Breaking News! Rain, Fear Dampen Machu Picchu

I Did Not Approve This Picture!

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.

The Road To Machu Picchu!

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.

What, Me Worry?

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.

Huayna Picchu

“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.

Trapezoidal Earthquake Resistant Roof

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.

The Ever Practical 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.

Top Of The World

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.

The Ceremonial Conch Shell

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.

A Boy And His Dog

“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

Two Of The Lucky Ones

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

Cattle Drive

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

We Are Blessed

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.

Nanook Of The South

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16 responses to “Breaking News! Rain, Fear Dampen Machu Picchu

  1. You seamlessly weave together several “stories” here: vivid descriptions of the beauty of the land, your ongoing shifting perspective of your professional crisis in the face of new lands and lives, hints at the guts it takes to go around the world with two little kids, fraught with its own perils, and the fact that you are experiencing each leg of the trip as a FAMILY, interacting with and knowing each other better in ways much more intense than in ordinary humdrum lives, the photos with trenchant captions (My favorite: “Nanook of the South”), and finally, genuine learning about life and Self that can’t help but change your views of what life can/must be all about. The starfish story is splendid. I wanna write like that!

  2. Your stories are so colorful and real, I find myself in your footsteps, climbing and descending with the fullness of life. Knowing you are the Mother along with this stretch of Suzanne, is powerful.

    You and Ethan have made a courageous decision to leave it all, and find much more! Happy Trails! Now please come back, we miss you!

  3. I couldn’t make it across the Golden Gate Bridge with the kids. I so admire you for taking on Machu Pichu. I’m with your mom – I love the starfish story and will share it with the kids tonight. It goes well with all of our talks about Lent and giving back. It only takes a little bit to make a big difference, and a difference you’re making! Hugs to the boys and hello to Ethan.

    • bridge! love hearing from you. you are SUPER mom, so i have no doubt you could handle MP–altho with four??? i’m not sure… it was kinda scary. xoxo love to your whole brood.

  4. Another wonderful entry, Suzanne. We must be on the same vibrational wavelength because believe it or not (I hardly do) I just hapened to read a version of the starfish story *yesterday* for the first time.

    I read this aloud to my boyfriend as he was driving us back to the bay area from Tahoe. We’ve both want to go to MP some day, so thank you for your depiction of the journey.

    We both cheered when we got to your statement about ultimately not caring what someone who fired you thinks about you!

    Ps: your mom taught me everything I know too. :)

    • that is too crazy. i didn’t know if a lot of people knew that story already, but i LOVE the message. i am still untangling all my issues (hmmm, why does this not happen over night?)–but this lesson was a big one in many ways. xoxo, suzanne

  5. Having lived and worked voluntarily in the Peruvian just a few years ago, I was drawn to your report of your experience at Machu Picchu. Indeed it is a breathtaking experience to visit this remarkable place, not to mention the climb up Huayna Picchu. Just a note about los niños hiking along dangerous trails…. that’s simply the way of life in the Andes. My wife and I did some trekking in Cañon de Colca, in Southern Peru, and saw many small, canyon kids hiking along trails which would scare the life out of the average American parent. The fact is that Andean kids grow up far less protected from the elements than do we middle-class Americans. Bill

    • Bill-love your cool website name! we are so looking forward to going back to Peru one day soon. Definitely did not get enough of this country. yes, it is a totally different experience with kids there than the good ‘ol USA. thanks for the comment. glad you are coming along on our trip.

  6. Oh yes, one more thought which I should have included in my earlier comment. Peruvians are very proud of Machu Picchu. Many will ask if you’ve yet visited this wonderful treasure of the Andes. But, sadly, only 3% of the visitors to Machu Picchu are Peruvians. They simply can’t afford to go there. Bill

  7. Why is this blog great ? It’s like Che Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries” for middle-aged people with kids.

  8. Love this! You are so brave to take your children with you – what wonderous (not a word?) experiences they will have! I have always wanted to travel with my children, and now they are too immersed in school to take away for any length of time. But i do have my two year old…
    (Thanks for sharing Malia!)

    • Lea! Thanks for lovely comment. One of the reasons we decided to do this is because our kids are still small and we knew that soon they will be so immersed in their own lives, we would not want to pull them out. It has been so bonding, mind expanding and just plain cool that I can’t believe it is me doing it. Make your plan to travel when you can–to new places if you can. This world is too big and too amazing, once you get beyond the “known.” I hope I don’t sound like I am preaching! I love Malia–and all the Enrights! xoxo, Suzanne

  9. I Love every single one Of your blogs- your writing is incredible! I think this one is my favorite! You are so brave! I understand The whole- should i really care What people think part. I get a lot Of positive support and some négative about m’y leap over to France. At The end Of The day you have to just ask If you are Happy with your choices! I feel so lucky to have spent some Time with your beautiful family! Xo marian

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