Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams
333 pages (292 pages including the epilogue, which belongs with the story)
Read this book about roughing it in Peru next time you slip into a hot bubble bath with a nice glass of wine
This book was the tonic I’d needed when I picked it up at Barnes & Noble. It was mid-November, and I was starting to burn out on this blog project after my recent reading selections had proven very grim (Devil in the White City), a bit academic in writing style (Mr. Selden’s Map of China) or just plain dull (see forthcoming Reject Pile 2). While I’d enjoyed most of it and nourished an appetite for quality nonfiction, I was ready for lighter fare.
Author Mark Adams and I have something in common: we’ve both visited Machu Picchu. We have a further commonality: neither of us arrived at adulthood with much experience outdoors. That’s the point of divergence, however. I arrived at Machu Picchu on the train mentioned in Adams’ book…the one he eschewed in favor of backpacking. For me, the worst hardship of arriving by train was a “fashion show” of overpriced llama and alpaca wool garments inflicted on the passengers who were a captive audience. Adams had bigger problems, like the condition of his gear, the health of his guide and the abrupt changes in the weather. He was retracing the steps of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911. Bingham had us both licked in the “problems” department: he was leading a large, expensive and well-publicized expedition seeking a legendary city—not necessarily Machu Picchu—with only directions from Quechua-speaking locals who told him whatever they thought he wanted to hear.
Shifts from Hiram Bingham’s expedition to the author’s own, a century later, occur naturally throughout the book with phsyical landmarks along the trip. Although Bingham’s journaling was apparently given to tangents about how to pick the right mule or how to provision one’s party, Adams keeps it relevant. Snakes, coca leaves, weather and altitude all make for an engaging account of Adams’ modern journey, but the first-person narrative adds a certain grit and draws empathy from the reader both for the New York desk jockey and for the society man who inspired the trip.
Adams’ own knowledge of the Incas and direct experience in Peru demonstrate how the Incan civilization still influences the culture in that region. He also makes sure the reader learns enough about the Incas for a description of what he sees in his travels to be meaningful. He credits his well-read and superhuman Australian guide, John, with many of the insights into the Incan architecture he saw along the trail (he also credits a contact of John’s who lives—weirdly enough—in Alaska, for some of his information). Living with John and the mule handlers while on the trail also enriched his perceptions of modern culture in the surrounding area (while Adams’ wife is Peruvian, family visits to that nation had not gone beyond Lima’s city limits to that point).
Mark Adams’ Machu Picchu trip shouldn’t be mistaken for a pilgrimage of hero-worship conducted in Hiram Bingham’s name. Adams makes a point of discussing the conflict that developed between modern Peru and Yale University, where Bingham had many Incan relics shipped for its Peabody Museum collection. Bingham isn’t mentioned in exhibits about Machu Picchu created and maintained by the Peruvian government. The local farmers knew all about the ruins, having explored them as children, so the idea of Bingham as “discoverer” is preposterous from their point of view. Interestingly, Bingham himself seems to have thought later in life that the relics he collected for the Peabody should be returned to Peru, even though that conflict outlived him by many decades.
Even years after my visit to Peru, Adams’ book enriched my understanding of what I saw there. Certainly, I had no idea back then who Hiram Bingham had been or why Peruvians might have a particular opinion of him. Furthermore, as I lack fluency in Spanish (let alone Quechua), I missed out on the chance to talk with any Peruvian who wasn’t in the tourism industry. I’ve had to rely on reading to explain what I’ve seen. To be honest, though, I’m still not sorry I arrived on the train.
Photo: from the author’s collection. That’s me in the goofy hat, about 10 years ago.