“from air to air, like an empty net,
dredging through streets and ambient atmosphere, I came”
– Pablo Neruda
I won't say I am the first Persian to walk the Inca Trail but I do believe I am one of the few. Machu Picchu is a travel destination at an international level and a goal of the young and fit, and some not so young and fit, is to walk the ancient stone trail that wends through the Peruvian Andes and leads finally to the lost Incan city. About my companions on the trek, I could say the less said the better, but then I wouldn't have a very long story, would I? First there were the Greeks. She thought she was Cleopatra and walked around Machu Picchu holding her large orange scarf up to the wind. He was young and tall and after the first day arranged to have one of the porters carry their pack. Then there were two young men from Holland whom we told apart by the color of their jeans. There was a group of young Americans of whom more later. And finally a couple from Italy who must be thought lucky to have understood so little English. Our guide, four porters, and the cook completed the group.
We picked up the trail beside the river Urubamba that cuts through the Sierra and flows in a broad arc around Machu Picchu. The first day was windy and dusty walking along the river, the landscape dry with a few low bushes and an occasional cactus with bright orange flowers. It didn't take long to sort out the different categories of people along the trail. There were the fast and the slow of course. And then those that were good or bad going uphill and good or bad going downhill. Later there were those that had trouble with the altitude and those that didn't.
Our first sight of an Incan ruin came the first day when we hiked up a small river valley and saw across the other side the remains of a small Incan town named Llacta Pata that was built in stone following the curves of the mountain and the river. From there we went up and up and up the valley to our first night's campsite in the front yard of a Peruvian family who somehow survive by growing corn and potatoes and from the business they get from the foot-traffic along the trail. We wondered if these were the people a friend of ours had called the poorest in the world and what dreams of revolution floated across the mountain valleys. There were twelve in the family, living in two mud houses with single rooms that functioned as kitchen, bedroom, living room, and a place to keep the young piglets during the winter nights. It reminded me of the houses in the village were I grew up and the way we would bring the newborn baby lambs and goats inside to keep them warm by the fire. We were tired that night but not too tired to admire the star-studded sky enclosed by the dark shapes of mountains.
The second day of the trail is said to be the hardest and it lived up to its reputation. We were going up again, but this time more steeply. The trail climbed steadily over the six hour hike up to the first mountain pass at 4200 m. The strongest hikers went ahead, along with the porters who always needed a head start to be able to set up camp and have our meals ready. A few local people were at hand with horses and mules for those lacking the stamina or with feet too raw from the first day's trek. From low dry scrubland we climbed through mountain forest and then into puma, the low vegetation of grasses and herbs that grows above the treeline. There were orchids amidst purple lupines and snow on the distant peaks of the Cordillera Negra. By now the air was thin and every step took an effort. Ten steps would set your heart pounding. The many stops along the way were a chance to admire the mountain scenery and also to contemplate the progress of two men carrying the sides of a house up the mountain pass in relays. Lunch at the top consisted of oranges, soup, and stew. Our guide circulated among the group making sure none of us had a headache, one of the first symptoms of altitude sickness.
The second night's campground was in a high valley a short way down the mountain. Darkness fell early and the evening was frigid. There was nothing to do but retreat to the tents and the warmth of our sleeping bags. What went on elsewhere I cannot say but the two of us had as our diversion Neruda's long poem, “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” which had been adding to the weight in my backpack. I had read it many times without feeling that I fathomed Neruda's meaning. By candlelight we read the lines:
Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle's thickets
until I reached you Machu Picchu.
Tall city of stepped stone,
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages that had run parallel
met where the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.
We awoke long before the sun's rays could penetrate the valley bottom. There was frost on the ground and we were glad for the coca tea that must be drunk on the trail to ward off the effects of the altitude. The drink is made from the coca leaves that are the raw ingredients for the processing of cocaine and have been in use from time immemorial by the highland people. It was either a stimulant or a soporific depending on whose opinion you went by. By now I had gotten to know the porters through a combination of body language, my rudimentary Spanish, and the few words of English the cook had picked up over his years working on the trail. I was as a consequence the only one permitted to cross the invisible line that separated the common area from the campground's “kitchen.” When they found out I was from a small village in Iran they had all sorts of questions. Si, si we grow papas. Papas (potatoes) are native to Peru – all 80 cultivated varieties – and an essential element in Peruvian cooking.
On the third day we came to a ruin up a long flight of stone stairs beside the trail. Runturaqay was a holy place once run through with flowing water from high mountain glaciers now less extensive than in the past. Our guide showed us how the water was diverted to the ceremonial baths and explained that this was a special place where hunchbacks lived. Alongside the mountain we saw a special stairway constructed for them.
Then we were on the true Inca Trail, an amazing engineered footpath of large stones fit and leveled, with carefully made stairs in the steeper parts. It was only 40-50 years ago that the trail, overgrown and forgotten, was rediscovered. More ups and downs, followed by another pass not quite so high or so steep. Then down to another ruin, Phuyupatamarca, with yet more ceremonial baths. We had lunch nearby and by now could anticipate the conversation of our companions. The woman who always wanted dessert and had been reduced to canvassing the others in the group for anything sweet to eat. Those who spoke of spiritual energies and had come to South America in search of shamans and mystical experience. The woman whose voice carried so well you heard every word of her constant conversation and whose serious blisters made her the slowest but never the quietest.
