Sunday, 20 April 2008

This morning I woke up really early, the sun rises around 5:30am, and I was up to hear the first bird sing. Soon the air was full of birdsong, telling each other their bird dreams and where to find the tastiest worms for breakfast. We said goodbye to the flowers and bees and the kids’ fantastic hiding spot (we never did discover it), and after breakfast we drove to a train station in Ollaytaytambo to board a train that would take us to Machu Picchu. I noticed a girl sitting on a wooden bench just inside a public restroom as we entered the city, probably the person designated to take the 1 solé (pronounced so-lay) it costs to use the toilet. She had a tiny Bible in her hands and was holding it close to her face to read the small type, her lips moving as she read, her own private mass.

We had no time to find a church service to attend, lately it seems our travel days all seem to fall on Sundays. The train ride was beautiful, though, and I admired God’s creation the whole way there. We chugged through giant valleys with cliffs rising up on both sides, sometimes we saw snow on the tops of mountains, and even glaciers. We arrived at our next hotel, once again a beautiful place, with running water coursing beside the paths and lots of steps leading to various hotel rooms. It was the kind of place you could get lost in. After setting down the luggage we met Ronald and boarded a bus that took us twenty minutes up a mountain to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It wasn’t very crowded when we arrived, we saw bits and pieces of this lost city, but Ronald was hurrying ahead and we followed him through a maze of small paths and stone steps until we reached a high plateau and were able to see, from a distance, the scope and majesty of this amazing place.

Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain” in the Quechan language, lay hidden for centuries. The Spanish never found it, and it wasn’t discovered until 1911, by an American, Hiram Bingham. By that time it had become overgrown by brush, I imagined it must have looked a little like some of the temples we saw at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Today it’s been cleaned up, parts of it restored, and it is a great place to ramble. That’s what we did all afternoon, we came down from our high point and Ronald showed us all around. He led us through temples and small homes where the virgin women lived, through guard houses and store houses, and across terraced fields. We came upon a cluster of wild llamas eating grass, what could be more perfect than coming across wild llamas at Machu Picchu? Some more tourists came along and Clay saved a woman from being pooped on. She was coming close to one of the llamas to pet it, she didn’t notice the tell-tale squat position we’ve become so familiar with after having dogs, Clay cried out a warning and she moved just in time. The weather was amazing, blue sky, we could see mountains all around us, Machu Picchu nestled on a high plateau, it’s easy to see how it remained hidden for so long.

The Incan civilization was amazing, what they could accomplish with so little. Their workmanship, their ingenuity in getting water to the city and the fields, their ability to study the sun and moon and stars using very simple tools. In one place there was a special stone called the Intihuatana that was used as an astronomical and agricultural calendar. We came across rough stone images of llamas and condors, and everywhere there was evidence that the Incan people worshipped their surroundings. Mother earth, the heavenly bodies, the mountains around them, these all factored into their everyday lives and they were the gods they worshipped.

The kids enjoyed Machu Picchu at a much different level. They loved running around and exploring all the stone places, finding small caves, nooks and crannies everywhere. They loved scaring us to death, pretending they were jumping off high cliffs, and landing on an unseen terrace not far below. The boys both found little stones they carried around to carve their own sticks and rocks. They all ran up and down the “floating steps” built into the rock faces of the terraces to get farmers from one level to the next. The boys had sword fights, Alayna kept an eye out for critters. I don’t know how much they absorbed about the historical significance of Machu Picchu, the majesty and the glory and all that, but they had a good time.

I realized that I was getting bitten by mosquitoes, or gnats, or some sort of black flying critter, and began smacking my legs with gusto, leaving their carcasses in black smears on my naked legs. I picked a bad day to wear my skirt. My legs were dotted with little red pin pricks of blood, and I reaffirmed with Clay that, no, this was not a malaria area. We left just as the sun was going down, riding back down the mountain on the bus that zigged and zagged its way down, lots of switchbacks.

We tucked into a huge dinner and agreed to meet Ronald at 5:30 the next morning so we could board a bus and reach Machu Picchu by sunrise, I read in my guide book that this would be an amazing experience, which “moves some people to tears, others to squeals of delight”. I somehow doubted I’d see tears or squeals from anyone in our family, but we just couldn’t pass up sunrise at Machu Picchu. We set out our clothes and prepared for a quick getaway in the morning, then went to bed early.


Monday, 21 April 2008

Oh, it was hard getting up at 4:45. As usual, Benji woke up happy, when I shook his shoulder he popped his head up and said, “Good morning, Mama,”, but the other two were snarly and pulled the covers back over their heads. It took turning on all the lights and a few threats to rouse them. We ate a quick breakfast and met Ronald, boarded the bus, and joined the line of other early risers at the turnstile, others who couldn’t pass up the chance to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. We studied the gray sky, noticing the clouds that enveloped the surrounding mountains. Perhaps we wouldn’t see the sun rise after all.

At 6am they opened the gates to the sight, and we followed Ronald, assuming he knew the best place to witness this wonder. He led us to the Intihuatana, the stone we had seen the previous day that was used as a sort of calendar. We circled the stone and looked around for a good place to sit, noticing the clouds that were moving closer and closer. They gradually enveloped the terraced fields, the ones we were expecting the sun to crawl up as it rose over the mountaintops. It became very “misty and mysterious,” like in Vietnam. We busied ourselves watching some swallows just below our vantage point. We lay on our bellies on the cool stones and watched them as they took off from the stone terraces beneath us, spiraling and gliding, and then settling again. Their backs were iridescent blue, their breasts white, they were pretty and hypnotic.

