Sunday, July 24, 2011

Breathless Machu Picchu

Today marks the centenary of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel in Peru, now one of the world’s most famous tourist sites. The anniversary gives me another chance to revisit my own diaries since, almost exactly 35 years ago, I was there, a youthful round-the-world traveller, ‘breathless’ but, nevertheless, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t really impressed.

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian 15th-century Inca site located, somewhat precariously, over 2,000 metres above sea level on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Most archaeologists believe it dates from the 15th century, but was abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown in the West until ‘discovered’ on 24 July 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American academic, leading a Yale University expedition.

Bingham soon started archaeological studies and completed a survey of the area, calling the complex ‘The Lost City of the Incas’, which was also the title of his first book. He continued studying the site until 1915, collecting various artifacts - ceramic vessels, silver statues, jewellery, and human bones - which he took back to Yale. Recently, Yale and Peru have reached agreement for the artefacts to be returned to their original home. See Wikipedia for more.

Today Machu Picchu is one of the most famous tourist sites in the world. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and, in 2007, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide internet poll. It was certainly a key destination for me on my travels around the world in the mid-1970s.

I had been held up in Lima for a month by a bout of hepatitis, but, by mid-July 1976, I was on my way again, with Cuzco and Machu Picchu waiting for me further south. I found three companions on the road: Didier, a delightfully gentle Frenchman; Jim, a bearded Canadian with spiritual tendencies and an empathy for nature; and Annabelle, a beautiful Englishwoman with long dark curls.

Here is an entry from my diary, almost exactly 35 years ago to the day - (taken from my journal entries on the Pikle website).

21 July 1976
The river fjords, peaks and pikes, moss-covered cliffs. A hawk glides a spiral upwards, upwards, 1,000ft above the meandering Urubamba. Once people lived here in the sky, carving building bricks, hiding from the ground, from the river. Once people toiled here in the sky and worshiped the sun. A sun that came sometimes to warm, to grow, to live. A sun that came through the mists. And a myth that grew with gold. A myth grew and crumbled. And now is grass. A pasture for hungry tourists, for ego-hunting travellers. A pasture for writers and artists to see the mountains, the river, the sky. Few walls of interlocking stone are left, few Inca building bricks, but more a crumbling cottage stone of a poor man built, the Inca slave, the Inca beggar. Some flowers grow, and Peruvian government llamas or alpacas graze. A yellow pipeline sprints upon another mountain. Specks of colour dawdle from wall to stone from hut to rock from step to step.

And I am unimpressed. I am here but I am unimpressed. Sitting on a rock, watching the play of every day: red-helmetted grass cutters, drifting wind-carried chatter, people strolling, like in a park. I was talking a while with Didier just now - as we watched the tourist train pull in - about the Buddhist ruins I investigated near Peshawar. It was a very hazy memory. Didier is not interested in the old stone but likes the green mountains and green river. Jim sits on the other side of the saddle meditating. Annabelle takes photographs for a granny. The wind is smiling. Machu Picchu.

Have you seen this old old city
Have you seen, have you seen
This old old city, have you seen


What is Cuzco? It is situated in a mild valley, a patchwork of red tiles, cobbled streets, hybrid Inca walls, churches, squares, parades of modern arches. It’s a cool city with beggars, ice-cream sellers and blind harp players. The Spanish added some churches to the place after removing the Inca civilisation. But giving the people Catholicism was sinful.

We arrived on the Saturday (in time to dress up for dinner and mingle with the swarms of French and German bees). Initial impressions were of bustling markets, lots of gringos and old churches. For two days we did a lot of sitting in cafes drinking teas and milk and leches, or eating doughnut and honey in the main market in San Francisco square. The cathedral (a hideous place with galleries of ancient Spanish bishop portraits and alcoves of broken christs in ghastly glitter) and museums were empty. Our hotel, Roma, had falling down shacks for toilets. Our room was large with four beds brightly coloured and patterned walls and a roof that sagged several feet in the middle.

One very amusing evening started with Jim painting and me being very speedy - lying on the floor breathing heavy to cool down. I noticed little beads in the cracks of the floorboards and started picking them out. Derek and Eric, the comic due, joined in the bead searching party. Didier was rolling joints, Annabelle wrote endless letters. Jim’s painting got progressively darker, and my bead chain got progressively longer, and more colourful. Finally, I’d made a whole bracelet from the beads in the floorboards of Hotel Roma.

Another evening we went to see Zardoz and then played blow football in a late night cafe (the Canadian Rollocks beat the English Whizzers by three goals to one).

There was a strange moment watching a very old lady standing in the doorway of a trinket shop, looking at a display case of cheap ear-rings. She pointed with her finger from one ring to another putting a whole lot of feeling into the pointing process. I stood watching her and felt almost impelled to buy her one pair. After an extra emphatic point at one particular pair, she walked away. I thought that she hadn’t noticed me watching her, but when she’d walked 100 metres or so up the road, she turned and looked straight at me. There was anger in her eyes which spoke saying: ‘Why haven’t you bought me those ear-rings?’ A very odd feeling.’

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