Transfiguration: A Journey Through Peru

By Crista Tappan - November 26, 2012

           The train rumbled along the worn-down steel tracks, traveling parallel to the Urubamba river-- nature's highway weaving itself up through the Amazon. It was the only way to reach Aguas Calientes, a tiny town nestled at the base of Peru’s ancient landmark, Machu Picchu. We had been traveling for over three hours, going deeper and deeper into the heart of the rainforest and farther from civilization. Every once in a while, we'd see travelers hiking in the distance-- off on their personal quests and adventures into the wild. The train had taken us past tall glittering waterfalls and farmlands with rows of colorful corn. My eyes could not tear themselves away from the abundance of nature and rich, green landscapes.

Sparkling blue butterflies floated around in the distance, and the beauty of nature really hit me. Part of me wished I could tuck one away in a jar, as some sort of exotic pet. 

I started to think about the journey ahead of me. I would be walking on the partially-rebuilt ruins of a once majestic Incan city, carved into the side of a mountain. It is a beautiful landmark to remember a group of people who lived their lives solely through the spirit of the earth-- Pachamama

In 1911, a young explorer and teacher, Hiram Bigham discovered the remains of Machu Picchu while on an investigation in the area for leftover artifacts. The lost city of the Incan's had been sitting, uninhabited, for over 500 years before it was discovered.

I looked up-- thankful that our train had large windows on all sides, so that we could always be looking around. The sunlight filtered down through the thick canopy of trees around us, shimmering beams of light escaping to the recycled ground below. Everywhere I looked, I saw the cycles of life. I wanted so badly to save this moment, somehow capture an entire reality in one. I  pulled out my camera and tried  snap a few pictures, and tried to brush off the fleeting moment of unsatisfaction.

I couldn't help it, though. The photos looked sterile in the viewfinder. Looking back up again, the bright colors seemed to pop out like an eccentric coloring book. No camera has the ability to fully capture what all my senses could. The sound of the rumbling train, the chittering and squawking of birds in the trees, the hushed excitement of the travelers in their seats, or the sound of headphones blasting in a nearby person’s ears. I snapped a few more pictures out of “why not’s” sake, and pocketed the camera. 

I made my way to the front of the train. It had a large open window, giving you the same feeling one might have sitting front row in a roller coaster. The train turned around a bend, and I balanced myself with my hands against each wall for support. Behind me, other tourists fingered the straps of their expensive cameras, pointed to things in the far off distance and adjusted their photo settings for the “Outdoor” feature. If only they knew how much they missed by trying to get the perfect setting on their cameras. 

A trumpet-based musical song took over the radio in the train, and I turned around to watch a commotion now engulfing the passengers.

A mini-fashion show was behind held in the isle behind me, train attendants  began to slipp in and out of the small bathroom. Each time they came out, they were displaying different versions of Alpaca-fur sweaters or shirts. It was Peru everything. A tourists dream. We didn't even have to get out of our seats, the attendants strutted past-- twirling a scarf here, and making a pose there. At the end, they passed out a catalogue for the items, and I choked at the prices. Around thirty dollars, American money, for a simple t-shirt.

So far, everywhere I turned there was something to buy, something to spend money on, and some hand outstretched. Not even on a three hour train ride could we escape the spending and buying, spending and buying. 

Three days earlier in Cuzco, I snapped a photo of a woman dressed in a colorfully woven Peruvian-style dress, who was holding a doe-eyed baby llama. It was incredibly staged as a “photo op” for tourists, perfectly situated on the side of a bustling (and vibrant!) food cart. I saw other people stopping to take photographs, and regardless of how staged it looked, I walked up to take a picture, too. Not two seconds later, the woman held out a hand towards me, saying “Propina?”.

I didn’t need a translator to tell me what it meant.

A city began to come into view, and I returned to my seat, double-checking my passport and other valuables were still in their place. Aguas Calientes seemed to be created entirely by the tourism from Machu Picchu. 

