Monday, August 27, 2012

And Then the Vultures will Eat You

It’s about a 10,000-foot drop from Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) to the river bottoms of the Urubamba River. If you’re lucky (relatively speaking) you might bounce off of a rocky outcropping, which would end any speculation in your panicked mind of the certain outcome. If not, the gravel and rock-strung floor of the Urubamba canyon will end any question of what happens when you slip and fall off Huayna Picchu.

There is no 911 call to make nor any medivac helicopter that can be summoned when you’re in Machu Picchu. If you fall off the mountain you die and then the vultures will eat you. Probably long before any recovery party can trek to the site of your scattered remains.

I thought about that scenario as I pondered my bad luck at not being able to climb Huayna Picchu the only afternoon I spent in Machu Picchu. If you want to climb this mountain adjacent to the ruins, you probably need to be in Machu Picchu for at least two days. Trains only arrive around noon each day and it’s safest to start climbing the mountain early in the morning at first light. Above all, you must return before nightfall. After dark, your chances of missing a step or walking off a narrow ledge on the edge of the mountain increase expeditiously. And then you die.

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian 15th century Inca site that was created at the height of the Inca Empire. It was built in classical Inca style with polished dry-stone walls. No mortar was used in constructing the buildings. Yet the stonewalls are so tightly packed together that not even a piece of paper can be slipped between their joints.

With its discovery in 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archaeological enigma. For as much as the ruins have been picked and poked and examined, the ancient city still largely remains a mystery.

You don’t have to be a mystic or a shaman to appreciate the wonders of this lost city of the Incas. At almost 8000 feet above sea level, the ruins sit high on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range in Peru.

Standing among the ruins for the first time is breathtaking. Flocks of birds soar by beneath your feet and you look down on the clouds that gather in the canyons below. The thin air can wreck havoc on those with respiratory issues or are out of shape. Few people move quickly at that altitude unless K12 is their playground or they’re mountain goats.

It was a wonderful confluence of several events that placed me high in the Andes back in the mid-80s. The need for a film crew to travel to Peru to do a documentary on that country, a boss who was anxious to send someone besides himself and a willing family that let me leave country and home for an adventure down south.

In some of my other blogs, I’ve waxed poetic about the Triangle Bar of my youth, my vision quest in the Amazon rain forest, meeting Snow White in Brussels and hanging out in the coffee houses of Amsterdam. Each experience represented a unique opportunity for me to meet new and wonderful people and create memories that I’ve now been able to draw upon as a writer. Machu Picchu was certainly one of those unique experiences for me. It figures prominently in my suspense thriller, “Follow the Cobbler,” which is now in its second rewrite.

In this age of computer technology and high tech medicine, it’s easy to look back at those ancients and laugh at their worship of the sun and the moon as their Gods. Yet their understanding of climate change (without Doppler radar), architecture (without 3D digital imaging), construction (without concrete or mortar) and agriculture (without computer forecasting charts) is quite remarkable. Their cures (now lost over time) for some ill-nesses would rival the best that the Mayo Clinic has to offer. For as much as they were behind the times, they were so far ahead of us.

To get to Machu Picchu, you must first travel through Cusco. Hundreds of years ago, Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It’s an ancient city with many of its modern buildings built upon the ruins of its predecessors. Mayan culture abounds everywhere; in the people, their clothing, their mode of transportation and certainly in the central marketplace. Their lifestyle hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

The Incas had a cure for altitude sickness too. Coco leaves. They’re illegal but everyone chews them. If cooked down to a paste and processed, you have cocaine. If left in their natural leafy state, you have a potent antidote for altitude sickness. We got ours in Cusco and I chewed them like candy until we flew back to the states. It seemed to work except one time.

At over 11,200 feet, movement around Cusco is slow and easy. I woke up, at 3:00 am one morning, unable to breath. If panic had set in, I’m not sure how I would have survived. Fortunately, I imagined a long slow run up a mountain trail and eased my nerves back into place and then steadied my own breathing. I doubled my leaf count after that night.

