It has always been an interest of mine to consider the nuances involved in my encounters with others, those that are nourishing and even those that are more distasteful for some reason. In recent years, my interest has broadened to include encounters with animals, nature, books, movies and now, online conversations with people who I treasure yet may never meet.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Christmas in the Peruvian Andes

My good friend, Aaron, is an excellent photographer and has traveled extensively throughout the world. He is always entertaining me with tales of unique encounters that are indeed to be treasured.  Aaron has graciously allowed me to share his Machu Picchu story on Treasured Encounters.

    Just before Christmas I arrived in Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire located more than 11,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes.  Unlike all the other historic cities of Latin America, Cuzco is a fascinating blend of the old and very old.  As I walked the streets, I encountered the cobble stone streets and stone walls and buildings of the pre-Hispanic era along with the more familiar multi-colored traditional Spanish colonial architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries.  
    On Christmas Eve morning scores of indigenous Quechua people
from surrounding villages were flooding into the main plaza to set up their stalls and sell their wares in the market.  I actually saw many arriving the night before, arranging their goods and belongings outside in the open, or under the eaves of the buildings surrounding the square.  By midnight the temperature must have dipped to around 40 degrees. The children were sleeping, mouths agape, positioned every which way around and on the mounds of their parents’ goods stored in sacks.  Their mothers, however, were wide awake - on guard perhaps - wearing their traditional bowler hats, brought to this part of the world by British rail workers in the 1920s. I had never seen such a tightly arranged mass of people in my entire life. Perhaps on TV of a refugee camp from a war-ravaged country. 
    After a busy market day in the plaza, Christmas Eve night was uneventful until midnight.  I had just returned to my room when I heard the booms and whistles and ran to my balcony.  On the hillside surrounding the city, hundreds of streamers were shooting across the sky. I hurried down to the main plaza to check things out.  The plaza was riddled with trash and debris from the market and fireworks while young boys were gleefully lighting off firecrackers and tossing them in the air, seemingly unaware of the danger of losing a finger or two. 

    A couple of days later my Japanese traveling companion, Kae, and I took the four-hour train ride to Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas."  Like a good movie that is overhyped, I doubted Machu Picchu could fulfill my over-inflated expectations.  Moreover, I was still feeling sapped of energy from the altitude and a flu bug I was fighting.
    We stayed overnight near Machu Picchu and in early morning a downpour ensued that lasted five hours.  I was relieved when the rain ceased mid-morning and Kae and I took off on the 30-minute bus ride of 18 switchbacks that climbs the side of the steep mountain to reach the top where Machu Picchu is perched. Machu Picchu is immense – larger than you would expect when looking at a still photo.  It took almost 50 years to build such an elaborate and expansive ceremonial center so high and hidden in the mountains.  Despite my physical condition, it was impressive and affirmed to me its place as one of every traveler’s dream destinations.
    After about three hours, though, I was exhausted and we boarded the bus to head back down. As the bus pulled away, we were greeted by a "goodbye boy," dressed in traditional Incan garb that included a red-checkered bandana across his forehead (see photo).  He stood woodenly alongside the road crying out, "goooooooood-byyyyyyyyyyyyye," while waving his open hand mechanically from side to side at shoulder height.  Kae burst out laughing as she remembered hearing about the phenomenon of these boys from a documentary on Japanese television. As our bus slowly descended, back and forth down the side of this sheer mountain, at every other switchback he was there in the middle, standing, waiting for us and waving.  It was not until the boy had raced down to perhaps our sixth switchback and his third greeting, this time yelling "aaaaaaaaadiooooooooos," did it dawn on me that he was going to attempt the precarious task of running straight down the steep side of this mountain, stopping to say goodbye to us after every other one of our turns, retracing an historic, well-worn path of his Incan ancestors.
   At every other switchback everyone on the bus would wait in anticipation, wondering if he could make it in time to greet us again.  On one particularly long stretch I seriously doubted he would be there around the next turn.  We let out a collective cheer when he appeared again, out of nowhere, frozen in posture as always, waving mechanically and yelling out his goodbye.  At that point, maybe the sixth time for him, I had little doubt he would make it down to the river at the bottom to salute us one final time – nine times in all, bisecting our back-and-forth route 18 times.
    When we took that last turn at the bottom, we saw him bolt out in front of us, beating our bus across the bridge.  We pulled to the side of the road and on-board

he came. We all applauded as the tour guide explained the historical relevance of the Incan path and the tradition of these boys. The boy gave us his elongated goodbye cry one last time and then held out a little bag as he walked up and down the aisle seeking a "tip" for his efforts.  "It's easy," is what he told me of his 30-minute scamper.  He had beads of sweat on his nose, but his breath seemed as still as if he had been at rest.