Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

November 29, 2011

City in the Clouds

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 6:14 am

Some experiences can’t be shared by snapshot without diminishing them. I know people figured this out years ago; that’s why they experimented with 3-D photos and stereographic viewing devices in the early 20th century.

As I stood above the City, my eyes sweeping the skeleton of granite blocks so carefully carved and placed that 600 years of earthquakes haven’t dislodged them, and simultaneously allowing my eyes to plummet into the cloud-filled valley of the Urubamba river which wraps around the site, or to embrace the jungle-covered mountains that loom like sentinels in the mists protecting the City, my camera dangled, impotent, from my hand. I fought back tears; my throat filled up and spasmed.

I didn’t understand why I reacted like this to a sight so well known, so fully advertised in advance, so frequently photographed (I saw myself as a re-creation of one of the international visitors to Yosemite who insist on taking, each one, their own photos of Half Dome).

It’s taken me many days – two weeks’ worth – to let it percolate around my synapses before I felt I could write it. And I realize that the writing, like 2-D photos, will only diminish it.

But I write anyway. So that implies that experiencing Machu Picchu is probably not just a tourist “off my Bucket List” move, but a very personal experience. Let’s explore that angle.

The Incas built a drinking water system for the city which is still running. A spring is directed into narrow granite aqueducts which spill over a series of “fountains” (more like little mountain waterfalls) under which the inhabitants could position their aryballos to fill them. As I passed one of these, I saw a visitor pause, look around half guiltily, then squat down near the fountain. She carried the excess weight of the middle-aged; her long hair was a careless blend of yellowing brown with lots of grey; her pants were baggy and patterned with at least four different primary colors; her blouse looked like it was bought in New Delhi; her purse was of Peruvian textiles; she wore glasses. Santa Cruz would be my guess for her current home, now that her movement had disbursed since the 1970’s.

She pulled a small vial from her pocket, quickly unscrewed the top, and thrust it beneath the trickling water. It filled within seconds, and she twisted the top on it with such determination that there was absolutely no chance she’d lose a drop before getting it to her home, 5000 miles away.

A man, tall, thin, unremarkably dressed, walked past me and began his descent of an ancient and very steep granite staircase. Slowly, he descended. Carefully. But clearly determined to have his personal experience of the City in the Clouds. Very determined. He was on crutches.

For myself, I awoke at 4 A.M. Breakfast at 4:30. Up the bumpy road by bus in the half dark of crepuscular light. The sun was climbing out of the Amazon forest and awakening the sleeping creatures who lived among the bromeliads on the slopes of the mountains which face away from the City. I wanted to be at the Hitching Post of the Sun before it showed its golden face to the ancient walls yet one more day. I hurried over the streets of granite, up staircases that made my heart thrash and my newly broken rib stab me with each breath.

There, atop a granite platform that looked down upon the City’s central plaza, upon the royal residence near the western precipice, and upon the workers’ houses near the eastern agricultural terraces, I stood by the upright stone called Intiwatana. The city below me was half obscured by swirling clouds. Mists snaked up from the Urubamba, hundreds of feet below, flowing past the eastern, northern, and western flanks, and slithered over the vacant City. Clouds obscured the tallest mountain, Huayna Picchu, altho it felt close enuf to touch, and too big to hide.

Above me, clear black nite sky was brightening to dark blue. Birds drifted on invisible currents.

Then He rose. I squinted. He threw His light against the Intiwatana and then against the walls that faced east. Quickly, the mists evaporated before Him. He turned the agricultural terraces from nite black to emerald green. Had the bare walls of granite – the City’s skeleton – still worn plaster and hammered discs of silver and gold, His arrival would have been blinding. But still, up here where the beauty of the clouds and mountains are paid for by the black cold of nite, His warmth brought comfort, brought the growing of food, brought illumination for human eyes.

What they did, centuries ago, it occurred to me, is to take what God had built, and to compliment it with a city which incorporated rocks already there, with the rocks they carved. They oriented their walls with respect to the pathways of the Sun and Moon. They borrowed the mountain’s water by re-directing it, before returning the unused volumes back to the mountain.

No bulldozers flattening the mountaintops. No neon urging people’s attention away from the birds’ songs and the whispers of perfumed air. No air conditioning and heating inside the houses to create an environment that doesn’t exist in God’s realm. And, of course, no cell phones to distract people from virtually everything that exists around them as both Beauty and Danger, and from creatures that will talk to you, if you listen.

Yes, that’s right. Dozens, if not hundreds of people who travelled half the world to come to Machu Picchu and discover its secrets, wandered the granite city, searching for a signal.

We build our own prisons, don’t we? And walk right in.

So maybe my personal experience there was to see a glimpse – just a glimpse – of what is out there, beyond my own comfortable prison.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: