Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How I Felt at Machu Picchu Part 1

It was dark. The gates of Machu Picchu, still closed at 5:56 am, were crowded with white people; hundreds of them. All had been awake for an hour at least, and all were equally anxious to get into the ancient city of stone. I held my wife's hand, awash with anticipation. We were there, we were about to mark off another bucket list item. I'll admit, I had relatively low expectations. Tourist attractions were tourist attractions. I'd seen my share of them. Now, ever since we had arrived in Peru, all there was to see were pictures and advertisements for this place. The city of Cusco, where we had been staying, seemed to primarily exist to make money off of tourists that were on there way to Machu Picchu. It was a racket. On many of the streets we walked down in Cusco, we were met with dozens of people aggressively trying to sell us tours or train tickets to this place. The ones that weren't were offering services only a tourist would be interested in. That place was a cesspool of commercial exploitation. I had heard amazing things about Machu Picchu in the past. But, the most common sentiment was that it was overcrowded; that there were too many people. I've been places like that before. Las Ramblas, the Colosseum, The National Gallery, The British Museum: all had that similar blot. I've also seen what touristic hype can create. In Brussels, the "Mannequin Pis" is the most highly sought after tourist attraction. There are gift shops lining the street with memorabilia recreating the stone fountain of a boy peeing into a basin. All the build up leads one to believe that it is enormous, that there is some impressive and unbelievable history, that it was the reason the Germans lost World War II, or something equally monumental. Then, as you push through the surrounding crowd, you realize that it's just a foot-tall stone fountain of a boy peeing into a basin.
So, there I was with my wife, awaiting the parks department employees to open the gates and take our tickets, expecting to be mildly entertained. I looked at the people around me. I've heard stories of the days before Machu Picchu was so popular. The first account I had heard from someone that had made the trip sounded like an episode of "Man Vs. Wild" with Bear Grylls. It was in Colorado, and I was taking a group of high school kids to Young Life camp. Our group had stopped on the way to camp at a white-water rafting facility, and were floating down the Arizona river. Our guide was telling us all about her trip to Machu Picchu; how she had hiked for days and days, stopping in tiny villages on the way, sleeping on the ground, eating whatever they could buy from the local farmers. It was a rugged story of struggle and adversity. Her and her accompanying friends were then rewarded with a pristine and empty Machu Picchu, mostly all to themselves. The glory of earning the experience made it all the more attractive. But, as I looked around myself, I saw people that had undergone very little adversity. Ourselves included: we had taken a van to a town called Ollantaytambo, and there had gotten on a train to another town called Aguas Calientes. We stayed in a comfortable hotel with hot water and free breakfast, and then had woken up that day at 4:30 to crowd onto a bus full of more tourists. The bus ride was safe and easy. Nothing in that trip was hard.
And, the people around me looked the part of casual tourists that hadn't earned the experience. I felt a sharp pain of not deserving to be there. It was all too easy. There were elderly Europeans in their sun hats and khaki-capris. There were loud college-aged girls that were complaining about how early they had had to get up. There were smelly Wookies that were making another stop on some never-ending spirit quest across the America. We read the signs, asking patrons to keep their clothes on (literally) and to keep their voices down and to be respectful. The existence of these signs meant that it had become necessary to reinforce the sanctity of the site. The necessity to reinforce the sanctity of the site meant that, over the years, the constant stream of visitors had de-sanctified the site to some degree. My heart sank slightly at the realization that this holy piece of human history had been diminished and undercut by the exploitation of commercial gain. At this point, I was expecting the worst. I was expecting Disneyland...

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