Destination = Machu Picchu, Peru -
The Excellent Husband (who at this point is still The Maybe Boyfriend) and I are sitting on a low terrace in Machu Picchu, watching the sun come up. There are hikers silhouetted against the Sun Gate, that scoop in the mountain pass where the sun first sends beams of light into the ruined city. Wherever I look, there are hikers and tourists, and amongst the khaki green of pre-dawn, red jackets stand out. There is always one in every group wearing something red. If not for them, I could almost pretend that the tourists weren’t there. In all my photos, there is a blob of red.
The blobs make me uncomfortable. I hear that the city was abandoned during the occupation of the Spanish, and thus, each splash of red that catches my eye reminds me of the bloodshed that the Conquistadors brought.
The sun rises and the terraces turn from khaki to a more brilliant green, but certainly not that emerald of the tourist brochure photos. I can’t imagine any grass or rice glowing that brilliantly. The lack of Photoshop in real life is noticeable.
The lack of llamas, alpacas, and vicuna is also apparent. The travel pics often feature an alpaca or two roaming about the terraces, posing prettily in profile. None to be had anywhere.
The rest of our Intrepid Tour group have marched to the highest point in Machu Picchu to see the sun rise. I am just too tired. Altitude sickness, eleven days on the road, and the strain of being around people all the darned time have taken their toll. It’s dawn, for crying out loud. I need to be in bed, sleeping. If I have to drink one more early morning cup of coca tea, I’m gonna scream, or chuck, or pass out.
I sit, drooping, on a low stone wall, and pick at the scrappy grass. I fossick in my backpack and take out Vinnie the Vicuna. He’s a small toy vicuna I picked up on impulse from a roadside stall. He’s become my tour mascot, and the rest of the group tolerate my eccentricity. They don’t join in the opportunity to photograph Vinnie everywhere, like I do. By the end of the trip, however, our two most dour school teachers, sorry, Educators, will buy Alice the Alpaca, to take home.
“Look, Vinnie,” I say. “Machu Picchu. Do you feel at home?”
I make him cavort around on the grass, and bow his stiff neck to eat.
“Nom nom nom,” I say.
TEH is vaguely bemused by this, and me. We’ve known each other less than a year, and most of that has been two-continent romance, with plenty of Skype, email, and Facebook.
With the sun risen, tourists fan out across the city, some in official tour groups, some, like us, pottering about on their own. We climb ladders that lead from one terrace to another, look inside grain storage sheds. I decide one shed will be my new home. It’s the size of an average lounge room, with one big open window facing The Happy Mountain. In one corner is a wheelbarrow. I tell TEH that this is my bath. I show him where I’ll put some straw for a bed.
“It’ll be all right once I get the curtains up.”
I could certainly do with being the only person living in Machu Picchu, and with a view of a mountain every morning. My new writing hide away.
The ground is hard packed and dry. Gardeners water the lawn terraces, but it’s been a while since any rain.
We look into the room where the Queen is supposed to have slept. A bare depression in the floor, ringed with stones. Even if this was a fabled city of wealth, it is scarcely luxurious. I lie in the depression, have my photo taken. I don’t feel in the least queenly, in my baggy tourist pants, and polar fleece top.
At midday, the sun is strong this far up in the mountains. I sit in the shade of a wall while TEH goes to take more photos, and see what is around the next corner.
I hear tourists lamenting the lack of alpaca to photograph. I fish Vinnie out of my backpack again and pose him on a stone. I take his photo. Then, a woman approaches me. She doesn’t speak English, but gestures with her camera. Can she take a pic of Vinnie? Sure.
Suddenly, I am besieged with people wanting to take Vinnie’s photo against the back drop of Machu Picchu. If the tourists can’t get the clichéd picture they want, they will settle for a toy vicuna costing two sol.
“Give them that smouldering look, Vinnie,” I say, pushed to the back of a small crowd. I am lucky no one makes off with him.
Then, just as quickly, the crowd disperses, and there is no sign of them when TEH returns. I have no proof that Vinnie was momentarily a celebrity.
I lie on one of the terraces, my hat over my face, and soak up warmth. Pre-dawn left a chill in my bones. I let my consciousness drop down into the earth, and feel the city. It has been too long abandoned and too muddied by tourism to speak anything but muddled silence.
I am nearly asleep when TEH taps me on the shoulder. He is a man with a mission today, and thus, we must catch the bus back to town so he may deliver a message to a Peruvian friend of an Australian friend.
I am sodden with sleep. I move slowly, heavily up the steps. Everywhere in Peru is up, even the down.
I dream that night of being back on the terraces, asleep in the Queen’s bed, walking the narrow lanes. Now, in the dark and quiet, the city speaks to me.
Photo: Window on the World - Machu Picchu, Peru _ TEH