Sometimes you luck out. So it was that a mere few months before the treacherous COVID-19 virus swept the world, including South America, I was fortunate enough to finally visit Machu Picchu, the spectacular, fabled Inca citadel high in the Andes Mountains. In spite of worries that I might be disappointed, given sky-high expectations and those gazillions of dazzling photos, the site more than lived up to its magical reputation. I was overwhelmed.
(Rod Mickleburgh photo)
There was so much more to take in than the famous Temple of the Sun and adjacent peak of Huayna Picchu, which towers over the ruins and anchors all those familiar, panoramic views. Unlike other Inca sites, Machu Picchu is quite well-preserved, since it was never discovered and plundered by the Conquistadores, before abandoned and swallowed up by the jungle. It was saved by its remoteness and status as a royal estate, rather than a heavily-populated, fortified city. Photographs don’t convey the vastness of Machu Picchu, just how spectacular its surroundings really are, and the many fascinating structures off the well-worn paths of the mandatory guided tours. There’s also the bonus of an up-close glimpse of the Incas’ astounding terracing, which managed, as I read somewhere, to turn mountainous terrain into an agricultural “bread basket”. No wonder I didn’t want to leave. That may be why there are no bathrooms on site – as a crowd-control measure designed to force lingering tourists like myself to finally head for the exit.
(The Temple of the Sun — Rod Mickleburgh photo)
I also fell under the spell of the Incas, themselves, of whom I knew little more than the basics, before touring their magnificent stomping grounds in south-eastern Peru. There is so much to admire. Like the Romans, they were ingenious builders. They preferred negotiation over military conquest, and their basic economy was communal. Citizens exchanging military obligations for guaranteed supplies of food and security. Yet their sprawling, sophisticated empire, the largest in the Americas, lasted barely more than a hundred years. Tragically, they were done in by smallpox and a few hundred ruthless, gold-thirsty Spaniards, who had horses, armour and guns. When the Inca fought, they lost. When they tried to buy peace, they were tricked and betrayed by their deceitful conquerers. It’s a heartbreaking saga.
The late Canadian poet Patrick Lane spent several years travelling in South America in the early 1970s, when one could wander the site at will and sleep there overnight. He, too, fell under the spell of the Inca and Machu Picchu. He wrote this poem for the long-gone literary publication Blackfish in 1973. I liked it before, and now, having visited Machu Picchu, myself, I like it even more. (Note: Manco Capac was a king of the Incas. Cuzco was their capital, where remnants of their magnificent stone walls and foundations are still used. And Patrick spells “Machu” with two c’s….)
(for Earle Birney)
THE HITCHING POST OF THE SUN
Father Condor, take me,
Brother Falcon, take me,
Tell my little mother I am coming,
For five days I have not eaten, or drank a drop,
Father messenger, bearer of signs, swift messenger,
Carry me off, I beg you, little mouth, little heart,
Tell my little father and little mother, I beg you,
that I am coming.
Condemned lovers death song.
From the Quechua.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Standing on the highest rung of the city
we place our hands on polished stone
that was a hitching-post for the sun.
Now there is nothing but silence.
We watch the sun fall into the Andes.
The first cold shafts of night
reach into the river far below.
In a gathering mist I feel
we are growing out of
the body of something dead.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Today we lay in the Temple of Virgins
as centuries filled our mouths with moss.
They have stripped away the jungle.
They have torn the winding cloths.
They have scattered bones to the wind.
Strangers walk through the ruins.
They talk of where they come from,
where they are going.
As we lay in the roofless room
they stoned a snake.
It crawled out of the earth
to lie in the brilliant sun.
Coils of its body like plaited hair,
eyes of cracked stones. They left it
broken, draped on a fallen wall.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
We have been cursed with dreams.
This city was meant to be lost.
Those who died here did not want it to be found.
I pick up our blanket and find a place
to sleep in the Temple of the Sun.
But even he has hidden his face…
yellow bruise of light, lost to us,
who could heal everything.
we began when the sun fell.
Now there is nothing but shadows.
I imagine women moving with their men.
They surround us with their eyes,
here in the high Andes
in a city that was lost and found again
by men who came to unhitch the sun.
THE VIRGIN OF THE SUN
In the jungle tombs they found only women.
One held a child in her womb; her hands
like roots, wrapped around his face.
There were no men.
The city belonged to the Virgins of the Sun.
One by one the tombs were broken,
the jungle torn away:
and his Incas dead.
The empire fallen.
Here they tied the sun at the end of seasons.
Here they tilled the soil under the eyes
of warriors who stood between the portals
of the sun, waiting for the Spanish horse.
Here the virgins were buried.
The Spanish never came.
Betrayed, the last Inca left for Cuzco
to bargain with the Viceroy of Spain.
He died in an ambuscade.
The bridges were cut behind him.
The road forgotten, the jungle grew a mantle
for the dead. The sun rose and fell on the temple
and in the dark tombs the Virgins slept
waiting for the Inca to return
and restore them to the sun.
Let the grave-robbers go.
Let the city grow back to jungle,
back to the speechless things.
The Virgins have left their tombs
with their unborn child.
Let the city grow back to jungle.
Let the graves like wounds be closed again.
MANCO CAPAC – LAST INCA
Today I leave for the great capital.
Much has been said of the wisdom
Of this move. In Macchu Picchu
I have ruled. It is as if the empire was
Still water curled in a jug’s curve,
Spilled like this river into jungle.
Lately numerous stars have crossed
The heaven. As it was for Huaina Capac.
So for me. Huarascar and Atahualpa dead.
They have raised the bloodstone cross
In Cuzco. The people are afraid.
But the Viceroy of Spain has asked me
To return. He wishes me in the Temple.
What is that to me? My people burn
In the great square. My houses are
Plundered. The empire come and gone.
The golden rod that was planted in
The beginning is removed — melted
For the Three-In-One in Spain.
My warriors will stand at the bridges
And along the great road. If I do not
Return, all will be destroyed.
My people starve in the high passes.
My people die in the streets.
My priests have read the omens.
Still I must go. Perhaps the Spaniard
Speaks truth. I no longer know what
Their truth is. I have spoken with the dead
by the hitching-post of the sun.
I have returned them to their tombs.
I am Manco Capac, Lord of the Inca.
The words of Pachacutec are my words:
Born like a lily in the garden
I grew like a lily
Ad when the time came
I withered and died.
Macchu Picchu – Peru 72
We lost Patrick Lane last year, just before he was to receive the George Woodcock Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to the passing of one of Canada’s best writers, someone I had known and admired since first meeting him in his home town of Vernon, I felt an added, personal disappointment. Coincidentally, I had won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness for my BC labour history book On the Line. The plan was to have both of us accept our awards at the same ceremony in Victoria. Sharing such an event with Patrick would have been one of the highlights of my life. But it was not to be. Instead we were left to mourn an outstanding poet, the winner of so many awards over the years, who turned his early, hard-edged life, often full of anger, into one that celebrated love, gardens and grace. A beautiful soul.
(If you are new to his work, you can get a measure of Patrick Lane from this blog I wrote in 2013 that highlights two spell-binding addresses he gave, after being awarded honorary degrees at UBC’s Okanagan campus and the University of Victoria/ Both moved many in the audience to tears. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/patrick-lane-poet/ )