A day among Gods
by Dr S. Hadi Abdullah
There she is in all her splendour; amazing, awesome, breath-taking. Spellbound we were on beholding Machu Picchu with our very own eyes. The incessant rain did nothing to dampen our spirits, neither did our considerable reading. The gateway gives one a view of the straw roofed caretaker’s houses, surrounded by mountains that seem only to disappear among the mist. The terraced rocks of granite with the familiar Llamas (pronounced “Yamas”) grazing in the lawn and that unmistakable well-formed iconic tree in the foreground is enough to petrify any individual.
What strike you at first sight is the smooth terraced walls with its pasture green grass well “mowed” by the beast of burden. This is enveloped by the surrounding mountains with Huyana Picchu (New Mountain), towering above as if guarding this precious jewel at close quarters. Looking towards the right, one can’t miss the “split” mountain with its horizontal fissure, the result of earth movement from years gone past. Immediately to the left, a couple of hundred feet above is the guardhouse, truly a spot to give one a panoramic view of this world heritage site. By the way, the guardhouse is pretty close to the Inca trail leading to the Sungate which during ancient times was the gateway to Machu Picchu (Ancient Mountain) for the Incas who had mastered the mountains, valleys and gorges.
As one follows the various terraces and dwellings, one moves slowly up to the temple of three windows and the house of the chief priest The Intihuatana or the stone that indicated solstices and equinoxes was important for ceremonies and planting, which according to the experts was pretty accurate. This spot that looked pretty distant from the caretaker’s hut is now within touching distance. You had to perform some careful manoeuvring, as the ground was muddy and thus slippery. Rest assured the weaker spirit is bound to be stupefied by the distant river to the right and left of this monument, so far below that a train passing by looks like a child’s play train. One meanders past blocks of stone and green pastures, which we are told was used to grow corn and potatoes. Soon one is at the gateway to Huyana Picchu. The trail up this mountain is only for the fit and healthy, which no doubt looks it. Two satisfied Japanese tourists were just touching base from the climb. The lady at the back gave a broad smile to my question if they were just coming down from the climb.
Towards the evening the crowd began to thin. I was sitting down alone soaking her beauty to my heart’s content when suddenly a pang of sadness engulfed me. This may be the last time that I will see her but then, I told myself that I have accumulated enough memories to last two lifetimes. Soon my son returns to tell me that the view from the guardhouse was stupendous. But there was some climbing to do. The climb was slow and one had to catch one’s breath. As it gets nearer the top, the scene below begins to unfold and what a sight it was .Here were the majestic ruins with its terraces and stairways picture framed just for you.
My son Ashraf and I have had an interest in ancient ruins. We had visited the awesome Angkor Wat in Cambodia and magnificent Borobudur in Indonesia. It was time to go further afield. What more than South America, especially the “monuments” in Peru. We were aware that the flight would be long and the mild trekking challenging, especially when one considers the fact that I am in my sixties. We had to fly non-stop for 12 hours to Amsterdam and after a break of 6 hours, fly another 12 hours to Lima.
As required for such a trip, we began reading and researching about the sites and tour operators in Peru. The Lonely Planet, DK Eyewitness Travel, Trip Advisor and the internet proved useful. We also had read Mark Adam’s Turn north at Machu Picchu. Communication with some people who had been to Peru helped us choose a travel and tour operator in Peru. In our case, it was Peru for Less. They indeed made it easy for us to plan our program and carried out their part very effectively. Aleks Jankovic, our travel advisor was not only prompt but very well informed. With his help and our own research we decided upon a 13-day tour of the Andes. The visit although rated moderate in terms of difficulty, our feeling is that one has to be reasonably fit and enterprising to accomplish it.
Early history & ‘finding’
The American professor, explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham, in one of his expeditions “discovered” Machu Picchu with the help of a local farmer, in 1911. According to Mark Adams, it was a 9 year old boy (the farmer’s son) who guided Bingham to the ruins. Although he mistook this for another ruin, he nevertheless put Machu Picchu in the “world map”. Interestingly not only his University at Yale but also entities like the National Geographic helped in its’ subsequent restoration.
Cusco the former Inca capital is some 11,000 feet above sea level and is about 1 ½ hours by flight from Lima. The height and rarefied air (thin air with less oxygen) had always been a concern of mine, although Ashraf showed none whatsoever. I have been exercising regularly and was assured by a respiratory consultant that my oxygen intake was alright. We were met at the airport by the rosy-cheeked Kathleen, an American working for Peru for Less at Cusco. Our itinerary for the town visit and Machu Picchu were handed to us as soon as we reached the hotel.
