Monday, April 8, 2013

Fire in the Sky - A HOTR Travel Log

I don't rival Old NFO  for frequent flier miles but I've spent some serious time on the road in my life. I've always been this way, driven by, not so much the hunger for the new, for motion, but for accepting those challenges that are put to me, even as I relentsly pursue that fetterless balance of freedom.

I do travel less now, having been promoted up the food chain. But I still get out there. On my regular time off, with a long weekly commute to work, I have little desire to travel the world, content to spend time at home or with friends or family. I hear many tales of exotic vacations from those around me, yet part of me has discovered that there are greater wonders right around the corner, right under your nose, if you open yourself up to look beyond the past.

But I do travel and not always by choice. Not too long back, I had a trip to Peru.  Though my work was completed, as much on schedule as those things go, I decided to stay an extra couple of days on my own dime and travel to see something else. Something I knew I would never see again.

Machu Pichu, lost city of the Incas, a siren call since I'd become fascinated by Indian cultures of the world back in 6th grade. As I sat in the hotel lobby one day, debating on going or not, I shared this dream with other travelers, who unlike me, weren't here on a whim. They had made the pilgrimage to this place the culmination of a lifelong dream. Some of them had gear, intent on hiking in the days it took to get to the site. Many were college students, one young couple were newly married. They invited me to join them. They looked at that long  hike as a spiritual quest, sweat beading on brows, hearts near bursting from joy and exertion. Stretching themselves to their limit to reach their lofty goal. I looked at their bright shiny faces. I looked at my 40 something year old knees.

The bus seat wasn't too bad.
I did my share of physical activity as a young pup hiking, white water rafting. I can still rappel if I need to. I count among my friends, several seasoned world travelers, people who can navigate the dangers of the world with little more than a hat and a toothbrush.  I'm still in decent shape. But as I looked up the trail to the hills of the gods, I knew I did not want there to be some little memorial of flowers and  illegible words inscribed on a little wooden plaque that said "watch for falling redheads".

I wasn't the only coward, as the entire bus was full, our goal, after a train ride up most of the trails distance the day prior, to get to the citadel early enough to see the sun rise over the mountains. It was hard to imagine what the city looked like when American explorer Hiram Bingham first saw it in 1911, as it was blanketed in vegetation that had kept it a secret for centuries. What remains is this: many hundreds of stone structures built at an elevation of 8000 feet in the 1400's, though legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning 'Old Peak' in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far, far earlier time.

The hills that surround the city are ridged with terraces, some for farming, some for defense. Invisible from below and completely self contained, they are watered by natural springs. The farmland would support the whole community, water was abundant. They were completely self sufficient and protected, survivalists before the term was even coined. Bound by their own moral code ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy). Just the architecture of the place was a marvel, terraces running straight and strong and quiet through the grass, the sun dancing on it mid day, like a high altitude river.

Two thousand feet above the rumbling Urubambo river, clouds wrap around the ruins like gauze, shrouding ruins containing palaces, temples, storage rooms, and some 150 houses, all remarkably preserved. These structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountaintop itself, are examples of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more. The one in this picture has many stones taller than I, yet they are so precisely sculpted, fitted together with such exactitude, that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of even my thin Gerber blade.

I found a spot on one of the terraces where I could see the light gather the darkness unto itself, watching the fractured flight of stars. Those who had hiked up the 4 day trail were trickling in, their shouts of jubilation ringing in air that seemed untouched by time. As they drew near.  The sounds carried up, heavy and prolonged, setting up in the air like cement. I was temped to call out to them to hush, for as the dawn grew stronger and the citadel shone before me, laid out like a communion table, the noise seemed a sacrilege. I couldn't help but think that this was God's place. A place perhaps not meant for shouting tourists, for a  porcelain skinned solitary woman.

One of the main things I wished to see was the Intihuatana stone (meaning 'Hitching Post of the Sun') which scientists have confirmed is a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. The Intihuatana is designed to hitch the sun at the two equinoxes, not at the solstice (as commonly stated in new-age books) but at midday on March 21st and September 21st. Then, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun "sits with all his might upon the pillar" and is for a moment "tied" to the rock.

During these times the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they "tied the sun" to halt its northward movement in the sky. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the December solstice (the summer solstice of the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind Pumasillo (Puma's claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range, but the shrine itself is primarily equinoctial and chillingly pristine.

Intihuatana stones were the supremely sacred objects of the Inca people.  As such, they were systematically searched for and destroyed by the Spaniards, shattered into ceaseless sheen, across which the reflected sky wept and vanished. When the Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spaniards never found Machu Pichu, even though they suspected its existence. Thus it is said that the resident spirits remain in their original position at the Intihuatana stone. 
 So to the stone I went, as the sun came from far below, coming from no where and needing no permission, simply rising into view, arrested in my sight in blinding fury, sparking the sky like gunpowder, inviolate and forlorn. I stood and waited to view the stone, hair across my eyes, sticking to my skin as if smeared by a paintbrush. Waiting like a figure model for the light to capture my form with the artists stroke of longing. I stood without moving, suspended in a dimension without time, feeling only the blood course through the veins in my naked arms, crossed across my breast, as if suddenly shy to someone who had already viewed my every secret.

Shamanic legends say that when sensitive persons touch their foreheads to the stone, the Intihuatana opens one's vision to the spirit world. I reach the stone finally, exhausted, muscles cramping, yet smiling.  I look around to see if I am alone. I touch the grey stone with my forehead, the mountain looming behind me, and the world is open to me, memories flood; of what brought me to this day, this place in time. I know that although I feel that I am lonely, I am not alone. As my forehead rests against vast stone, I softly whisper - seek me out, down to the marrow of my bone, and the keening of my blood. Seek that which calls. For there are rivers in each of us no one has ever traveled down, lands no one has ever explored. I am waiting. . . find me. And the granite responded with reassuring weight against my brow, the language of ancient stone extending past the boundary of the flesh, bringing cool comfort to my soul.

I leave the Intihuatana, refreshed and hopeful, climbing up higher as the sun begins its final ascent. As we gather, the noisy climbers become silent. All that was still innocent in us, hopeful, sits in mute silence as a new day breaks upon the alter of the sky. We stand, perfectly still, as the light of the world fills our vision and illuminates what was in all of us. What brought each of us to this place.

From there, an ascent up Waynu Picchu, a peak that overlooks the ruins. It's literally like climbing stairs- stairs that are often very big, and very,very steep. At one point I almost had to turn back, muscles crying, a scrape where I banged an outcropping, welting and ridging, the blood seeping like a tear down my leg. It seemed as if I was the only motion, everything else fixed in stony visibility. But I pressed on, learning to negotiate slowly those small upward movements into space.  At the top I have to scurry through a cave and then climb up a ladder onto the actual peak from where all of Machu Pichu can be seen. My vision clear, my painful stumbling just a memory, the whole world falls away.

Nothing you wish for is easy.  That's something I always told those who came to me as an instructor, wanting to learn to fly, but having put it off, saying they were too old, or didn't have the time or the money. If there's anything I have learned in life it is this. That love does not exist just in one place and in one instant and in one body out of all the time you have, all the bright light and streaming sky of your life, it is there, waiting for you, with no price tag but your happiness. It's within your reach if you just look up.

As I work my way downward from the summit, I think of the exotic tales I will bring back home. Tales of the mist that hovers off of ancient stone. Of hearts as primal as the landscape, as wild as soaring birds of prey, of lives that are brilliant flashes of lightning in the towering mountains and not merely sparks in the night.
 - Brigid