May 24 – Machu Picchu or Bust (your travel agent over the head).
Shocking us all, Hefe himself was at our door at 6am sharp. We each packed a small day pack for a two-day venture to the Inca ruins and left the rest in a ‘secret vault’ behind Ludwig’s human skeletal remains. Just under the sign advertising the cheapest room available here – a coffin.
There is a catholic theory that one’s death is pre-destined. It is put into practice by drivers the (third) world over. Why practice safety on the roads if your time to die is your non-negotiable time to die? Even at this early hour we just missed getting into three accidents on the five minute ride to the train station.
Shocking still was Bushwoman waiting for us at the train station. I guess they realized that if we weren’t on the train to Machu Picchu we would have had nothing better to do but spend the day harrassing them. She had with her: four train tickets to Aguas Calientes, four reservations at a hostel in town, four bus tickets to Machu Picchu, four entry tickets to Machu Picchu, four bus tickets back to our hostel, but only two tickets back to Cusco. "You’ll get them tomorrow," she told Karoline who responded with the Yeah, right-iest sigh I’ve ever heard. She then turned to me and, in nowhere near a whisper, reminded me how much she "hated these fucking assholes." (For the record, I predicted this new and brutal Karoline back in 1994.)
On the train we found rows of empty seats, driving home the fact that we’d been had. I would have thought people would try to make tourist destinations like this easy to access. You know, help encourage tourism. But as you can tell, this has been anything but easy.
We left the station and traveled for about three minutes before stopping and going in reverse. Another three minutes went by and we stopped and went forward again. And yet again we stopped and went backward. Just as I thought with our last few bus rides, the distance is actually very short, but it’s the stopping, stalling, starting, and backtracking that makes the time add up. An hour later I realized we were actually zigzagging our way up a very steep hill.
A conductor/Machu Picchu guide checked tickets and explained how our next two days were laid out. He wasn’t nearly as vague or slimy as our other guides and I got a secure feeling from him. Or, at least if things went bad I felt confident that I could physically overtake him in a fit of blind rage.
At the top of the hill our train pointed in one direction and stuck to it for the next couple hours. The scenery opened up to a jungle basin nestled between standard Andean peaks and ranges. I started to remember why I wanted this part of the trip to happen so badly. It’s amazing, sad really, how much effect people can have on the beauty and excitement and enthusiasm of a location or event. I’ve had a blast being stuck in one room with some friends for an entire night because of a typhoon warning, but two tourist agents nearly ruined this entire leg of the trip for me just because they were being difficult and underhanded.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes before noon and were led to our hostel, located right at the tip of the tourist strip where it will no doubt act as a prime target for theft and merchant obtrusion. I’m sorry, despite having no hot water (I thought this places was called "Aguas Calientes!?"), an overflowing toilet, and a smell similar to the shit-burning factory by my house, I’m frankly shocked we even got a room so I should be more thankful.
We hid our things under the beds (about as safe as putting your car stereo faceplate in the glove box) and caught the next bus up to Machu Picchu. This Lost City of the Incas was erected on the top of a mountain some unknown time ago and was found by archeologists less than 100 years ago. It has since been restored and opened for business. Thankfully it has not yet been corporately sponsored. ("And welcome to Nestle’s Yoo-Hoo! Picchu!")
Mis Amigos and I broke away
form our group once we got to the entrance to the lesser traveled Huayna
Picchu site. The Collins chose to stay behind and continue exploring the
old (or Machu) peak while Devon and I chose the much more demanding,
nearly vertical ascent to the top of the young (or Huayna) peak.
We signed our names and the current time in a book that presumably told
park rangers who to send a search party after and at what time. It took
just over an hour to scale roughly 1000 feet to the top, and by the time
we got there we were absolutely drenched with sweat. Some parts of the
climb were straight up, others involved using a rope or steel cable tethered
into the side of the mountain, while other parts of the trail squeezed
through impossibly tight tunnels. At times there was a lot of nothing
behind and beneath us. With the clouds occasionally enshrouding us, and
their moisture minimizing our traction, I had to remind myself to pay
attention before I took a 1500-foot high dive into the Urabamba river
Making it was reward enough, but when I saw the view I was beside myself. We were literally on the peak of a very tall mountain. It was not a ridge, and there was no real trail. Just a few large boulders (which is kinda odd, now that type this) and a 360° view that made me dizzy – and made Machu Picchu look like a mini golf course (the elaborate drainage system doubling as the hole-in-one pipes).
