Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Memo to Mighty Inca People, Part Two

Mighty Inca People:

There was a blackout in New York City in 2004. I never thought I would see stars so bright. It made me wonder what it might have been like to live before electric power, and well, SUVs and crackberries and straightening irons. I wondered what I might have done with my time at, say 10pm, when the only access to light might well be fire. Obviously, there would not be a google to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about (actual list of what google-ing I did today) pop sugar, dog fighting, suny schools, eclipse, GR20 and NASA.

The Inca Trail, starting at kilometer 82, is a hell of a good time. Winding paths through a lush cloud forest, deep misty valleys filled with alpacas and flowers and fat, laughing children, chicha served in plastic cups on the way up the trail.

When night fell, the trail grew pitch black. We, the American and European tourists, huddled under our dining tent and drank coca tea and talked of our retirement accounts and flat screen TVs and our high-end wilderness gear. We looked nervously at each other, and I know at least half of us were thinking that we ought to be proud of ourselves, you know, for getting "out there" - you know, experiencing another culture and having the courage to go three entire days without a hot shower.

One of those people might have been me. Maybe.

I was reaching for a cracker (that would be one of the roughly 1,000,000 crackers your descendents carried on their backs so that I would have access to the refined carbs they know gringo trekkers simply cannot live without) when something landed on the table with a distinct, sickening thud. From the ceiling of our tent, a grasshopper the size of a cell phone had fallen into the cracker tray.

The two men sitting on either side of me shrieked and crawled under the tent fly and out into the darkness. I remained immobile as I watched one of our most esteemed (badass) hikers nudge the hopper to the ground, pick up the cracker it had recently used as a surfboard - and eat it.

That's when I shrieked and exited the tent into the darkness to find V and A. It was not hard to do, since they were standing right there on the other side of the fly, frozen in mid-shriek.

They were side by side with their heads thrown back, staring up at the stars. I looked up too. To see what all the un-fuss was about.


It was then that I began to understand just how confused I had been. I was surprised to learn, when I first arrived in Cuzco, that you, Mighty Inca People, had a bit of an over interest in astronomy. The sun and the moon and so forth. When I saw the rock at Qenko, I was bewildered. It appeared to me as if you had made an enormous fuss over a piece of rock and a shadow that would fall twice a year. I wondered why you would seek to satisfy something so reliable as sunrise. In my culture, we have sunglasses. Our very government recommends daily sunscreen use. And at night, we all stay in our houses and each Hostess snack cakes - and if we do go out, it's generally also "in" - a movie, a bar, a friend's house.

And so day and night, we are always looking down, down at the keyboard, down at the cell phone screen, down at the scale, down at the sidewalk, down at the newspaper, down at the blood in the sink. We swear we will start flossing, but most of us never do. We don't really have to because we were busy looking down long enough to dream up the idea of twice yearly cleaning. Now that's culture.

And where did you get the really inconvenient idea that there is more than one God? Had you not considered, ever, that maybe God was not actually present in the sun and the moon and the rivers and lakes and trees and grass and mountains?

In the good old U, S, and A, God has a jolly nice white beard and he sits on a cloud in a Juicy couture tracksuit and Reeboks. We only have to send up one set of prayers (most of us don't bother, however... or we say we don't believe in a higher power unless we are about to be shot in a ritual gang initiation or find ourselves sitting in a doctor's office hearing the word "cancer" as if it has something to do with someone else.... when that happens, we all believe) which is pretty awesome because we, most of us, have at least six email addresses and many of us have more than two phones. I am pretty sure that "we" will figure out a way to get text messages from the Almighty himself. We've done damn near everything else with our cell phones, so success contacting the Supreme Being shouldn't remain out of "our" reach for long.

The next day, I saw a painting of the sacred valley and the alignment of the stars over the river.

I learned that you had engineered the path of the river to follow the path of the stars. I learned that your vision of the heavens included a llama and a panther and a goat. I thought that was really cool and unique and I got, you know, that stars were very important to you. That seemed really romantic and sweet to me. I hadn't looked up at the stars since 2004, so I made a note to do so on the trail. I thought maybe if I looked at the stars long enough, I might see a Prada handbag or a pair of iPod Shuffles.

But I still wondered whether you might ought to have done more on the ground in the way of, well... something, anything else. You might have spent more time, for example, developing an alphabet and a system of writing. Surely there were people like me among you who are good for absolutely NOTHING except teaching other people the grammar of a language they think they already speak. What would I have done, had I been born among you? Mend socks? Have CHILDREN?

It's just too terrifying to imagine.

The grasshopper/cracker crisis, the one that actually got me out of the frikkin tent... the one that got me looking up?

