Machu Picchu: From Rubbish to Reality

I’ve always loved textbooks. As a kid, at the end of each school year, I would bring home any that had been deemed old or unusable. This usually involved some dumpster diving outside the high school where my dad worked (Go Cougars!), but a few scratches from rusty metal are nothing compared to the haul I’d come up with each early June.  Why else would we have been given tetanus shots if it wasn’t go provide us with the opportunity to hunt through less-than-sanitary garbage bins? With a boost from my sister, I’d rummage around in what high schoolers considered trash, but I thought of as treasure. There were nearly empty notebooks (college-ruled!), brightly colored binders in decent shape, and most importantly, old textbooks that were to be replaced in the fall. I’d toss as much of this over the edge as I could, where we’d then collect it in boxes and haul our booty back to my dad’s woodshop classroom. I think he was usually less-than-impressed with our desire to bring home garbage, so after some hardball negotiation, we would trek most of the notebooks and binders back to their blue bin-demise, but keep a few golden nuggets, like history and English textbooks.

Summer had arrived!

Now that I am lucky enough to travel all over the world (I’m just missing one continent- dang you, Antarctica, I will get to you!), I often flash back to the snapshots in those discarded history and geography textbooks. There are iconic photographs of instantly recognizable locations: The Great Wall, Angkor Wat, the Sydney Opera House, Pompeii, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are just a few that I’ve been lucky enough to stand in front of in real life. Each time it happens, when I am standing in the spot the photographer stood in decades before to capture those images, I can’t help but be moved.

Machu Picchu was no different.

I can still recall pieces of a chapter in one of those long-ago discarded high school textbooks that compared the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires. Each description had a photo alongside it, with the Inca’s section being portrayed by a crisp, clear photo of Machu Picchu, taken somewhere above the ruins. The green of the grass and moss around the gray of the stone, with a clear blue sky above was an eerie juxtaposition and one that I remember being fascinated by as a kid. What a world! Decades (yikes, decades is right) later, as I stood in nearly the same spot as that photographer did all those years ago, watching the morning clouds move across the valley, I couldn’t help but feel the power of that image. The places I daydreamed about through those textbooks are one after another becoming real life experiences.

I took a minute and soaked it all in.

Okay, I took about ten seconds and then I realized how terrifyingly close to the edge of the mountain I was, so made a hasty retreat to ponder life from a safer vantage. Machu Picchu is many things, but full of safety measures, it is not. The only place I really saw much of a barrier against falls was at a similar overlook, where a rope was loosely strung between two poles, hanging about ankle height. Yup. If you didn’t stumble and fall on your own, Machu Picchu is happy to assist, providing a wiggly tripwire to help you on your way.

Lack of safety aside, Machu Picchu is amazing. I went at the end of the main tourist season and the start of the rainy season, so it was no surprise when the morning was a wet one. Luckily, by the time I arrived at the ruins, the rain had let up and the clouds were starting to clear. Observing the entire site and up into the steep mountain ravines from that iconic overlook at the site of the ancient city, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pterodactyl swoop from behind a nearby peak or see a brontosaurs amble across the floor of the valley. The entire area had a prehistoric feel and the low hanging clouds sweeping in and out of the area just added to that eeriness. (Sweeping may seem like an odd verb for cloud movement, but it is accurate. The clouds moved through the ruins at an incredible speed. In one moment the entire valley would be sheathed in an impenetrable white and then a blink of an eye later, a break in the fog would appear, giving a perfectly clear and amazingly spectacular view of the city.)

Of course, no trip to Machu Picchu is complete without some serious llama sightings. You’d think I’d not be that into llamas at this point in my life, having had my share of llama-time growing up, but to see them wandering around the ruins, I couldn’t help but smile. And, not just wandering, but frolicking. There was some serious young llama playtime happening, with skips and hops and chasing to and fro. Again, so iconic! Llamas and Machu Picchu go together like roasted guinea pig and chicha morada. (More on that combo later.) As a true tourist, you just can’t have one without the other.

So yes, those dumpster-scavenged textbooks from days of yore were probably outdated rubbish, and heck, they were probably torn and marked up as well, but to a curious, book loving kid, those were insignificant details; all I remember is creating a mental photo album that comes to life with each new opportunity I have to travel. Now, I get the chance to stand on precarious ledges alongside those photographers from the previous century and rather than use a viewfinder to center my photographs, I snap a selfie that would make my generation proud!

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