’s the Peruvian version of ‘mother’s little helper.’ I also dickered for a carved image of the Peruvian trinity. Atop is the condor, symbolizing the gods and heaven, next comes the puma, representing life on earth and below is the snake, representing death and the afterlife. As we drove down the mountain to return to the city square, Odelia asked who was visiting Machu Picchu on the morrow. I raised my hand (and noticed the tall brunette did, too.) Hmmmm. Odelia expressed her regrets, she’d be taking the day off (Father’s Day) and enjoying a family banquet, she hoped we’d enjoy our next adventure. I thanked her for her cultural expertise and hoped she enjoyed her family gathering… especially the roasted guinea pig! There was a general roar of appreciative laughter on the bus, from Odelia, as well as the mysterious brunette. I should mention that I was constantly in the company of many nationalities, but by traveling alone, I encountered many different people. I met and spoke with Brits, Aussies, Japanese, Americans, French, Germans, East Indians, among so many visitors from abroad. Minimal tho my Spanish was, I held several conversations in German and Vietnamese, if you can imagine. All delightful people, all ages, all sharing a regard for this special place.
I left the bus at the square and walked back to my hotel to plan my evening. It was now dusk (remember, it’s winter there) and I’d been warned not to burn out on that first day, take it easy, acclimate and rest up for the challenge of the steep elevations of Machu Picchu. Accordingly, I showered and considered the post card conundrum. To write or not to write, that is the question. My generation loved receiving foreign posts (remember stamp collections?), my sense is kids today prefer contemporary crap, i.e., digital, Internet, CD, DVD, blah, blah. Besides, since I’d left my cell at home, I’d also left my phone and address book. Problem solved, I’m off the hook. I remembered my efforts to send home post cards from Romania, years before. I think about half of them were actually delivered… but the prevailing wisdom then had been, “postcards are a Romanian government scam.” They sold the cards, then sold the stamps…then took them from mailboxes and mulched them to create their remarkably fibrous brown toilet paper. I swear, there were times you actually felt you could …nahhh, you don’t really want to hear about that.
I opened my bottle of Guatemalan rum and turned on the tube. Foreign TV is always a trip, but CNN and ESPN are constants worldwide. I checked out world markets, world strife and baseball scores, then turned it off, happy to be somewhere else, at least for a few days. Dinner, what to do? I’d been told do serious carbs and eat several light meals; digestion and metabolism is slowed at altitude. I’d brought along several energy bars, but naturally each celebrated their ‘low-carbness.’ Stashing my passport and plane tickets in the room safe (I’d gotten mixed messages there – some friends swore you should use the room safe, other experienced travelers felt you should ALWAYS have your passport on you. I compromised, took my photocopies (in case the local militia decided to do some LA-style profiling) and set out to wander the evening streets. Cuzco is a city of perhaps 400,000. Its primary industry is tourism, catering to those who’ve traveled from afar to walk in the footsteps of the Inca. On this Saturday evening, the streets were bustling with kids from everywhere. Exuberant, confident, with intrinsic trail swagger, they milled thru the narrow cobblestone streets, in couples and small groups. There would be fireworks later that evening in the square, (alas, I’ve seen too many, both manufactured and real, the thrill is gone) the perimeter of which was lined with cafes and balconies, offering cuisine from Asia, S. America and Europe. I enjoy people watching, I enjoy picking up on the ‘style’ of travelers, how they dress, how they move, how they interact. Additionally, there is the supporting cast of locals, hawking postcards, shoeshines, (coca?) shady ladies…and each eatery has it’s own sidewalk pitchman (or woman) replete with entreaties, menus, and recommendations. I’ve never been fond of eating alone, but it seemed silly to do there what I often do at home (get carry out) so I entered an attractive corner bistro, peopled with a basic mixture of couples, groups and families. Sat alone, ordered…a pizza. Hey, it was an impulse. I’ve been weaned from the pastas I dearly love, ‘bad carbs, bad carbs!’…and too late remembered, “Tucker, pasta is right on time for you, just now; pasta is carb city!”
