Swashbuckling toward Machu Picchu and Peru

Machu PIcchu, Courtesy Fidelus Coraza M.

What do Nescafe, Cross Keys Pub, and explorer Hiram Bingham (often credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu) have in common?

Besides sounding like the lead-in to an old joke, they are all bit-players in Mark Adams’ intriguing book Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (Dutton, 2011) published just before the centennial of the site that draws millions.

Adams, while an editor at Outback magazine, reached the age of forty when many men long for an adventure of youth and casted about for a book project.  Long a reader of exploration and adventure, Adams decided to re-trace Bingham’s 1911 trek that resulted in what was heralded as the “discovery” of Machu Picchu and hence its centennial, though Adams and most others admit Bingham did not did not discover the place so much as he publicized it.

As a middle-class resident of New York seeking adventure, a tourist and not a traveler, to use an expression from the book, Adams sought  a contemporary swashbuckling adventurer to guide his path up and down the Andes in a round-about way to Machu Picchu.   From the first page, the main character in the book–besides Adams–is an Australian tour guide named John Leivers who coined the contrast between a traveler and a tourist and who keeps reminding Adams of Crocodile Dundee.

After a month of strenuous work outs Adams, Leivers, and their Peruvian bearers and cooks set out to re-walk Bingham’s path.  Along the way Adams not only keeps us entertained with tales of adventure along the path, but with captivating descriptions of the rapidly changing Andean landscape that can plunge from snow-clad peaks to jungle in a very short distance.

Adams also includes descriptions and discussions of the suite of sites that Leivers insists are all aligned and are close to Machu Picchu, including Choququirao, Vitcos, Vilcabamba, and Llactapata, as they and companions walk remaining Inca highways (including at the books end “the Inca trail”) and, as if swashbucklers indeed, hack their way through jungle to climb hills in search of Inca Ushnus.

Satyrical Float of Hiram Bingham, Cuzco
Satyrical Float of Hiram Bingham, Cuzco

At first Bingham plays an important role in the text as Adams locates him in the context of his ancestors who shared the same name and also were adventurers of a sort (i.e. missionaries in the Wild Pacific) and in the context of Yale University and the growth of museums and institutions such as the National Geographic.  Though Adams is careful to locate Bingham’s work in terms of chronicles that were available at the time, such as that of Montesinos, and as a careful scholar and note-taker, the tale shifts along with the discovery of new chronicles such as that of Juan de Betanzos, to more recent figures such as Eliane Karp de Toledo, Johan Reinhard, and Paolo Greer.

Peruvians, including Karp’s husband–former Peruvian President  AlejandroToledo — are thrust into the background in this tale as if the country were not their stage but that of adventuring outsiders.

Adams emphasizes stories about “heroes and their triumphs”, even though those triumphs such as Bingham’s require more nuance than originally thought.  But to be foregrounded heroic acts require other people and acts to be actively backgrounded.

Adams’ heroes are mostly Anglo, whether American or Australian, and the stage is a heroic landscape and an ancient heroic empire now lost in the jungle or just the unknowable.

Peruvians, on the other hand, inhabit a “wonderfully weird” background society that does not operate on the rules of its Anglo adventurers and instead becomes a place of perennially late people with limp handshakes whose politics are “magically realist”, even when–at the end of the book–Leivers reminds Adams that “remember how things work in Peru, Mark, it all depends on who you ask.”

Peru turns out to be a place caught in a fog of shifting perspectives, not unlike the morning mist that clouds the rising sun from illuminating the window of Machu Picchu’s Sun Temple on the solstice.  As a result, instead of being a heroic tale, Adams’ turns out to be one of attempts to build singular master narratives that collapse in political process and perspective.

Though Adams carefully lays out various perspectives on Machu Picchu and surrounding sites, one longs for the position like the lookout points on the Inca trail (which he accuses tourists of ignoring) where one can see the whole lay of the landscape, from Mountain heights to jungle lowlands and all the different ruins aligned before one.

Despite the quality of his writing which keeps the reader turing the pages, and despite his hiking so many miles of trails, the book fails to grasp the world around Machu PIcchu where “mountain folk”, as Adams calls them, still feed the mountains at the same time they worship Christ, where fine coffee is grown and yet people serve instant Nescafe in hotel after hotel, where children of rural Peru grow up to be archeologists and anthropologists–as well as tour guides–and struggle with the burden and glory of the past while living the present.

Machu Picchu in Bingham's Hands
Machu Picchu in Bingham’s Hands

Unfortunately, Adams is caught up with following the tale of Bingham who eschewed the anonymity of the university for imperial glory as an adventurer and later a politician, while his title suggests another writer/adventurer masquerading as ethnographer Tobias Schneebaum whose Keep the River on your Right makes overly exotic the world of the Indians down river from Machu Picchu in the lowlands.

To really know Machu Picchu, the Incas, and their descendants takes time and work.  On that, Adams is right.  It is worth taking his advice and going to Cross Keys pub in Cuzco, where the beer is good and much of it imported  (by the way the coffee is also good and is not Nescafe), after spending a lot of time with local scholars.  But instead of fawning over the book of photographs to your right on entrance, or the photographs of man as jaguar, adventurers, and soccer jerseys on the walls, get to know the people who work there.

Man as Jaguar, Cross Keys
Man as Jaguar, Cross Keys

They are not people from a time Garcia Marquez forgot nor from a place that is weird, but one that descends from the Incas and produces fascinating individuals like the single mother who generally tends to Cross Keys while her daughter watches television in one of its side rooms or does her homework at the bar.   Not the Peru of mystery or fiction, this is Peru is one of real people and real food.

The Bar at Cross Key
The Bar at Cross Key
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