After lunch there were the Inca steps, more than ten thousand of them leading down into the river valley. Walking down took a different set of muscles from those we'd been using. Most of us proceeded carefully, watching those few who ran down effortlessly on legs that were either much younger or made of different stuff from ours. Our camp that night was beside a hotel run by a local family. We were told the story of how one day many years ago one of them discovered the remains of an ancient Incan city that had been retaken by the forest. The hotel was as close to civilization as we'd been in some time, although we were only camped beside it. And who got a hot shower and who didn't after three days on the trail shall remain a secret.
That evening our guide and the cook and porters celebrated their success. Another group brought to Machu Picchu without major problems. I was given a special invitation to join them. A bottle of wine and a glass were passed around the table. When it was your turn you raised the glass with a salud – “to your health” – and drank. I found out our guide was considered a veteran of the trail, having hiked it more than one hundred times.
The next morning the porters and the cook left us, our guide having engineered the collection from our budget tour group of their tip, which they certainly earned having carried like human mules all the food, the stove and cooking things, our tents, and frequently some of our companions packs as well. Then we were off for Machu Picchu a short two hours walk away through the darkness of the early morning. We had descended so far that were now in what is called the ceja de selva (the eyebrow of the jungle), the uppermost part of the Amazon basin. A green lushness was all around us. I stopped for a while and watched a hummingbird spreading a rainbow on invisible wings a few inches from my face. Down the valley the Urubamba River was singing as it has for years untold. The trail was easy now and when we got to the gate leading down to the city, there it was, Machu Picchu, first in the shade of the nearby mountains and then a green jewel in the sunshine. We sat for some time, until our quiet contemplation was broken by the yells and shouts of an arriving group about whose nationality I will only say that they were from the Middle East and seemed to have just gotten out of the army.
We were there. It was very beautiful, rock upon rock, a stonework city one with the mountain. Stones fit perfectly without the benefit of metal tools, for the Incas had the wheel and worked magnificently in gold but had not discovered iron. Others complained of the crowds but to me the conflagration of sights and sounds was intriguing. There were dozens of Machu Picchus that day. One for every pilgrim tourist. One for every Inca guide. Some people walked barefoot to absorb the energy of the place. My thought of doing the same was discouraged by the idea of having to put my boots on again. I eavesdropped on a group of Peruvians being told in graphic detail of the sort they seem to like about the sacrifice of the llamas and the way the priests told the future by reaching into the chest cavity and taking out the animal's heart. Some groups had their mystical inclinations catered to by the dramatic accounts of the guides. Our guide on the trail had already conveyed to us his vision of the Incan past as a civilization in harmony with nature – Cusco in the midst of forest groves and Machu Picchu a garden city lush with tropical flowers. Here in the ancient city he had arranged for a special tour with a guide who set a rather different tone. Oh yes, he told us about putting your head in the stone niches and reciting your mantra and waited patiently while some of us did it. And yes, he told us about how some people thought the central stone had been raised by UFOs. But when I asked what he believed of all this, it gave him his chance. All the New Age talk was pure silliness and no one knows anything really about what the Incas believed. The interpretation of a good Marxist, we later found out.
It was almost time for our group to disband. People were very much themselves I thought in those last hours. There had been a bit of an incident at the end when, after arriving at Machu Picchu after four days and nights on the trail, before the tour that we had been waiting for so long, the Americans proceeded to the nearby hotel to order their second breakfast of the morning since one of them found he could use his credit card. Some of my Persian impatience showed I must say, but we arranged to start without them. The Danes were in good spirits as usual. The quiet Italians went off by themselves at the earliest opportunity. We found we could hear the voice of the loud woman all the way across the site. When one of the Americans asked what the people who lived here did when they had to get away, our guide tried, in his polite and patient fashion, to make some kind of sense of the question. The Greeks kept telling everyone they should see the Acropolis and pointing out that at the time of the Incan empire (1330-1420 AD), Europeans had had metal tools and swords for centuries. I should mention that I never brought up Persepolis, even having grown up only three kilometers from it. The truth is I did think of it, but fleetingly, the genius of this place seeming so different.
Well, whatever is or isn't true about the Inca city, whether it is the last city of the Incas (probably not), whether they practiced human sacrifice (probably), whether they were a spiritual people (who knows), whether Hiram Bingham, the American “discoverer” of Machu Picchu did or didn't find gold there (probably, although he denied it), I can attest to its being as much an amazing conjunction point now as it must have been in the past. Dirty and tired, we boarded the bus that took us down to the train for the long ride back to Cusco, New World hajis having come and sought and, who knows, even found. And had I found what I was seeking? As the words of Neruda's poem melded with the images of the day, I thought of the unbroken chain of being and the still remaining loneliness of the human race, and thought I had.
My thanks and appreciation to DW, my comrade on the trail.
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