My pizza was outstanding! Great crust, intriguing ingredients, wood fired. (God, I hope there was no guinea pig in there…oh, what the hell.) I inhaled it and ate every crumb. Tab was 12 Sol, about $3.50. (Eat your heart out, Pappa John!) It’s now about 8PM, gotta be up at 4:30 for the 6AM train ride to Machu Picchu…But it’s Saturday nite in Cuzco, Tucker! TIME TO ROCK AND ROLL!!! Nahhh, I don’t think so. I’m tired. A mans gotta know his limitations. Bedtime for Bonzo. Back to the Emperador, a little more rum ( got the kid at the desk to show me how this effing electric radiator works…Damn, I TRIED that!…OK, thanks…) Took my evening altitude meds, but all things considered, life is good. I’m drinking rum, smoking Pall Malls, breathing in and out…who could ask for anything more? Here comes the night… and the latest installment of my very own Cannes Dream Festival. Evidently, the meds, coupled with altitude conspire to elevate the dramatic quotient of my altered conscious sleep state. Trust me, you’d buy a ticket to view these sequences. Recently featured players have included Christopher Walken and Denzel Washington. I’ve known both since the mid 70’s…but I don’t normally include them in my dreams. After all, they have enough starring roles of their own! Maybe this suggests some future work in real time. Hmmmmm.
Up at the crack of dawn, dress for the trek (long sleeves, insect repellant, hiking boots) and enter the small hotel dining nook. A Peruvian hottie (how did I miss her while checking in?) is presiding over the breakfast possibilities. OK, coffee, Mate and toast, please. My Mate is fine. (Did I mention, I’m becoming passing fond of this coca tea…I’ll miss this once I can’t have it)
My toast is so toasted, once lathered with marmalade, it literally SHATTERS into shards as I bite into it. My coffee is…wait a minute, you want me to add water? Ahhh, I see. In truth, it’s Nescafe.
What irony… I’m here high in the Andes, home to wondrous coffee beans (a kilo of which I brought back with me.) Yet my morning coffee is something I wouldn’t drink in Burbank. INSTANT COFFEE??
The humanity! (Get over it, Tucker, today is Der Tag. We’re off to see the Wizard.) I’m met in the lobby by Jacqueline and we proceed by minibus to the train station. She mentions something about options regarding my return, (little of which I understand) but tell her, since I’ve no cell, no way or inclination to phone her, lets follow the principles of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I’ll meet her here upon my return at 7:30PM. On to the train and my reserved seat. It’s a modern train, with Plexiglas above, presumably to afford us a view of the surrounding terrain as we descend the 5000 feet from Cuzco onto the river gorge, then bus up 2000 feet to the saddle between mountain peaks where Machu Picchu lies. At 6:30 we pull out of the station…and then seem to pull back…and then progress…and then pull back. Turns out the train line, created in the ‘20’s is a narrow gauge, single tracked system of switch backs, which allows two way traffic along this 120 kilometer run…but it requires constant coordination by switchers. As the sun rises over the surrounding mountains, the views are compelling. Even today, Peruvians employ the system of terracing for their agriculture, as did the Incas. The slopes are so steep, it’s the only way to create surfaces broad enough to justify the effort each separate field demands. Apparently, Peruvians are world renowned for their variety of corn and potatoes, each crop designed for different soil and altitudes. I saw ears of corn with kernels the size of small grapes offered to passengers. As we passed thru valleys surrounded by ‘hills whose heads touched heaven’, I took in my companions. My train car was one of perhaps 7, it would seem Peru is inclined to control the number of visitors to Machu Picchu. One can also travel the Inca Trail, a journey of several days, passing numerous ruins and sites along the way, but that is for younger, hardier adventurers…and their numbers are also limited by the authorities, permits must be requested before travel with guide and provisions can commence.
BTW, lets remember where we are (11,000 feet up in the Andes). There were no choppers in the Cuzco airport, mainly because choppers don’t function very well at such heights. You get in trouble out here, and your options for rescue are seriously limited. Don’t get hurt. There will be no Dust-Offs! Across the aisle from me is an American couple, 20-something. Both in trekker gear and native ponchos, he’s pretty worn out and crashed (she seems the likely cause of his fatigue, is chipper, fluent in Spanish and quite fetching.)
