Trip: Machu Picchu

The trip to Machu Picchu began incredibly early. The train was scheduled to leave at 6:30, and we had to get to the station well before then. It was a good thing that we did, because there was pandemonium when we got there. There were no signs, no staff, no instructions of any kind -- just people running in all directions, elbowing each other. There was a train on one of the platforms. We went up and down asking whether this was the train to Machu Picchu, but couldn't get a conclusive answer. We finally decided to give it a try, got on, and without any kind of warning, the train pulled out of the station.

After finding a seat, it looked like we had found the right train, since everyone else looked as confused as we were. The train was pretty modest. It couldn't have been less than thirty years old, and was pulled by a smoke-belching locomotive. In any case, it was good that we made it, and we pulled out some food that we had bought for the trip. I had some nice bread and a round, orange cheese, and everyone else had their own contibution. The result of all the hurrying was that we had a lot of time on our hands with nothing to do. We ate, we read, we talked, we napped.

About an hour into the trip, we lurched to a stop next to a stream. All of a sudden, there were about 25 women running at the train, carrying onions in their skirts. They were holding the ends of the skirts up, using the fabric in the middle to hold about 10 kilos of large, Spanish onions. They were running at the train, but also running diagonally and sideways. I imagine that they were trying to line up with the ends of the compartments, in order to throw the onions at someone who was waiting to catch them.

We stayed stopped there for another 10 minutes. There was no station, and there was a stream between the onion ladies and the train, but apparently this was a usual stop. We had certainly been expected. There were a few people there also trying to sell things to the passengers. One sixteen-year-old boy had chocolates, and was carrying them on a tray with a strap, like a 1940's cigarette girl. He was doing a fair business until he unzipped, and facing everyone on the train, started peeing in the stream. After that, he couldn't understand why no one wanted to buy his chocolates. The train started up again, just as one of the passengers, a big guy with a shaven head, was concluding a deal to buy a rug. He passed a wad of cash, and barely managed to hoist the rug through the train window. He was very amused by all of this.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, except for the times that the train seemed like it was going to tip over, but even this became routine. Around 10:30 we got out at the station, and boarded a bus that would take us the rest of the way. The bus kept climbing up and up a mountain, and to my surprise, I was told that Machu Picchu is actually much lower in elevation (2800 meters, I believe) than Cuzco. It didn't seem that way. I made conversation with a German woman who had landed a job as a Spanish teacher, and now had to spend the summer brushing up her Spanish. What a shame she couldn't have traded her English in – it was flawless.

As we got up the final hill to Machu Picchu, all conversation stopped. I caught the first glimpse and I gasped. No matter how much you know about the place, no matter how many pictures you've seen, no matter how cynical you are, it doesn't matter. Machu Picchu is unearthly. If you can afford the time and the travel, this is one place you shouldn't miss.

A bit of history: Machu Picchu was never mentioned in any of the Spanish chronicles, and had probably been abandoned before the Spaniards arrived. This was lucky, or else it might not have survived. It wasn't rediscovered until 1911, when an American historian, Hiram Bingham, investigated local stories about a lost city. When they cleared away the forest what they had was a major Inca city. During the colonial era Cuzco had become a backwater in favor of Lima. In the 20th century, the Cuzco area has become increasingly important as a link with the past, and the discovery of Machu Picchu added extra weight.

A bit of reality: Machu Picchu is one of the major tourist attractions of the world. Because there is nothing else but tourists at Machu Picchu, people behave in much the same way that they do at Disneyland. It's a nut house. Fortunately, we got there fairly early, because it gets worse as the day wears on. There are loud, middle-aged ladies who slip all over the stones in high-heels. There are paunchy men who experience everything through the viewfinder of their video cameras, and relate those experiences to the microphone in the camera. There are spoiled kids who are bored and run around, and people who touch and stand on things that the signs tell them to stay away from. There are people who view historical sites as a backdrop for their own photo opportunities, and worst of all, people who wouldn't move on so that I could take a decent photo without them in it.

Not everyone was obnoxious, but you had to decide to stay in a good mood and bracket a certain amount of this out. As the clumps of people moved on I stayed to take photos. The trick was to compose and shoot as many photos as you could before the next clump appeared. There were some instances where I waited and waited to take a shot, but it just wasn't meant to be. I missed some amazing things. I also captured some amazing things, so I really don't think that I should complain.

And some of the nicer people were really nice. I met a University professor from Mallorca. "So, you speak Catalán," I said to her. "When I'm in Barcelona I speak Catalán," she said, "but when I'm in Mallorca I speak Mallorquín". As far as I know, the difference is in only four words, but if that lets you say you speak 3 languages instead of 2, I'm all for it. As a matter of fact, I also speak New Yorkish! There was also a group of Italian tourists, who were bantering back and forth about what they were going to cook when they got home to Italy. "I'm going to make such a sauce," one of them said.

It was with this group that we came to a flat, jagged stone that stood upright on a stone stand. The guide explained that the hippies liked this stone because they thought it emanated cosmic energy. This was a practical group of people, but, well… you never know. They all rushed the stone and put their palms on it. The real explanation might have been that this was a portrait of the mountains, but since the builders of the city disappeared and had no writing, we'll never know.

Machu Picchu is an amazing place, and a full day's hike. Because of the terrain, you also get some breathtaking aerial views. We put in a full day, I had a great time, and had a scorching sunburn to prove that I got out of doors. By about half past 3 it was time to start heading back. The only minor adventure I had was that I got out of the bus a little earlier than I should have, since no one was announcing anything. As it pulled out I realized that I was in the wrong place. After a few minutes of only mild panic, I found myself a lift and got to the right train station.

We now had the same train ride back to Cuzco. I sat with a rather elegant Argentine woman in a black dress who had walked the Inca trail on the way to Machu Picchu. I was impressed that he had thought to pack an elegant dress for the way back on the train. She had with her a Swiss banker boyfriend, who insisted on practising his English with me. On these trips, it's good to compare notes with other tourists. Not only had they been through Bolivia, but had good reports of Mexico.

As I got up to walk a bit, the big guy with the shaven head, the one who bought the rug, waved at me to get my attention. "Excuse me, you speak Spanish, don't you?" "Can I help you with something?" I asked. "Could you ask that woman," he said, "whether her blouse is too tight for her chest?" This got me pretty annoyed. Of all the puerile and stupid things to propose, this was a 4 on the Puerile And Stupid Scale, which goes from 1 to 3. "Why don't you learn Spanish and ask her yourself," says I, indignant and full of conviction.

Then I heard someone saying that he was a doctor and would try to help out. It seems that there was a middle-aged woman who had over-exerted herself walking around at Machu Picchu, and was having some kind of mild heart problem. They hustled her off the train at the next stop to get her some medical care. Though he was a bit clumsy in the way he framed the question, it turned out that the guy with the shaven head was trying to help out. I was then in the unenviable position of apologizing to him, and had to explain that I had thought he was a masher. Luckily he wasn't as menacing as he looked. He accepted my apology, although it was kind of clear that he still wasn't too thrilled with me. Oh, well.

By the time we got back it was late and it was dark. I went and packed for the next day. It was time to go back to Lima.