As the Boeing 737 was landing, one can see that Cusco is built in a valley. Surrounded by mountains, houses were doted in the valley and mountain slopes. There is always a cross on the mountain tops. The road to the hotel is stone paved and extremely narrow. The middle sized buses had only centimetres of clearance on both sides of the road which consist of a narrow walk path and buildings with doorways. These doors lead to courtyards around which are a build numerous other houses, very much like those found in Spain. As we had reached the hotel around midday, we decided to look around for lunch. Best bet, a tuna sandwich. However, to our dismay, we found out that our hotel was on a steep hill and one had to do some climbing. With that height and thin air, we had to pause every now and then to catch our breath. Besides, we did not have sufficient time to acclimatize. The narrow and steep roads led to the town square which had a small playground, a fountain and benches to sit on and enjoy the atmosphere. Inevitably, there were always beautiful flowers and palm trees around. This Spanish type of town square was in every town that we visited.
The square itself is dominated by a church from which one could have a clear view of the houses sited on the mountain slopes that we had seen from the air. Roads encircle the square, with shops and restaurants located adjacent to them.
As we worked our way up the hill to the hotel, we saw numerous shops selling souvenirs, T-shirts, tapestry and such things. A long the narrow walkway adjacent to the road, one finds an odd Inca in full ceremonial and colourful gear with a Llama waiting to be photographed. You pay one Soles (Peruvian currency about one ringgit ) for that privilege. Later in the evening we went up to the balcony to the roof top of the hotel. Wow! Now the houses on the mountain slopes looked like so many distant stars or fireflies, for that matter. One couldn’t stay there long as it was pretty cold even with the cardigans. The temperature was hovering around 5 degrees centigrade. Speaking of the cold, the hotel room had a heater to help. Nevertheless, I slept in my long John.
The following day we toured Cusco, going further up the mountain. Breathing was getting heavy. The Sacsayhuman ruins were large and showed Inca military might and architecture. Stones seventeen feet tall, some weighing as much as 35 tonnes are placed so tightly together that a pen knife would have difficulty passing through. . From here we moved on to see the Inca water supply and how it was routed and guarded. There was a native lady weaving with a llama beside her .Both Howard and I commented how happy and contented she looked; no newspapers telling her about fighting and death, the problems in Europe, the stock market-you name it. That simple life; it reminded me of a poem ( The miller of river Dee) that I read in school about how a king seeing a happy miller was willing to exchange his crown for that happiness.
Our journey to Machu Picchu the following day began early. We were picked up at 6.30 am; the day is pretty bright by then. A car took us to the train station for the 2 ½ hour journey to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of that earthly wonder. Peru Rail has built unique coaches that have large windows and roof which were made of glass. The railway line meanders along the Urubamba River. The scenes keep changing, mountains, some snow-capped, fields of maize .vegetables, and small towns. Now and then one can see a waterfall or a cluster of trees. The train happened to be parallel to a country road and there were lovely young children waving and singing to us on their way to school.
As we are nearing the Machu Picchu train station, we begin to hear the pitter patter of rain on the train’s roof top. We later joined the long queue taking the ½ hour bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The line although long was clearing quickly. We find this same thing repeated throughout our 13 days. The Peruvians know that tourism is important to them and they have mastered the key elements of it very well. The trekking boots that we had spent money on proved useful indeed with rain and mud to manage. After witnessing some excellent driving with the bus driver skilfully manoeuvring along gorges thousands of feet deep, we see the entrance to this world famous site. Machu Picchu, here we come.
Aleks was kind enough to book us for the last train at 6 pm. This meant that we had to get down at a town called Ollantaytambo some two hours from Cusco and then travel by car. This train is called the Autovagon, it is shorter and much faster. Some half an hour through the ride, one hears loud rhythmic music and there appears a clown dancing, moving vigorously. Now and then, he dances with some sporting passengers. Soon he is joined by two other dancers dressed in colourful costume. After a couple of minutes to the beat of another piece of music, a couple does the cat-walk, displaying different costumes of Peru. Now we realize that these were the people who had ushered us into the coaches and served us drinks. Soon, like in the airplane, they go about selling those costumes that they had displayed.
We reached the station at about 8 pm and moved on to our car through some cold breeze. In our hurry to move on, we left a plastic bag containing some of the souvenirs that we had purchased. The good thing was that when we realized the loss, neither of us blamed the other. After all we had been to the ‘ancient mountain’ and it had been a long day. It truly was, for we reached our hotel at 10.30 p.m., after spending “A day with the Gods.”