Of course there is a counter to the benefits of coco leaves. That would be forgetting you have them in your pockets or not cleaning out your pockets thoroughly of their residue before going through customs. A fellow ahead of us forgot that lesson and was quickly surrounded by machine gun cops and angry dogs. Then he was hauled off before he could explain his mistake.

There are two sure ways to get to Machu Picchu. Either by railroad or the ancient Inca Trail. Back in the 80s, the Shining Path (local terrorists fighting the government) were robbing and killing travelers along the Inca Trial. We opted for the railroad instead. You could take a tour bus but it takes forever and you’ll probably need to extend your visa before you even get there.

The ancient railway is a narrow gauge rail line that was recently washed out by the flooding of the stream, which runs alongside it for miles. The old wooden rail cars are as ancient as the locomotives themselves that pull the tourists and vendors to and from the ruins.

At every stop, tiny urchins and vendors flock alongside the rail cars, peddling their wares. Most of the children just have their hands out for offerings of money or food. It’s heart breaking to see those children begging for anything you have to offer. Many were about the same age as three of my grandchildren. There but for the grace of God…

Once I saw a mixed race girl, no older than five, standing on the tracks. She looked half white-half Indian. She stood out in stark contrast to her young companions and I couldn’t help but wonder what her future would be like in that predominantly Inca-Indian culture.

And there are often casualties along the way. On our train, there was one woman who was so sick from altitude sickness that she never got off the train, even at the base of the mountain. She stayed sick, doubled over in her seat and left, never seeing Machu Picchu after all.

At the base of the mountain you can’t see the ruins on top. The switchback that leads up to Machu Picchu only allows for two small vehicles to pass on the road. There are only inches between them when you pass. That gives you a taste of Huayna Picchu.

The secret of really understanding Machu Picchu is to stay at the tourist hotel built into the side of the mountain up there. That way, you have two days to explore the ruins and attempt Huayna Picchu.


Besides the terraced gardens, the numerous outbuildings and clusters of stone structures not yet categorized, tour guides like to point out the three main structures of the ruins. The Intihuatana (Hitching post of the sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. All three are located in the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. All three are fascinating but they’re not the heart and soul of Machu Picchu.

If you want to truly feel and understand the wonders of that place, you must wander off by yourself. Get lost among the ruins and let the grass covered stone pathways lead you
from one cluster of buildings to the next. Walk along the terraced gardens where crops used to thrive.  Imagine yourself, some 500 hundred years ago, living in that vibrant city above the clouds.

The ruins are the same, the pathways remain unchanged and the mountains and clouds and flocks of birds are all the same as hundreds of years before when dark-skinned ancients went about their daily business.

But instead of google, the Incas had their oral history. Without GPS, they relied on trail runners. They had no hiking boots so they wore thatched sandals instead. Woolen clothes were warmer than any Patagonia jacket. But coco leaves were still coco leaves.

I’m told the climb up Huayna Picchu is a slow and treacherous venture. The path up the mountain departs from the Sacred Rock area. The most direct climb to the summit takes experienced climbers several hours. Rising more than 1300 feet above the Principal Plaza of Machu Picchu, the pathway goes up an almost vertical stairway of more than 130 feet and passes through small caverns carved from rocky walls. Mountain mist can make the grass and stone pathway very slippery. High winds often buffet and pummel climbers even as the hot sun above bakes them.

If I ever get back to Machu Picchu, I intend to stay for two days. One to explore the ruins again and the second to hike up Huayna Picchu. I’ll go slow and easy, trusting on my instincts and fear of heights to keep me away from the edge of the mountain.

Even the sight of those circling vultures won’t keep me away from living my long dormant fantasy of climbing above the clouds.

Saint Joseph of Starbucks

Every morning at 5:00 am, in the Starbucks located in the heart of Palm Springs, Saint Joseph awaits to council, advise and administer to the daily needs of his flock.

