MACHU PICCHU, PERU – October 2008

Rising Blood Pressure on the Tarmac

Huckleberry `Galapagos’ B and I flew from Quito to Lima, on 27 October, before flying, the next day to the Andean town of Cusco.

The only hiccup in our journey occurred at Quito Airport, where I was singled out for a random bag search. At first I was not concerned, whilst under the misapprehension that they only wanted to search my hand luggage. However, when they took me down a long internal corridor, through a door and out onto the tarmac, my apprehension began to germinate.

When asked to identify and open my check-in luggage – which had been out of our possession for over an hour – my heart started to beat violently against my chest. We were in Ecuador. The drug cartels of Colombia lay not far across the horizon. Who knows who had had access to our bags since last we saw them.

I carefully checked that there were no signs had been interfered with before permitting the bags to be opened. Once open, I observed that the contents of the bag seemed unmolested. By this stage, I regained a degree of emotional equilibrium.

Just the same, I was relieved when my ordeal came to an end.

Viva Diego!

Whilst in Argentina a couple of weeks ago, we raised the name, Diego Maradona, with a number of the locals, in order to see their reactions.

One taxi driver launched into a diatribe about how Maradona played football like a god, but was not a good person off the field. He referenced drugs, alcohol and women! I’d add gluttony to the list of Diego’s off-field sins.

We also discussed Diego with a friendly shop keeper. A sudden thought came to me, so I asked whether “the hand of God” would ever be placed in charge of the Argentine national football team. The shop keeper dismissed my suggestion with vehement hostility before proceeding to denounce me personally. He said Diego would NEVER coach Argentina.

Well, I now feel vindicated in full.

The news of Maradona’s appointment as coach of Argentina came whilst we were in Peru.

It will be interesting to see how Maradona goes. Whilst Diego remains responsible for the most audacious thing I have ever witnessed in sport – his second goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final when he received the ball on the half-way line and dribbled past the majority of the English side before scoring – I doubt he will make a very good coach. I am not alone in this assessment. It seems to be shared by pundits and locals alike.

Whether Maradona will still be at Argentina’s helm by the time the 2010 World Cup remains an open question. However, I hope he is. My goodness, it’s going to be fun!

A Beautiful Ceremony

It was no coincidence that our itinerary found us in Machu Picchu on our wedding anniversary.

Huckleberry had suggested some months ago that we participate in a Paqo ceremony with a local shaman to mark the occasion. I readily agreed.

That said, our introduction to the shaman, Cucho, was less than auspicious. Due to our arduous journey to the Sun Gate – coupled with some slow lunch service at Sanctuary Lodge – we had not finished our lunch by the appointed hour of 2pm. However, B saw Cucho lurking outside the restaurant and kindly invited him in to join us whilst we finished our meals. Being the thoughtful person she undoubtedly is, Huck B asked Cucho whether he would like some food or drink. Luck being what it is, I had just shoved another overflowing spoonful of ice cream and chocolate sauce into my slovenly mouth when Cucho announced that he was fasting for fifteen days!  Needless to say, I immediately felt like a gluttonous, Maradona-like, pig in comparison to the virtuous man sitting next to me.

In any event, that embarrassment was soon forgotten as Cucho led us to a secluded spot, amongst the Machu Picchu ruins, along the terraces below the city. We each sat upon a rock as the shaman performed his ceremony which commenced with a reading of some cocoa leaves and proceeded to the preparation of an “offering” to mother earth; Pachamama. The offering included, amongst other things, cocoa leaves, llama fat, rice and some lollies. Cucho explained, with a chuckle in his eyes, that mother earth has a sweet tooth. The offering also contained items symbolic of all our good intentions.

When the package was completed, Cucho asked us each to stand up. He proceeded to tie a colourful rope around B’s right wrist and my left wrist. He then placed a crown of flowers on B’s head and a garland around my neck. After uttering some words in ancient Quecha towards Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu and Mother Earth, Chucho placed the offering into a crevice in the terrace and, using a long, white condor feather, pushed the offering into a hole. The shaman expressed his delight in the fact that mother earth had accepted our offering so readily. He added that it was sometimes difficult.

We enjoyed participating in Chucho’s ceremony very much. It was remarkably uplifting. From here on Machu Picchu shall be a sacred place in our relationship.

Upward, Ever Upward

The next morning, still basking in the delights of the Paqo ceremony with Cucho, we arose at dawn to climb Wayna Picchu.

Should you be interested in seeing the mountain we stumbled up, google “Machu Picchu”. Every iconic photograph of the Incan city looks across the ruins, with a steep, narrow mountain in the background. That mountain is called Wayna Picchu.

We arose early on 2 November in order to secure an early place in the line to climb Wayna Picchu, as only 400 people are allowed through the gate each day. Half are permitted to commence their trek at 7am and the other half are given numbered tickets and asked to return at 10am.

As it turned out, B and I arrived at the gate at 5am and were first in line. However, it was not long before we had company.

I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t fully appreciate what we were getting ourselves into. If the trek to the Sun Gate, the day before, had been arduous, climbing Wayna Picchu was excruciating…

At the foot of the mountain, we were already 2.4 kms above sea level. The peak stood just under 3 kms above the waves. And our route took us, essentially, straight up.

Added to the sheer height and the lack of oxygen was the variability of the rocky steps. Sometimes we had to place our feet on a step which was only big enough for a heel. Other times the next step had an elevation up to your knee.

To make matters even more difficult, it started to drizzle as our journey commenced.

Upward, ever upward, we climbed – around bends and over boulders – upward, ever upward. There were times when the path was so narrow that two people could barely pass. Occasionally, a misplaced foot might see us tumbling down a cliff face. There were some who preferred to climb the steps by crawling on hands and knees!

I reminded B that the activity was not compulsory and that we could turn back at any time. There were times when I secretly hoped that she’d agree. All I received, however, was a determined eye and a stern rebuke.

After about 45 minutes – with regular breaks to catch our breath – we reached an area where the Incas had built some structures. We knew we must be close to the peak. However, those dastardly Incas never make things easy. In order to reach the summit, we had to walk through a cave and – holding our stomachs in – squeeze through a narrow opening before climbing a ladder to get to the next level.

I was half expecting to find an oracle, sitting cross-legged on a rock, reciting a riddle which we had to unravel before being allowed to pass!

Once at the summit, however, we were exhilarated. The view would have been awe-inspiring had it not been for the clouds!

I am happy to admit that despite being first in line, we were not the first to the peak. Some young whippets beat us to the top. However, B was the first female, so we are proud of her for that!

In addition to the challenge, we had a further purpose for climbing Wayna Picchu. At the conclusion of the Paqo ceremony, Cucho advised us to leave the flowers he had given us in a special place as a further offering to mother earth.  When he heard that we planned to climb Wayna Picchu, he said that the mountain would be a particularly powerful place.

So, whilst at the summit, B and I scoped the area and each chose a secluded spot to leave our flowers. And we smiled.


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