“Machu Picchu,” my friend said, “I hitchhiked there from California in 1971. When we made our way to the site, it was deserted so we camped the night among the ruins.” Her description is vastly different from my own experience this month when I hiked there with my two sons, a nephew and a friend. Now you have to get there early in the morning or stay till sun set if you want to experience the seductive stillness of the Incas. Not that you can sleep on one of the terraces any longer.
In fact, it’s not possible to camp among ruins anywhere in the world. They are cordoned off, fenced, and your vision mediated by ticket sellers, guards, and, of course, the annoying other visitors who also long for the transience and human vulnerability evoked by tumbling walls.
In a beautifully lyrical book, In Ruins (2001), Christopher Woodward mourns how ruins have turned sensually inaccessible as they have become more physically accessible. Archaeology, the state, and, the ministry of tourism have gradually removed layers of earth, vegetation, and subsequent human habitation.
In the case of Machu Picchu it means keeping at bay the vines of the scented jungle that had entangled the walls when the American, Hiram Bingham, brought the site to global prominence in 1911.
If you want to experience how the past comes alive, wander through the streets of Ollantaytambo—once the tourists have left—and see how the houses have all been built over Inca walls. This is just like the time my son and I stumbled upon a church to the Virgin Mary in the Peloponnese constructed over the foundations of the temple to the (virgin) Athena. History hates lacunae.
Elsewhere, say on the Acropolis, the cleansing of the ruins has involved the systematic deletion of all post-classical structures to give us the white shell that had never existed in antiquity. We go there for a communion with a place that never was in this shape.
My students gasp at the contradictions of tourism when we visit Greece each spring. They still wish to have their own personal moment among the many thousands of visitors landing on the Acropolis that particular day. But is hard to achieve a link with antiquity among the plaintive shouts. “Be silent. Ve vant to hear our guide!” I still remember as a boy climbing the steps of the Parthenon and trying to wrap my arms around the huge columns. Try getting past the fence now!
In Rome a similar cleansing has removed from the Colosseum the trees, rare plants, beggars, hermits, and pilgrims who inhabited it until the nineteenth century. Woodward longs for the time when Byron’s “noble wreck in ruinous perfection” was suffused by the Roman fever that killed Henry James’ heroine Daisy Miller. Woodward yearns for poetry in place of modern bathos: “At nightfall one day in the 1820’s Stendahl watched an Englishman ride his horse through the deserted arena. I wish that could be me.”
Et in Machu Picchu ego. With this quixotic thirst for authenticity we had decided to climb not the classic Inca trail, which now bears hundreds of hikers each day, but a more isolated one, far from thump of trekking poles. But our arcadian moment came not from the silence of the ruins. It was unplanned and accompanied by musical notes.
As we made our way to our campsite in the first day, gaining more and more elevation, I spotted in the distance two figures. They had stopped along a stream waiting for us. As we got closer I could see that one, an elderly man, was holding an instrument like a harp and beside him, a boy was playing a flute. Our Andean guide suggested that they wanted to play for us. I was excited yet also uneasy. Was this our encounter with the exotic, locals turned into folkloric color? Should I greet them or continue?
But once we stopped in front of them, my older son, took out his charango, a stringed musical instrument he had bought weeks earlier in Quito while visiting his host family from last year. Through trial and error and a few exchanged words, he joined in with them, the grandfather and grandson, jamming for about 20 minutes. We all stood there mesmerized, not able to move. Tourism or a brief moment of international understanding?
Was this what we were looking for? Had we transcended the paradoxes of contemporary travel, of visiting without being tourists? Did music allow us for a second to forget that we were people with the means to travel among those who did not have the means? Did we not come here, as we go anywhere, to enrich ourselves, to observe the spider spinning webs on the crumbled barricades of Machu Picchu – the futility of greatness? Did our meeting with the grandfather and grandson have overtones of a previous imperialist route?
Travel has lost the innocence it may have had for all those wealthy visitors of antique lands in the nineteenth century that Woodward describes. Not only does travel contribute to the melting of the glaciers in Peru that bring us there. But it also reminds us of the painful story of conquest centuries earlier.
Yet here we were by the stream, listening, dancing, our hands clapping to the music.
But should we stop traveling, this way freeing our consciousness of guilt, not having to confront it? Should we limit ourselves to visiting England and Sweden? The Other then becomes something safe, objectified in our books, an object of analysis, not smiling at us with broken teeth. And we would have the satisfaction of a moralizing critique, freeing ourselves of moral conundrums, blaming others for injustice as we glare at other tourists for disrupting the stillness of the stones. Who me, caught in contradictions?
I expected the jamming of harp, flute, and charango to last a few moments and we would continue, heading for the majesty of the peaks. (After all, we came to marvel at mountains and to feel the awe at human ambition overgrown by shrubs.) But the music went on, even after it had stopped. It seemed to take on a life of its own, imprinting itself upon us like some tattoo.