He appears at his corner table. Always the same table, always the same time, always the same place. Seven days a week since at least 2000 when I first started going to Palm Springs.

The only variable is his entourage for that particular day and the host of visiting dignitaries who shuffle by for their coffee fix and always find time to stop at his office for a
brief exchange of wisdom before melting into the night once again.

Joseph is an older gentleman, probably in his mid-seventies. He’s always cheerful, ready with a smile and a laugh. He has a pleasant demeanor that never varies with the seasons or time of day. I don’t know if Joseph is married or gay or straight. And it hardly matters, especially in a place like Palm Springs.  He is a councilor, advisor, cheerleader, friend, listener and seeker of the good in everyone he meets.

For many people, Joseph is their early morning elixir for what ails them on that particular day. Unlike the old men who gather at coffee shops around the world to blather on about nothing and expose their ignorance with Monday morning quarterbacking, second-guessing politicians and berating the government, Joseph is articulate, thoughtful and intelligent.

His entourage varies from day to day as do his visitors.

There is an older woman who is usually at his side. I can’t tell if they’re married, living together or just friends in need of companionship. She seems to be the yin for his yang.

And an old curmudgeon who is usually bitching about something and is always countered by Joseph’s calm response. The man is like a bad cliché but he doesn’t know it or seem to care. He just keeps embarrassing himself with his statements. Joseph is the man’s patient sounding board. I sometimes think Joseph’s nickname should be chuckles for his quick wit and logical response to the man’s anal chattering on about nothing.

Others come and go. A few linger but most just sit or stand for a little while in Joseph’s corner and then move on with their lives.

The conversations vary by the day. One time it might be the local news sprinkled with criticism of national politics. The next might be the weather; summer is hot, the rest of the year is wonderful. The conversations are open, honest and usually bent toward the left, which is not surprising considering the community that hosts them.

One time Joseph and his merry band of mischief-makers moved all the furniture around to suit their taste that day. They called themselves “Interior Desiccators.” Management wasn’t pleased and moved the furniture back in place. The next day, the game began again. Joseph won and management capitulated.

Another day, they dissected a local play. They decided it was Dr. Cold Fingers who was the proctologist. They ran lines of their own: “If you twitter my…I’ll google your”…and “two pickles short of a hamburger. ” None of it was really funny except that it was five in the morning and the caffeine hadn’t worked its magic yet. So they thought themselves hilarious.

Crossword puzzles are always a hit and usually completed in short order with a host of quick minds attacking the empty blocks. Often times, arguments arise and the dictionary (part of Joseph’s arsenal of support material) settles the answer.

The cadre of visitors varies each day but some stand out in my mind.

There is the younger woman who lives in her wheelchair. She moves around by using her crutches as walking sticks. She has the sad eyes of a fawn that has just lost her mother. But she has many friends at Starbucks and she relishes their company. They relish hers.

Then there is the muscle man, built solid as a rock, who walks a toy poodle. The dog is his trusted companion and he loves that animal. Dogs come and go. There’s even a dish of water for them outside every morning.

A day laborer stops by often. He always wears a knit hat even in 125-degree summer heat. And he always seems to be moving from one job to another.

There is always the man in one corner with his flashlight, scanning the pages of the LA Times and NY Times because the damn lighting is so bad inside.

Numerous gay men come by. Many of them argue like any old married couple. The arguments are always the same, only the gender is different.

A Black businessman with a ready smile is there every morning. He is always impeccably dressed in a white shirt and tie even in the stifling summer heat.

For a short while, there was even a guy who took a fancy to me. His gaydar must have been out of whack that week.

By 7:00 or 7:30, Joseph is gone. I have absolutely no idea where he goes off. But it doesn’t really matter. Joseph is sure to be back the next day, same place, same time. There will be the same flock of casual friends who look forward to his ready smile, quick wit and easy to swallow dose of friendship. For many folks, that’s all that’s needed to face another day and their reality, if only for a moment in time.

