There aren’t many kids running around Peru’s Machu Picchu. This is because with one slip of a small foot or momentary wandering of attention, a child could easily launch like a cruise missile into the deep, steep gorges that surround the Lost City Of The Incas. Despite superb city planning and obvious architectural skills, the Incas must have lost more than a few niños this way. Our whole visit was spent yelling, “Watch out! Stop! Get back! Don’t run!” and “This rock is where they sacrifice kids who don’t listen to their parents.” When I asked a guard how many folks have fallen to their deaths, he shrugged and said, “Uno o dos.” I asked if that was per month, per year or per decade, but he just shrugged again. From a narrow stone staircase that rose into thin air, I peered down at lush orchids clinging to sheer cliffs, impenetrable jungle, and a river of what looked like chocolate milk rushing through the canyon 2,000 feet below. Finding the bodies must have been a real bitch.
This place brought out the serious crybaby in me. I’m not sure whether it’s the whole “search for enlightenment” thing I’ve been doing or just the beauty, intensity, and insanity of Machu Picchu, but I often had to tamp down sobs. My mind time-traveled to the 15th century where Incan workers with sloe eyes, high cheekbones and shining black hair were building this intricate puzzle of a city, cutting stones with such perfection that when they stacked them one onto another, a knife blade could not penetrate the seam. Some of the building blocks weigh 50 tons and since the Incas didn’t use the wheel, it’s likely they pushed them up inclined planes to get them into place.
Near the Temple Of The Sun, two twenty-something women were also feeling the power of Machu Picchu, hugging fiercely in their North Face trekking gear and wool hats, tears streaming down their faces. I thought about joining them, but chickened out and turned to watch a ribbon of white mist snaking through the valley below, rugged mountains lording over it like kings. Water rushed through an Incan irrigation system that is an engineering marvel and llamas munched green grass. The feeling of time suspended was overwhelming—all is much the same as 650 years ago, except for the people; tourists now gawk and walk among the ghosts of the founders, who are probably laughing at all the hoopla.
I was experiencing a little hoopla of my own that day; a tiny tornado had swirled up after a well-read blog site in Los Angeles (LA Observed) posted an excerpt of “My No-Botox, In-The-Buff Birthday”. My email inbox was full and my blog stormed with hits. This, you might say, is a good thing–I’d sextupled my best day ever! But as I herded Griff and Ado away from yet another sheer cliff, I felt slightly sick to my stomach at the attention. The idea that the news community I’d left almost a year ago had found me in the far reaches of Peru via the slippery slope of the Internet was scarier than any Incan ghost.
The mountain Huayna Picchu, which towers almost 1,200 feet over the Lost City, stands like a protective shield against the outside world. Seven centuries ago, the Incan priests and local virgins lived at the top, and I imagine they had a “What happens on Huayna Picchu stays on Huayna Picchu” rule. The zigzagging trail the Incas hacked up the mountain is a menacing, near vertical combination of dirt, rock and slippery stone stairs. The Incas signature terraces also line the upper mountainside.
“How the hell did they get the stones up there?” I asked as Ethan and I both stared at the spectacle of it.
“No idea,” he replied, “At this point, I think they were just showing off.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Building them because they could.”
It made me feel a little better to think that the ancient, intelligent, productive Incans (so architecturally savvy that they built earthquake resistant rock homes) felt the need for approval the same way I do in the 21st Century. I began performing for an audience at five years old, when my sisters and I would put underwear on our heads and sing songs from “Fiddler On The Roof” for my parents and their friends. The laughter and applause were my first high, and we moved onto Partridge Family songs as we got older. But lately I’ve been trying to understand and even tame this desire for the spotlight, learning (slowly) that even without its warming glare, I have a lot to offer. Still, the wave of attention from the LA Observed article brought back a familiar feeling–a mixture of excitement and panic at being recognized and fear that people won’t like what they see.
The Incas might not have had the luxuries of the modern world (like backhoes, dump trucks, jackhammers and cranes), but they didn’t have to contend with a wired world either. They didn’t have websites like TVSpy, where subscribers post anonymous comments about news people, regardless of their truth or accuracy. If a Machu Picchu stoneworker wanted to tell the tribe living in the Sacred Valley that his colleague was lazy, stupid, or not wearing his ceremonial tail feathers correctly, he would have to inscribe a stone tablet, strap it to a llama, and have someone hike down the dangerous Inca Trail to deliver the message. Back then, time was perhaps better spent hiking up Huayna Picchu to sacrifice a virgin.
My exposure-angst brought me no sympathy from Ethan.
“You put it out there,” he said. “You knew this might happen.” My husband’s tendency toward realism and truthfulness is sometimes highly annoying. Yes, I had known it! But now I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hit the delete button and fade into anonymity, or continue sharing my discoveries about life, parenting, traveling, happiness, and awareness with whoever wanted to log on. I figured CBS was not happy with me—in fact, when I wrote an open letter after getting canned that told my side of the story, one of the network’s bosses called my agent angrily asking why he didn’t have more ‘control’ over his ‘talent’. But wait! CBS had fired me without cause, warning or class, right? And I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go back to the news business, right? So why was I was worried that they were mad at me? The people I was scared of could only hurt me if I let them.