Devon and I discussed what made the Incas so great. They had alternative methods for agriculture that the soon-to-be-pillaging Spaniards considered ‘advanced.’ They chose some pretty spectacular locales for their cities. They existed on hillsides and at extremely high altitudes. But the most intriguing aspect of their culture is how fast and thoroughly it was wiped out by the conquistadors. Studying Machu Picchu showed they were like any other caste society. They had powerful leaders, sometimes divinely ordained. The had a middle class. And they had the bottom of the barrel. The lower class were the ones who lived on this peak, the ones not fit to live with the rest of the townsfolk. The Incas took their opportunities to increase their power and influence and in the matter of a couple hundred years had forced regional cultures into becoming Incas. Fortunately, not all the area’s inhabitants succumbed and their steadfast traditions, and languages are still in use today, unlike the Incas. So, essentially, we agreed that the Incas were hardly different from most any other governmental body in the world in that they used spiritual dogma to organize, mobilize and conquer.
At least they left behind some cool stuff to look at.
I wonder if, when the humans of today are extinct, future civilizations will reflect kindly on us? "They were very adept at travel and exploration. Very curious. Some maintained very funny haircuts." "Ooo daddy, can we visit the Wondrous Western World exhibit? Can we?!" Or will they see us for the destructive, over-progressive, out-of-touch banes that we are?
We hiked back towards Machu Picchu and watched
the sun set from the Tower of the Gods. I didn’t feel the power of God
surge through my being (probably because the Mormons next to me were stealing
all of God’s glory), but I certainly felt excited and peaceful and content.
We waited in line for an empty bus to take us back down the hill. I don’t know if I noticed her because she was looking, or if she noticed me because I was looking but it was very evident that a gorgeous young lady and I were both looking at each other from across the welcome platform. I’m also not sure if she worked there, but she dressed like maybe she ran the gift shop. I couldn’t get out of line to say anything (like I would have anyway) so I smiled and waved. She did too. Our bus came and as I was boarding it I saw her get in the end of the line. Through clever backpack placement and feigned confusion I managed to save an extra seat next to me, what ended up being the last remaining empty seat on the bus. She stepped into the bus and conversed with the driver who, much to my chagrin, denied her a ride!? The bastard! We pulled away and I last saw her literally being engulfed in the van’s dusty wake.
On the zigzagging bus ride back down to Aguas Calientes a little boy took a path cutting straight down the mountain and met us at each turn. Every time the bus would pass him he would make a yodeling sound and then disappear down he path. It took a couple passes for the passengers to notice him, but by the fifth turn we were all expecting him. After half an hour of this people were flabbergasted at the boy’s endurance and got money ready for him at the bottom. He made an easy 100-200 soles after boarding our bus at the bottom of the hill. This was amazing in and of itself but considering he made the run about ten times a day it was easily more than most Peruvians made in a month.
Back at the hostel Devon unsuccessfully tried to take a shower (something about the nozzle only letting out a dribble of water, and that dribble being ice cold…). He tried to use the toilet which was successful only in flooding the bathroom floor. While he was in there trying to keep some turds from floating out into the sleeping area two French men came to our door and asked where their friends were. After some deductive reasoning we came to the conclusion that our room was given to us without prior consent of the previous party. The proprietors of the hostel packed their stuff for them and moved them to another, smaller room. Only they didn’t know it yet. A very bad business decision (on so many levels), but still par with the agency that sent us.
Everyone but me had had enough and wanted out of town on the next train. The two tickets we had (in Robert and Devon’s names) were for tomorrow afternoon but that wasn’t soon enough. My typical defense for agitations like this is to accept it and revel in the absurdity of it all. I didn’t even have a ride home yet, much less one that I could swap for an earlier ride. I was content to see where the situation took me.
While they were gone to trade their tickets in a man came to our door and said he would return in an hour with two more tickets. See, be patient and things will work themselves out.
I went into the bathroom to try and wash up which was as easy as showering in a drinking fountain. In truth, that’s more or less what I was doing. The door must have been unlocked because a small girl deftly entered our room and was snooping about when I walked out of the bathroom. She saw me and darted out empty-handed.
Also empty-handed were the others who returned saying the ticket office was closed. I told them about the guide who promised to be back shortly with our two remaining tickets. We waited. He never showed.
On a dinner walk we passed about fifteen restaurants, about fifteen of which were pizzerias. We settled on pizza then retired to our room with a new locally hand-crafted chessboard. The others wanted to get to sleep early so they could try and get tickets for tomorrow morning’s 5am train. I was bored and antsy so I decided to do some after-dark exploring. Just as I was leaving another guide came to our door and said he would be back at 5am tomorrow morning with our tickets. We all shrugged like, whatever, and went our separate ways.
The moon was very bright but the streets I walked were otherwise. I kept sensing moving shadows on the outskirts of my periphery. A loud river runs through the middle of town (and less than twenty feet from our front door) so it was difficult to hear if anyone was approaching. I started to spook myself out so I tried to pick one spot to sort of camp out and think. But all I ended up thinking about was how easy it would be for someone to roll me so I got up to leave. I nearly screamed when I realized a small pack of dogs had snuck up and lain down at my feet.
WHN? in Sudamerica - May 2002
0 – Please wake me for meals.
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