A young Japanese couple sits ahead of me, their ‘sherpa’ beside me, offering them guidance between his incessant coughing (which begins to freak me, I don’t NEED to catch your bug, dude!) I find a moment to slip up to the front of this lead car to an unoccupied seat and take in the scenery. I now understood why this 120 klick journey required 3 ½ hours. Combined with the multiple switchbacks (parallel tracks, allowing trains to clear for returning traffic, as well as to negotiate chasms too extreme to be attacked directly) these negotiations take time…and maybe that’s part of the charm. I’m not sure why they’ve chosen not to build an adjoining parallel track to alleviate this…reasons may be economic, they may be geological… but the system does work, however inefficient it may seem to me. Many on board sleep as we progress, but I’m unwilling to surrender any opportunity to appreciate the vistas. They may be mundane in their small farm, small field minimalism, but their context is to me quite visually compelling. What must life be like for a farmer and his family, two miles up in the Andes? What kind of dreams do his kids have, to what do they aspire? Do they have any inkling of the envy their proximity to this hallowed land of the legendary Inca people generates among people around the world?
I was struck by the unanimity of responses from friends, when I told them of my intentions to visit Machu Picchu. E-mails arrived, each containing hopes for a safe journey…and a singular, consistent expression, “I’m so envious that you’re making this trip, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of, something that’s been on my wish list for many years.” There were times (especially when schedules seemed to be in SNAFU-Land) that I felt that weight, my need to somehow vicariously complete the intention for so many in my life, as well as for myself. Envy is not an emotion readily shared. We all feel it at times…but we keep it close to our vests; it seems somehow less than proper. But so many baldly shared this unrequited quest. My life allows me such latitude; the upside, if you will of being without my own family. I hope many friends will someday make this journey, if not a similar quest… and I hope my journal will facilitate their adventure.
As we descend from the Altoplano, (the high Andean plateau,) and enter The Sacred Valley, the changes in vegetation are dramatic. Trees grow taller, are more evident. Our train route thru the gorge, surrounded by vaulting peaks, raises the question (at least to me) of what might happen should some boulder, safely ensconced and residing on the heights above (for centuries maybe) suddenly decide to come tumbling down? Could be a tremor…could be God’s will, shit happens. But regardless, if one starts rolling, it won’t stop until it smashes thru some random train car…Surely they’ve got this worked out right? (Hey, this ain’t Disneyland, this is effing Peru, Tucker. Welcome to the jungle)…which we are truly entering with our descent, serious trees, vines, vegetation….and the briskly developing rapids of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the base of Machu Picchu. It was somewhat of a disappointment to me, but then this is winter, their dry season. During the rainy season, it surges and can be heard from the summit, a roiling, dangerous cauldron of water and rocks. The train had several stops at ‘towns’, apart from needs to enter switchbacks, to navigate the occasional extreme terrain feature. When I say extreme, you kinda have to see it. The term Extreme has cache in our contemporary sports world…EXTREME SPORTS. But I’d love to see those kids try to negotiate by bike or snowboard or whatever, some of Peru’s elevational transitions. You want to talk about ass over teakettle, buddy…
I continued snapping photos as the terrain transitioned and we pulled into a stop. Kids offered passengers corn and souvenirs, the girl across the aisle negotiated with fluency the purchase of several ears (her companion still deep in the arms of Morpheus) and I noticed several new passengers entering my car. She was very blonde and fit(a young Liv Ullman), her escort was leading man tall and also fair…and their Sancho Panza, (who most resembled a somewhat younger Robert Loggia.) I enjoyed watching them ‘exist in the space’, as we continued on to Machu Picchu. They were clearly ‘people of consequence.’ There was no outward show of any kind, but coffee and bread was immediately provided. Her beauty was a given, but more compelling was her physical assurance. She was regal, without evident investment in her presentation. He was less revealing, a quiet, underplayed male lead. ‘Sancho’ (or whatever his name,) was to me the most interesting of the three. As we continued our descent, he shed first one, then miles later, another layer of outerwear, continuing his interaction with his couple and with an onboard compatriot. His demeanor suggested both expertise and experience; this was someone to be trusted, and surely someone well paid to escort less knowledgeable adventurers along the Inca Trail. They left the train at Agua Caliente, a short distance from our final destination. Presumably they would climb the Inca trail to Machu Picchu…yet they were carrying no provisions or serious gear, not even evident water. My presumption: other bearers had preceded them, carrying whatever they might need along their way. It was a glimpse into the world of the wealthy who’d chosen spiritual and physical encounters, yet traveled ‘first class’, rather than ‘coach’.