My anxiety about who might like me and might not disappeared at the prospect of a challenge. Only four hundred people are allowed to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu each day, so Ethan and I woke at 5:40a.m. to get in line. A lovely, local woman named Florentina took the kids to breakfast while we dragged our middle-aged butts through the rain and up a seriously deranged mountain path at high altitude. We had to sign our names and write our ages in a logbook, behind 73 hardier souls who had already departed. I noticed we were third and fourth oldest on the list—most hikers were in their 20s and 30s.
The fastest time up Huayna Picchu is 12 minutes, but it takes an hour on average. Speaking the universal language of extreme hikers–heavy breathing and the occasional grunt–Ethan and I passed person after person, feeling a powerful bond with all of them since we were at the same risk of plummeting to our deaths. Forty-minutes later, like Rocky running up the steps of the Philidelphia Art Museum, we scrambled onto a large rock that is the top of The Lost City’s world, a lookout point that seems halfway to heaven. Just as I sent a silent hello up to my dad (who died twenty years ago), a tiny, deeply wrinkled Peruvian man wearing a beaded alpaca hat took a conch shell out of his cloth bag. The sunrise was merely a lightening of the cloud- socked sky, but he blew a few sonorous honks out over the valley to welcome the new day. I have no idea if this was a set up to please tourists, if he was a religious leader, or if he was just showing off his skills. It didn’t matter–I started blubbering all over again.
Getting off Huayna Picchu without falling presents an entirely different set of challenges; Ethan and I agreed we’d rather be going up. At a particularly slick, steep turn a young woman frozen with fear slowed us down. Her legs shook visibly and she gripped her husband’s hand while he spoke soothing, encouraging words, willing her to move forward. After a minute of silent wobbling that must have felt like forever to her, she slid one foot onto the next step, and continued. We also ran into a woman from San Francisco named Michelle, beautiful in a Thandie Newton kind of way, who had just finished a month long stint teaching English to poor Peruvian kids. I felt a little jealous of her mission—helping the poor while I cried poor me.
“It must have been awesome,” I said.
“Not really,” Michelle responded. “I connected with the other aid workers, but there are so many kids that you never get to know them. And the poverty is so severe, I feel like I accomplished nothing.”
“Yes, you did,” I told her, familiar with the feeling of not doing enough. “You were throwing starfish back into the ocean.”
“Starfish?” Ethan asked, confused. And so I told them a story first told to me by the step dad of Lauren Townsend—the 1999 Columbine High School valedictorian who died when two students in black trench coats stormed the school with guns blazing.
“A kid is on the beach is throwing washed-up starfish back into the ocean when an old man asks him why he’s doing it,” I said. “The old man says, ‘There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish–you can’t possibly make a difference.’ The kid picks up another starfish and throws it far out to sea.
‘I made a difference to that one,’ he says.”
Sometimes seeing the world through another person’s eyes is all it takes to downsize your own problems. We took the Peru Rail train from Machu Picchu to Cuzco, the capitol city of the Incan empire, and collided with
the poverty Michelle was talking about. As a news reporter in Chicago in the 1990s, I worked stories at the infamous (and now torn down) Cabrini Green housing project, where crowds of young, angry people would throw bottles and trash at our news van until the police came. Anchoring the news in Los Angeles, I had a front row seat to the worst crime the American inner city could serve up. But the hovels of Cuzco (not to mention our guide book warning that “strangle muggings, rape and murder are common here”) make Nickerson Gardens and Cabrini Green seem like The Four Seasons. The scenes were sad: an old woman selling a dozen eggs on the street corner, her gnarled, calloused hands folded in her lap in resignation or prayer; a shepherd lady in a raggedy wool skirt and stovepipe hat chasing her cow through the cold, steady rain toward a mud hut that probably housed both; the leper-ish looking blind man sleeping soundly on his knees on the concrete sidewalk, the ink on his sign bleeding
black in the rain. Young mothers with flyspecked, silent children strapped to their backs tried to sell handfuls of fava beans and kids darted in the street, dodged by drivers like stray dogs. I looked at my Rolex watch—the only valuable item I wear these days—and imagined it could feed and house a family of five for a year. I felt humbled and embarrassed to be indulging in a self-made popularity contest amidst the tragedy of this beautiful, blighted country, where almost half the people live below the poverty line.
Our hotel in Cuzco was another reminder of how incredibly lucky we are compared to most of the world’s population. At $100 per night including breakfast, I wasn’t expecting it to be an immaculate 17th century
colonial house that once belonged to a Spanish Marquesa. Our room had original beamed ceilings, iron chandeliers, and an intricately inlaid wood floor with a big, splintery hole in the middle into which Ado immediately got his foot stuck. A fire burning in the brick fireplace chased off the ever-present chill at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level.
In bed that night, body exhausted but mind spinning, I flopped around in bed like a salmon. Finally, a tired and slightly exasperated Ethan put a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly. “It’ll be all right.” But I wasn’t concerned anymore with being over-exposed. I was thinking about starfish. The fire crackled and popped in the old Peruvian house. And then, it was morning.