As we watched them fly, I looked up and noticed a group of tourists who had come to gather around the sacred stone, the Intihuatana. They made a circle around it, held hands, closed their eyes, and were very quiet. I decided to wander a little further away and give them some space. Clay stayed where he was and after awhile they dropped their hands, and he heard one woman say, “I think I found my way into the square.” We’re not sure what she meant but it was clearly some sort of spiritual experience, many of the people leaned over the ropes to touch the rock. One woman placed a stick on the rock and touched both the rock and the stick, then picked up the stick and put it in her backpack. Perhaps trying to absorb some of the ancient rock’s energy?

A light drizzle began to fall, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that the most exciting thing we’d see that morning were the swallows. After the sunrise, we were planning to hike up a nearby mountain, but decided the weather wasn’t cooperating and we’d try again tomorrow. It was time our family had a “weekend”, a day with nothing really planned. We headed back to the hotel, checked out Spanish versions of Monopoly and Twister from the hotel, and played games all afternoon. Benji really got into Monopoly, he could hardly eat his lunch, debating whether he should buy another hotel or not. We left our game on the floor and ventured into town to try out a restaurant and stretch our legs a bit. The rain began to fall very heavy, and we killed some time in a market, trying to find the perfect alpaca wool hat with ear flaps for Clay. He must have tried on a dozen hats, as we walked all around the maze of covered stalls, dodging drippy places, waiting for the rain to let up. Eventually we just sucked it up and ran back to the hotel in the rain, back to our game of Monopoly.

The only other time one of us ventured out was when Clay went back to town to pick up some laundry. As usual, the hotel was way too expensive, but we’d found a “laundry” sign hanging outside a handicraft shop in town, the total cost for 7 pounds of laundry was less than $7. Clay returned with the laundry, and a pipe. Back in Europe, before Christmas, he joked with the kids he wanted a pipe for Christmas. There were all sorts of cool pipes in Germany. Much to his dismay, he didn’t get a pipe on Christmas Day and has been lamenting it ever since. While he waited for his change for the laundry, he found one he couldn’t pass up. It has a mouthpiece made of a llama toenail, and the pipe part is a big nut shell or acorn. How could he pass it up? After making sure it was thoroughly disinfected, he appeared in our room, clenching it proudly in his teeth. That thing has white elephant written all over it.

It was a good day, even though the rain dripped steadily all afternoon. We hoped it would stop overnight so we could hike in the morning. In the meantime we lounged and played and read, and I even took a nap. We ate another big dinner, and we enjoyed it even though Clay and Alayna were uncomfortable with the seating arrangement. They sat facing a wall where dozens of naked statues hung, each with exaggerated private parts. Alayna and Nate ordered “messy sundaes” after finishing dinner, they consisted of a glass cup dipped in chocolate, then filled with vanilla ice cream with more chocolate drizzled on top and all around the plate. Benji fell asleep in my lap, he should have taken a nap and he wouldn’t have missed out on his messy sundae! We tucked them all in, and I promised I wouldn’t wake them up so early next time.


Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The day dawned with blue sky and no rain, we rejoiced. We headed back up the mountain with Ronald and hurried to the base of the mountain. They only allow 400 people a day to hike up Wayna Picchu, which means “Young Mountain”. After waiting in a line of hikers, clad mostly in zip-off pants and sturdy hiking boots, it was finally our turn to sign in and begin the hike. Benji was definitely the youngest kid we saw on the trail, perhaps one of the youngest kids ever to do the trail. It turned out to be quite strenuous, and dangerous. The path was skinny, often accompanied by a sheer drop off on one side. At intervals there were wire cables we could hold onto to hoist ourselves up or give us balance on particularly nasty parts.

Benji received lots of encouragement, many of the people we passed were amazed that he was doing it. Thus, Benji never complained. He was eager to show these strangers just what a climbing stud he was, and he endured the entire hike with tenacity, his little breaths coming fast and shallow. Alayna and Nate did awesome as well, we were all very proud of ourselves when we reached the top, where piles of boulders lay strewn at precarious angles, and we were rewarded with an amazing view of Machu Picchu, 1,200 feet below. It looked like a miniature village from our height, my senses were on high alert the entire time, lest someone make a false step and plummet to their death. It was always a possibility. I held Benji’s hand the entire time we were on that mountain, switching hands each time we zigged or zagged, always keeping him on the side near the solid mountain, averting my eyes from the straight drop offs on my other side.

It was a real thrill, and the weather cooperated beautifully. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, hiking that trail in the rain the previous day. It would have been so dangerous, so slippery and very little reward at the top, since the view would have been entirely hidden. On the way back to town on the bus, we ran into an older couple from Dallas who had children who had taken their kids around the world. We had a good chat, sharing stories back and forth, I love these chance encounters. We headed to the train station with Ronald, our time in Machu Picchu was over heading back to Cusco that afternoon, first by train, and then by bus.

We decided to let the kids play their DS as we chugged back along the same route that had brought us here. A little reward for a hard morning of hiking. It was really pretty pathetic, I’m sure we would have received the bad parents of the year award from some of the other passengers, as the kids pulled rain coats over their heads so they could see their screens better, completely obscuring the spectacular views we were encountering around every bend. Clay and I enjoyed the view in relative peace and quiet, I love to ride on trains. Time seems to be suspended for just a little while, and I am transported to the world of a child (without a video game), staring out the window and day dreaming the time away.