The train pulled to a stop on the right side of the river, and we unloaded ourselves  to the ground. The town was long and narrow-- stretching itself along the bank of the river. An odd assortment of shiny new hotels stood out in the urban marketplace and town. 

And then my eyes drifted up from the base of the mountain behind the river town. A winding dirt road twisted it’s way up the summit, and there it was. The majestic city of Machu Picchu. In the morning, I would be ascending it's many stone staircases and stepping through it's cobblestone streets.

As we walked towards our hotel to drop off our things, I noticed a small cluster of shops to the right. Breaking away from the group for a moment, I stepped closer to inspect some framed shiny blue objects on the wall. 

There, the graceful blue butterflies were pinned between glass, wings spread wide open to showcase all of their beauty. This horrified me. I didn't understand how someone could be allowed to capture such beautiful things and pin them between glass, all for profit. I stood transfixed in front of the small massacre of insects.

Probably noticing my reaction, a small Peruvian man appeared at my side.

“We pick them from the forest floor,” The shopkeeper said, “We do not kill them.” 

I thought about the statement for a moment. “How much?” I asked, feeling uneasy about the alibi. 
“Thirty soles,” He said. Roughly ten dollars american money. Was it worth it?

I reached into my bag, and pulled out a few bills, and handed it to the man. He gestured for me to pick whichever I liked. 

They all looked the same--sad and beautiful, never experiencing life again, like a sleeping beauty that never found it’s prince. I picked the one that seemed to glitter the most, and caught up with the rest of my group, a feeling of self-loathing bubbling in my stomach.  

* * * 

“Are you sure this is safe?” I asked, as I edged my way cautiously along the path. I kept my eyes straight ahead.

Even though I didn’t look, I knew exactly what was below me-- around a five-hundred foot drop. Enough height to make the wide rushing Urubamba river look like a tiny thread in the vast green landscape. It was too high to even allow myself to steal glances at, and my tiny light-footed tour guide was increasing the distance between us. It was almost dawn, and only an early glow of morning lit the area around us. There was a quiet, peaceful aura around the whole area. 

“Follow me this way,” she called out from ahead, “We are going to visit the Sun Gate, but we have to make it up in time for the morning sun. From there, you have the best view you will ever experience in Peru.”

“How many times have you been up there?” I asked her, still at least five paces behind. 

“Hundreds,” She said, and I wondered what it was like to have a world wonder for a playground.

The path we followed brought us up to a long series of stone stairs. Only a week into my trip, and I had climbed probably a couple hundreds of these steps in all shapes in sizes. Peru is still very much preserved in it's ancient stone city structures dating back for thousands of years. Many of which are situated atop the highest peak in the region. Pulling yourself up hundreds of stairs in extreme elevation (Cuzco tops out at ~11,000ft above sea level) is nausea-inducing. 

When we reached the top, the bushes and trees around us started to clear away, and an open field came into view. 

At the edge of the cliff, there sat three stone archs, sitting timelessly in their place. Knowing every object was positioned for some purpose, I looked to my tour tentatively. 

“When the sun comes up over that mountain,” Gabby said, thin tanned arm extending towards the glittering horizon line, “You will see the first rays of light from this spot”.

All of my attention was focused on the tiny freckle of bright light dancing on the edge of the mountain opposite us. We walked towards the archs, which Gabby explained were designed for the elders to come and study the life of the earth. They created celestial calendars, and celebrated nature as a source of all energy and life.

 I saw the light break out, like a brilliant splash of light from over the mountain. The beam of light reached out across the valley and we were suddenly engulfed in the brightness.

The beauty was so far beyond capturing that I didn't even try to take a picture. I let the view burn it's image into my mind, and I welcomed the warmth of the sun on my face.

I was the farthest I'd ever been away from home, and beginning to understand the importance of the seeing the world around me.

Happiness is like a butterfly,
The more you chase it, the more it eludes you;
But if you turn your attention towards other things-
You will find that it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
  -- Henry David Thoreau

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