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Today, a travel journal excerpt: Once upon a Wednesday in Peru.

The mountain under Machu Picchu is 6 kms high, if measured by the route I traveled to get there. The winding road looks like a serpent coiled on its side, weaving up the incredibly steep slope in turns almost too tight for the bus to manage. It is possible to walk and save the bus fare, but you’d have to pay me a lot more than $13 to walk up a slightly tired cliff face such as that. Most use the road, but a few intrepid souls choose the steep stone steps that link each turn in the road, heading straight up the slope. The climb can be done in an hour and a bit, and coming down takes 40 minutes or so, if you’re a tourist. If you’re a local you can climb a hill like that in 15 minutes and little children run down the stone steps as quickly as the bus makes the journey. There’s a mini-Mafia of sorts making money doing just that. Called the “Goodbye Kid” in guidebooks, there are at least three boys dressed in bright traditional clothing who stand by the road calling out “Goodbye!” as the bus leaves the mountain’s top. Lovely, we think, a friendly local. Imagine our surprise when, at the very next curve in the road, the same child flashes by our window in a bright red shout of “Goodbye!” At each and every loop of the road the boy is back, and it gets funnier at every turn. By the time we reach the bottom we’re all happy to present him with whatever goodbye gifts we can find in our pockets. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We had fifteen minutes of rest at the top, which was enough time to buy empanadas, stuffed pockets of baked dough with meat, and sit on a wall with a Coke enjoying the view. It also gave me a chance to assess the site’s layout and the awesome nature of the place. Mountain peaks rise sharply all around, tickled by the Sacred River below. Clouds brush the very tops of the trees and sun beats hot through thin air. To my left and a bit below I see the remains of hundreds of stone houses on the bar hilltop overlooking the valley. Above, the ruined city continues up the slope’s face with dramatic purpose. Incredible to think that in 1911 Hiram Bingham had to hack those stones free* of a jungle that had completely covered all traces of this powerful regional outpost. We wiped the empanada from our fingers and slowly filed our way inside.

It doesn’t take five minutes at Machu Picchu to figure out why the Inca’s first rule of conduct was “Don’t be lazy.” Every step is either straight up or straight down. The guide moves our group along as quickly as we can go, and 15 minutes and some history later we are at the Caretaker’s Hut. The hut is at the top of the site just above the Inca Trail. The building itself was home to the one who guarded a sacred stone of sacrifice, set nearby on the high ledge. 

Incan tradition dictates that when a person goes to a holy site for the first time they must bring a rock from their home as an offering. The space between the hut and stone is, to this day, filled with rocks. There in the white-granite mountains now rest rocks from all over the country, in different colors and textures and sizes attesting to the pilgrims’ dedication. On the shelf just below the hut a couple of llamas grazed. Rumor has it that they were trained by the Peruvian Tourist Board, and they did seem to tolerate a remarkable number of photos. Around me people collapsed for a quick rest, a Japanese woman began what became a solid hour of coughing, and one foolhardy soul enjoyed a cigarette.

Incan cities had gates, temples, guest houses, running water, grain storage, terraces, and hockey fields. What they did not have were sewers. It turns out that the llama (20 per person in the city’s heyday) weren’t the only ones busy leaving “offerings to Mother Earth.” Part of their sustainable urban environment depended on a steady supply of fertilizer from all animals in the area, people included. Llama dung was used as fuel as well as fertilizer. Seeing the crumbly, almost dry soil it made sense. Somehow the Incans managed to have a clean, healthy city despite the fact that 500 people were peeing in the bushes. It was also forbidden to cut down trees without permission and a special replanting ceremony. My hunch is that the Inca knew a lot more about soil erosion than we modern descendants. 

* Although I have to wonder how much of that he actually did himself.

** I’m guessing it was a lot more sophisticated than that.

* * *

Photo by Lee Scarratt on Unsplash

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