Standing out in the cold, pitch-black night with V and A, the stars we not merely bright. They were a glittering tapestry of light and movement and color - yes - color. Blue ones, pink ones, red ones, pale yellow winking stars clustered together and spattered out across the whole valley. It was so beautiful, so surreal, that it was immediately clear to me why V and A, two software engineers from Texas,** had not said one word to each other, or to me. At one point, V pointed his camera up, but he didn't take a picture. He focused for a second, and then lowered it again. A just stood there with his mouth open.

A few yards away, our porters, your descendents, were reclining in the grass, looking up. One of them, however, was watching us. He whispered something to his friends in Quechua, and they laughed, derisively, I thought. A few minutes later, Jorge, the eldest of them, disappeared into the darkness and returned with three tin cups of coca tea, which he wordlessly handed to us as we stood there, shivering and staring up into the sky.*

We sipped our tea. If we had reached up, we could have pulled one of the stars right out of the sky. That's how close they were.

I do not pretend, Mighty Inca People, that a twenty minute gaze at the stars in Ollyantaytambo means I "get it". In fact, it may be more apt to say what I don't get.

I don't "get" why I have 29 pairs of shoes. I don't "get" why the cost of my climbing gym membership could easily pay the entire monthly rent in Cuzco for a family of four. I don't "get" why I only looked up three times today - all three at the moon - and that only because we are due for an eclipse tonight. If I am not trying to figure out how to make money, I am trying to figure out what to climb next and who will go with me. If someone asks me where I will be in five years, I start crying and say something about how I hope I won't be dead yet. I live in the rich country, where even POOR people eat cheeseburgers, and that's all I aspire to. Not dying.

Reader, take a look at what you googled today. Count your shoes. Take stock of what's in your medicine cabinet. Review your credit card bills and your tax returns. Are you in there, anywhere? Does it... any of it... give you any idea who you are? What you value? Does it tell you what your life is about? What life is about, period?

All this is why, in a recent post-Peru post, I said I'd say more about getting OUT OF HERE.*** People all over the world live, love, work, and die without any idea what it is like to have health care, or ponder the cost of a flat screen TV or a fishing boat, and their lives, their living, loving, and dying, is just as valid as yours (ours). In Peru, specifically, many of them just died in an earthquake not because of the quake itself, but because they did not have access to emergency services and adequate medical treatment.

I'll close by saying that if you'd read this epic post, you have my gratitude. Sanctimonious and bossy isn't usually me; but I've been down lately, and the blog I mean internet diary has suffered for it. I'll get over it. I'll be fun again. Promise.

* It is this kind of graciousness that made the following incident funny instead of annoying: that first night, after the grasshopper/cracker/stargazing episode, I lost my hiking boots. I woke up the next morning expecting to find them where I left them, between the tent and the fly. They were not there. I freaked. After breakfast, another hiker in a neighboring tent found them knotted together next to HER tent. She swore she never touched them. Fine. The next night, the same thing happened, and I spent the morning in a panic, hunting for my shoes. I found them, of course. But in front of someone else's tent. The third night, Mischa couldn't sleep, and as she lay awake in our tent, she heard (and saw) three porters approach our tent, giggling uncontrollably. She heard them say, in Spanish, that "these are her shoes.." before they, apparently for the third night in a row, tossed my shoes in front of someone else's tent. They were LAUGHING THEIR ASSES OFF at me every single morning as they watched me freak out over my footwear. Bear in mind that these guys RUN the trail in flip-flops. So, whatever. They stole my shoes, but they also fed me and carried my gear. Good clean fun, I say.

** There is a song, no? About the stars at night? and how they are big and bright? deep in the heart of Texas? Well, ok. But our TEXANS were blown away, just so you know.

*** Here, of course, being the USA. If you are not HERE, please understand what I mean when is say that the USA is wacked: I don't mean that America sucks or that I wish I were not an American. Far from it. America is safe, rich, and stuffed to the gills with good intentions - it'd be great if great intentions made for good actions, but that's for another post.


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Lola said...

Hi there!
I feel so happy when I meet an American who can think on these levels. Yes this is a great country (used to be greater before the present evil empire took over but that is my Bush-Cheney rage), I strove for years to get here and am happy to be here. But man it's lost grip of the simple things. So yes...agreed with everything.
I especially enjoyed the porter story, seems cute actually. And I bet like everyone else, they liked you darling fair haired Gringo!

Malachi said...

Good Morning! I was just got home and was searching some Peru terms through Google and stumbled across your Blog. Having completed the Inca Trail last June, I really appreciate it. You have put into words what I have felt since I left. I am still in total awe of witnessing the Milky Way for the first time. The amazing porters are a trip! I think they mess with all the trekkers. They stole my bag one night and had a good laugh in the morning watching me go crazy too. I can definitely say that was a life changing adventure for me. Thank you for sharing your experience.