tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

Machu Picchu

I needn't have set an alarm for 4:30am. The rum was way ahead of it. Spinning headed, I sat on the edge of the hostel bed, trying to put my left shoe on my right foot. Several minutes later, I give up and started trying to put my right shoe on my left foot. Somehow, my feet had been swapped over whilst I was drinking all that free Colombian rum in the bar last night. Probably pranksters. Last night? Well, a few hours ago. I think. I can't stand rum. I hope there's coffee downstairs.

Downstairs there isn't coffee. It's dark, and everything hurts. Jess was sensible and got a full night's sleep, but is kind and doesn't rib me too much. Maybe it's too dark to see my bloodshot eyes. It's 4:50am and we head through the darkness to the bus. In the pre-dawn, we see them. Lines of people, heading up the street, hundreds of them. The longest queue I've seen for years, and I'm English. We join the end, which rapidly becomes the middle. An American pops out of a side street by us, sees the queue, stops dead on his heels and exclaims "Oooooh SHIT" and we all laugh. At 5:30am the fleet of buses arrive to shuttle us up the mountain. After an hour, we reach the queue face and get on a bus. It's a bumpy and wild journey up the canyon wall. Every time the bus turns a hairpin, the rum does not, and sloshes around. I think it's playing basketball.

At the top, you join a new queue to get through the ticket control. I'm politely but firmly made to hand my fiddle in at the luggage cabin. The crowds are overwhelming, and I'm peopled-out. There are simply too many of them, and you can't get anywhere. A step every few seconds. Some are impatient and push. Others stop for every photograph and annoy those behind. It's bloody awful. We have a guide, and the same group as yesterday. We visit the key bits of this place, the temples, the sundial, the ingenious water engineering. The guide is good, but I'm grumpy. We're shoulder to shoulder. People are taking photos, bumping me and blocking the way all the time. I hear inane chatter in my ears from all side "Like I was going to dye my hair GREEN but then I was like oh it would like clash with my eyes" "You didn't shave your legs? Oh.. My.. God.." "It's a Canon 253 which is so much better than the 251 especially in low light, I have four" "good job the weather is good or this would be BOLLOCKS" and wished them all away so I could enjoy this place properly. It's like all of Heath's 'Great Bores of Today' had come alive from the pages of Private Eye and met up for a giant convention of tedium. There was no point taking any photos, because somebody would inevitably step in it, pulling poses, waving their selfie sticks around, talking about cosmetics or gadgets, photographing because you're supposed to, rather than in the pursuit of an aesthetic goal. How I hate them all. I can't wait for it to finish and go away.

The tour grinds on, spectacular views blocked by people facing away from them, selfies to be taken. I'm jostled and bumped. Finally, it's over, we thank the guide and leave. Overwhelmed by people, Jess and I take twenty minutes out, sitting on a rock. Jess reads, and I go to the cafe for the breakfast and coffee I haven't had yet, and in the wide-eyed and silent aftermath of paying London prices for my meal, I start to have a revelation. The seed was planted when I saw the ancient temple, altar covered in coca leaves, and one yellow jelly bean, placed carefully earlier this day. I'm missing something fundamental about the humanity of this place. There is a Great Bore of Today here, but he's sitting with an expensive breakfast being miserable about everything because he had too much rum last night.

I decide I'm doing this place all wrong, and after a suitable pause to gather our faculties we agree to go round again. Your ticket lets you in three times on the day, so we go back through the queues, and begin the circuit a second time. I've been making the same mistake I made with the engines in the train graveyard last week, but on a much bigger scale. I've been seduced by those photographs that show the place deserted and spiritual, I've mocked and grumbled at the friendly conversation of friends new and old as they enjoy each other's company in a beautiful place they've worked hard to earn the right to be at. And I've let myself drink too much the night before.

This place is incredible, and rightly revered for its architecture, history, and setting. However, it is something else just as important now. It's the focal point of a 21st century secular pilgrimage. One that's open to everyone, regardless of religion or race.

I wonder what a pilgrimage really is, and what it is that would draw people who aren't religious to undertake one. I decide it must have three stages, the journey, the site or relic, and then the state of having been a pilgrim.

Firstly consider the journey. The pilgrim must be prepared to invest time and resources in a difficult journey. Machu Picchu, for all that there is a railway to the valley, is still a mighty trek from home by any modern standards. If you wish, you can walk for days to be here down the Inca trail, just as one might walk the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury. A famous route, it carries weight, and adds to the solemnity of the achievement when retold.

Secondly, the pilgrimage must be to a relic or a place of religious significance. Whilst Jesus may have walked into the empty desert, us lesser souls walk to find spiritual shade in the lee of the greatness of others. Machu Picchu provides this for the secular pilgrim. A place that is at once abundantly spiritual, and at the same time earthly, investigated by archaeologists, scientists, interpreted by guides. There's nothing here to threaten our secularism, yet we are free to feel spiritual. Maybe I should be more cynical here. I imagine the religious pilgrim would consider their visit to carry a greater weight of meaning. Yet the mechanics of it seem so similar to me.

Thirdly - to be a pilgrim. The pilgrim must take the message home, and inspire others to pilgrimage. And this is at the heart of the central ritual. Working our way again through the crowds, we climb this time to the top of the site. At the top of the steps there's a platform where you can see the whole of the main site, and here the pilgrims gather for the Selfie. We sit down at the back of the platform and watch the world come for their moment of adoration. For those who are brought up to interpret the world through science, history, geography, their whole structure of understanding is laid out before them in one. Families, couples young and old, from all round the world. Locals, Asians, Europeans. Stripped of our nationality, here we are only pilgrims, an identity greater and more common than our cast-off former skins. And together, we trust each other, and hand over our phones and cameras to complete strangers to help our new brethren get the best devotional article.

Each face is beaming, old local men, grudgingly admitting to their wives that this WAS a great idea, three generation families, tiny kids who will never forget. We offer to take pictures for families, so they can all be in the shot. Everyone has their own pose. Nobody just stands there, arms to their side, it's star jumps and Saturday night fever. Then it's time for us to make a reliquary of our own cameras. We hand my phone over to a complete stranger, and get the shot, our pose, heavy metal devil horns. (Blame Ronnie James Dio)

My earlier complaint about the crowds now seems selfish. I want everyone to be able to enjoy this place. It is the people that make it what it is, and it's from them we learn the most.

Yes, there's a majesty to being somewhere spectacular on your own, or in select company, but I think it a triumph of humanity that we are able to open so many of the world's special places to the masses. Any small element of pleasure you may miss through the lack of solitude is hugely outweighed by the sheer cumulative value of so many people having the opportunity of learning and experiencing, and I would gladly sacrifice that solitude in such places to allow even more people able to learn and enjoy.

There can be no more important measure of civilisation than for the masses to be able to use such places. Elitism here carries a huge social and educational cost. Bollocks to the 'Don't tell anyone about secret places' brigade. The more people can learn, experience, and grow from such experiences, the better off we all will be.

What kind of arrogant sod was I to think I had a greater right to be there than anyone else? Not only that, but the greatest pleasure the place gave me was in the sharing with my fellow human. An experience that cut through layers of nationalism, cultural difference, class difference, skin colour, to reveal something truly universal about the human condition. We need ritual, and it can be so good for us.

It's around 2500 stone steps down into the valley. A short pilgrimage for me then, and one with complimentary drinks on the train back to Cusco. Machu Picchu needed to be good, after all I've seen in the last two weeks. And it really was, but not quite in the manner I had expected.
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