Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?

7/11/2007

Wonder of the World?

Machu Picchu is a farce.  That's not to say that it doesn't possess some very impressive qualities, but those qualities need to be weighed against the hype, which could lead one to see it for what it is not.

 

I suspect that a great many texts have been written about Machu Picchu, that supposed citadel of the Inka in the vicinity of Cusco in Peru.   I admit that I haven't read a single one of them, so please accept this for what it is:  My impression of a place on Planet Earth.

 

I've already mentioned Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.  Machu Picchu, in Quichua, means Old Mountain.  Huayna Picchu means Young Mountain.  These are not the original names of the places or features that so many thousands of people visit each year.   They are names given to places whose real names have been lost.  The same goes for the other ruins along the Inka Trail that our group ambled past, over, and among.   Not only the original names of these features have been lost, so have the original purposes.  What we are left with is some modern smarty-pants intellectual guesswork mixed in with some surviving Quichua mythology and some Barnum and Bailey showmanship.   Nobody really knows what the site was for.  Clearly there were elaborately carved fountains and channels that brought water to the city from springs up on the mountain.   Clearly there were flat terraces carved out of the steep slopes that were used for cultivating various crops.  Clearly there was a highly developed mastery of stone carving and masonry that must have required unimaginable perseverance and skill to pull off a site like Machu Picchu.   But there are other things to consider.  Why are there stones that point to the four cardinal directions?  Why are there places aligned to the rising sun on certain days of the year?  Why is the site so bafflingly difficult to get to?  Perhaps that was the most intriguing thing about Machu Picchu to me:   While the stone walls and chambers and terraces were indeed mystifying, intricate, and impressive, why were they hundreds of feet up the side of a very steep heavily forested slope above a valley threading through a range of mountains equally forbidding and inaccessible (well, before the construction of a tourist railway)?   My answers are no better than those of the countless ponderers who have made up their own versions of what Machu Picchu and other sites like it were about.   Nature worship.  Astronomical observatory.   Scientific research center focusing on crop improvement.  The list goes on.  What is Machu Picchu definitively?  An interesting collection of rocks on a ridge top in a very beautiful part of a very beautiful country.   If it is indeed an ancient city of deep spiritual importance, a cosmic energy center and focusing point, a place of pilgrimage for those who would better understand their place in the world and perhaps even the nature of that world in the first place … I was absent from class that day.   Nevertheless, I'm glad I went.  Let's go climb on the rocks!

 

If you go to Machu Picchu one day, you really ought to get away from any tour guide who may be trying to enrich your experience of the place.   Go exploring yourself.  Notice the magnificent fitting together of the stones from up close.  Splash some water from a still-functioning fountain on your face.   Try to pet a llama. (Even though they've been reintroduced in modern times to fulfill the tourists' expectations)  Wander the areas with guessed-at names like the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of the Water, and the Temple of the Earth.   Spread out on the green grass beneath the few trees and ponder who might have lived there originally.  Who built the place.   Why.  Head up to the spot where that big stone is that points North, South, East, and West.  Then, when you've satisfied your curiosity and possibly discovered one of those hidden hidey-holes where the tourists go to take a crap when they think nobody is looking (why is there not one ancient restroom to be found?), go climb Huayna Picchu.   VERY WORTH IT.  Especially if you didn't hike for three and a half days to get there … your human body WANTS to do things like climb a peak 800 or so feet above the place that tour bus dropped you off at.   Your human body is DESIGNED to accomplish such little feats where it breathes a little harder, sweats a little more, strains just a bit, and then gets rewarded with a wonderful view of the true attraction of Machu Picchu: the rugged mountain setting.   Yes, depending on when you go up, there will be a lot of other people and it will seem like a party.  You may even run into Nigel Doogood and the like.   Forget them, it's your moment to look around and conjecture why anyone would put yet MORE carved stone structures way up here on this pointy crag.  If we can know anything about those who came here, it is that they were not too put off by heights.  Wow.  (Again I wonder how they took care of their bodily necessities up here.   Throw it off one side of the mountain and you'd be raining it all over the trail leading up – not smart.  As far as the more amorous bodily necessities, I propose that the spectacular qualities of the top of Huayna Picchu could be nothing but an aphrodisiac.   Who knows however if the Inka allowed women into their temples and mountaintop hideouts.  If not, their loss.)

 

I try to get across some sense of the beauty and mystery of the place with photographs, but as those of you who have shared any adventures with me in the United States, New Zealand, and elsewhere, there is no substitute for the real thing.   Get out there.  Be aware of what you're experiencing if you can.  And don't spend much time in Aguas Calientes.   That place is a capitalist scar on the face of an otherwise beautiful corner of the world.


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