Our train pulled into an area surrounded by colorful shops and stalls, offering all manner of artifacts, woven goods, t-shirts, hats, tapestries, your basic tourist shopping center…it hardly seemed to reflect the spiritual reputation of this mythic shrine, but this was only the train station. There was no sign of anything remarkable, simply because Machu Picchu is constructed on the very top of a mountain peak directly before us; (that’s why the Spanish never found it), we were at the bottom of Urubamba Canyon. There were imposing peaks all around us, but this next leg would require transferring to a bus to begin the 15 minute drive to the summit. I’ve seen pictures taken from the air of this road, named after the explorer Hiram Bingham, who brought Machu Picchu to the attention of the world in 1911. These peak are quite steep, almost vertical and the road goes back and forth as it works its way up the mountain, perhaps as many as 15 separate switchbacks. It’s hardly a blacktop highway, barely two lanes wide and while there are barriers at each switchback, there are no shoulders to speak of…there is the road, and then there is just space…and a very long drop. We approached the summit and our excitement began to grow as the complex came into view. Most of us have seen pictures but they hardly prepare you for the majesty and setting. The morning was crisp and clear, it was now shortly after 10, the bleached rock constructions glowing in the bright sunlight, further contrasted and defined by the darkness of nearby peaks and valleys, ranges of mountains continuing on as far as the eye could see.
When I’d left the train, I discovered riding in the car behind me was the tall dark-haired woman I’d encountered yesterday. We greeted each other, compared names of guides and realized we’d be in different groups. Now atop the mountain, I was told my guide had called in sick; I’d be handled by another English-speaking guide named Betto. He bustled about, trying to assemble his charges, calling out names, and I approached him. My name was not printed on his lists and I wanted to be sure he knew I was part of his group. He assured me all was well…and indeed it was, for I was now sharing a tour with, you guessed it, Ms South American Thing. As we trailed along single-file to the first site, torn between taking photos, keeping up and trying not to look down (cause these slopes were extreme, ok? The bottom was more than 2000 feet away and would be reached very quickly.) We gathered to listen to Betto’s introductory remarks and she offered to take a picture of me with my camera, which I happily accepted. I then offered to return the favor with her camera and she very confidently struck a pose. Her name was Elizabeth, she was probably close to 6 ‘ barefoot and she was wearing two-inch heels. Dressed entirely in black, a form-fitting sleeveless top and tight jeans, she cut a rakish figure of contemporary stylishness in this centuries old Inca sanctuary. Elizabeth was a veterinarian from Brazil, a teaching professional in a university who’d been brought to Peru to consult on problems they were having with their poultry industry. Not avian flu, but that too was lurking in Chile, where she’d been asked next to go. She’d decided to make this final trek and then fly home. The time passed as we visited site after site, snapping shots, chatting, and I offered her my coca leaf stash, which she delightedly rolled up and began to chew. At some point, mid-way thru the tour, my camera refused to open, a message read, “Please change the battery.” I was stunned, this had never happened before. I had a 256meg card, sufficient memory for more than 1000 shots of my chosen resolution, I’d only been gone three days, but had no back up and no converter, in any case. (I now know what happened. My camera has the ability to take both stills and small films…and apparently, somehow on several occasions that morning, while taking a photo, I was inadvertently shooting in film mode.) Bummer. I dedicated myself to taking pictures with my heart; it was too singular a setting to dwell on so small a misfortune. I can talk about the views and sites but in truth, you gotta see it. I’ve got my pictures, but never expected them to compete with professional shots. To properly get all in perspective, you’d need to traverse to a lateral peak (perhaps Huaynu Picchu) and use a telephoto lens. (As I was leaving Cuzco to return to Lima, an airport kiosk offered an interactive DVD of Machu Picchu for $20. It looked really good but I was confident I’d be able to find it at Amazon. Just checked, no such luck. My bad.)