Starbucks reminds me of the Triangle Bar on the West Bank and the Amsterdam Coffee houses of my past. Only now I’m just a casual observer, taking a lot of notes.

And thinking what a wonderful play this story would make.

Eight Tracks, Vinyl, and Classical Music

Musical windows are that period in your (usually) young life when you first experience the magical and wondrous feelings that music can bring to your soul. All the traumas of life; first love, heartache, disappointment, pending adulthood, lost love, romance, travel and a million other mysteries that make up one’s young life can be perfectly encapsulated and immortalized in a song…usually to a porous mind eager to absorb all the nuances of life ahead.

Musical windows can be born anyplace and at anytime. My musical window originated in grade school around 4:30 each morning as I donned my galoshes, heavy jacket, mittens and knit hat. Then it was off to deliver newspapers to a customer base that assumed the Saint Paul Pioneer Press would always be on their front steps before 6:00 am.

Under those layers of clothing was strapped my brand new Motorola salmon (pink) colored transistor radio tuned to KDWB, the only radio station in town according to my astute pop-culture friends.

I grew up on all of the classics of the 50s and early 60s, pop music, country crossover tunes, lingering hit parade relics, show tunes and anything else that caught my fancy. I didn’t discriminate about the music or the artists. If it moved me, I loved it. It’s what I call my classical music.

I began with my beloved 45-rpm records, graduated to vinyl and eventually moved on to tape and CDs. Melanie once tried to get me into her I pod but it wasn’t the same. I’m just now discovering iTunes. Why change to a new delivery medium if the old one works just as well. The music is the same no matter how it reaches your ears.

Then, as sometimes happens, I got sweet revenge. The younger set (that would be my kids) read about vinyl having a purer sound than your average CD and they asked if I had any. “You know, Dad, they’re black and the size of a medium pizza.” Of course, I answered in the affirmative and told them. “I’ll even let you hold one if you’re careful.” Oh, the wonder of musical revenge on the younger generation.

Today my kids laugh at my musical tastes until they find a tune they like and discover, much to their chagrin, that it’s just a cover tune for something that was done years ago by one of my favorite artists. Seriously, they ask. Seriously, I reply with a grin.

For two kids who hated band and thought it torture that we made them stay in all through high school, I find it curiously satisfying to hear them both talk about their own children having to be in band themselves…when they’re old enough…whether they want to be or not.

Of course, the fact that I introduced Melanie to the Beatles and Brian to Led Zeppelin isn’t lost on them either. In turn, they’ve turned me onto their kind of music. I find it mildly curious that we’ve gone from my love of folk music of the sixties (Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Ian & Sylvia (“Four Strong Winds”) to a revival of the alternative folk rock music of today with The Lumineers, Elephant Revival, Trampled by Turtles, Old Crow Medicine Show, Julia and Angus Stone and numerous other great groups and artists. It’s a musical exchange I relish.

Music speaks a special language to many of us. It raises our blood pressure and pumps adrenaline into our veins. It inspires us. It feeds our fondest wishes. It comforts us in times of romantic encounters and coats past memories with soothing pastels that belie the reality of our past entanglements. It is that multicolored rainbow that follows the hail and thunder of lost loves. It helps us think wonderful thoughts and harbor grand visions of a life that could be, should be, might be but seldom is.

Certain songs become indelible imprints of moments in time that we want to hold onto forever. A faction of our life perfectly captured by some song that brings back the sights and sounds and emotions of some unforgettable experience.

It’s an elixir for our soul. A balm for our pains. Music is a narcotic I eagerly ingest each day. A lifelong addiction I relish. My love of music is a wonderful heritage I want to pass on to my grandchildren and feed their addiction as well. To help them create their own musical window, rich with the soothing sounds that satisfies their souls.

So I’ll stick to my vinyl and tapes and CDs and let my kids find the newest capsule for their tunes. The grandkids will be ahead of us in no time. Hopefully they’ll find their own musical window and despite the differences in tune-carriers, we can all share the music together.

Then we’ll all be able to claim our own version of classical music.