Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

Halley's Comet from the Inca Way

I was in Cuzco when an earthquake struck; afterwards a crowd of three or four thousand came to the main plaza for a visit by president Alán García (he passed a couple of yards from me, munching a choclo or corn cob that had been presented to him); then in the evening a crowd I estimated at eighty thousand gathered to mourn those killed. Here is part of my account for myself, just about the walk to Machu Picchu:
    I had once seen a newspaper article about the "Inca road," a spur of which ran to Machu Picchu; and part of my idea in coming to Peru was to walk some of it. To paint it would fit my theme of painting roads. I imagined it as a rock-cut gallery slung between the peaks of the Andes. Actually it was a multiple system thousands of miles long, the Qhapaq Ñan, "mighty way," webbing the empire from Ecuador to Chile; much of it in steps, since the Incas had no wheels. Its starting-points were four roads leaving Cuzco (Qosqo, the world's "navel") for the Tawantin-suyu, the "four quarters" of the world or rather of the elongated Inca empire: Chinchaysuyu stretching northwest to Quito, Cuntisuyu down to the coast on the southwest, Collasuyu southeast to the lake and beyond, and finally Antisuyu, the descents to the unconquerable jungles on the north and east — the anti, the original "Andes." (Is there a singular — El Ande?)
    Certain streets off the corners of Cuzco plazas marked the beginnings of these roads — the roots, the germs, of the four quarters of the world. But I had not walked far from the Triunfo up Hatunrumiyoc, the root of the Antisuyu road, before becoming lost in backyards and hillsides. But a fragment farther out leading to Machu Picchu had become a recognized objective for hardier tourists, known as "the Inca trail," camino incaico; walking it required three or four or five days; there were guidebook descriptions of it; "don't start it unless you can go all the way — once you're in, the only other way out is by helicopter." (But how d'you let the helicopter know you need it?) The men of the Australian party we had met on the train planned to walk it, leaving on Monday, so I asked to join them. I didn't know whether I could until a meeting they held on the Saturday night. Eleven were going; Carlos, their local factotum, took lists of tents and cookers and backpacks to be rented. But by then all the ordinary shops had shut for fright of the earthquake, so I could not buy food; I decided to wait two days till I could be better prepared, except that I would have to go by myself. And it was raining, and there was the last aftershock of the earthquake; only four of the eleven went. I bought food (packages of soup) from those who weren't going; rented tent and cooker; but I still had little food, and no sunburn-cream, insect-repellent, or (potentially worst of all) iodine for purifying water. I had no boots, and, my feet being unhardened, might not be able to make it with bare feet. I went looking for shoes to buy, and the best shoes I could find were white plastic city-slickers closed with velcro straps — more suitable for a dance-hall!
    There was now a railway carved down along the Urubamba gorge to Machu Picchu and beyond, and that was the way the thousands of tourists went. The tourist train went non-stop, in four hours; but the local or "Indian" train stopped everywhere, so you had to be at the station very early in the morning to get a place on it, and get off it at "Kilometer 88."
    The railway mounted the slope closing the valley immediately west of Cuzco by reversing direction five times, like a road with hairpin bends. It ran through the upland valley of Anta; descended to the Urubamba by a tributary river, losing height at one place with another pair of reverses.
    I got off at Kilometer 88 with two French people, two Japanese, and four Israelis, but left them behind and never saw them again. I crossed the river; the path at first doubled back up the left bank, then up the long side-valley of the Cusichaca, which descended from Mount Salcantay. Most of the first morning's walking was swift and pleasant: light woodland, a "pass" which was no more than an easy rocky wrinkle in the valley floor, cultivated terraces (partly natural, since the river had clearly cut down through an earlier valley-level), small ancient settlements which were still settlements (Llaqtapata, Wayllabamba). I had a crude but useful picture-map that I had found in a Cuzco shop, and on its margins I noted about fifty of the first plants and animals I saw (a few of them domestic). Humming-birds, caterpillars, thirty-foot century-plants . . .  Up a side-valley from the side-valley, the Llulluchayoc. In only three hours I had reached a glade beside another side-stream where a large party of Canadians was just finishing lunch, cooked by Indian bearers. After they left I heated the soup I had, and it was so salty that I had no more of it but was thirsty for the rest of the journey. As the trail steepened and roughened I had to put on the absurd white shoes.
    In Cuzco, or anywhere else I had been, I knew I was living on thin oxygen when I went up stairs and got breathless; otherwise the only evidence of the altitude was the cool weather. Now the rocky ascents of the trail became progressively less blithe to climb with sixty pounds on my back. The upper valleys ascended so steeply that to turn around was to look out between wings of mountainside into a white void, below which was the world I had come from. Some long forking landslide-scars on mountainsides far above the earlier valley were now below eye-level.
    At one thickly wooded place where the trail disappeared into a stream, I turned left up what I thought was the continuation though almost vertical; I thought it would climb a bank and then turn along a level ledge; it became only worse and obviously wrong, but it would have been so hard to back down that I kept on forcing upward through denser growth looking for a sidewise ledge, and lost an hour on this hillside. At four o'clock I came to the beautiful meadows of Llulluchapampa, grassy steps interlaced by streams, rocks, and waterfalls, at the foot of the "First Pass"; others were pitching camp, and I did too, in a shower, with a rock at my back, on my own little ridge of grass, between brooks which each emerged from underground and then fell through a clifftop.
    In the miserable damp little tent I did not sleep much, and took to cantilevering myself out backward through the door to try to tell the hours till dawn. It took me the longest time to get my bearings, because the tent was blocking the north and the sky was upside down behind and over me. But there in the pure and now rain-free air was the Milky Way, and the Coalsack Nebula, and Halley's Comet. It was just now, in the night between April 9 and 10, nearest to the earth. It was about as large to the naked eye as it had appeared in binoculars in the north; a little triangle, because the tail widened rapidly but faded out rapidly.
    In the morning I started ahead of the other campers up the last and steepening way to the "First Pass," Warmiwañusq'a, the highest (13,680 feet, not as high as the railway pass south of Cuzco). I stopped often to sob for breath; and after an hour Indian bearers began to overtake me. They looked strained, of course, but nothing like as strained as I was; and they went, in their rough sandals, at almost a trot. I tried it but could not keep it up. Some of them were carrying tables! I passed them taking a rest, in one line along the path-side: there were no fewer than twenty-six. They were paid sixty intis a day — three or four dollars — I wouldn't have done it for sixty dollars an hour! The pass-top at last came close, through a maze of rockwork. A lone century-plant grew on the skyline. When I was on top, one more tall burdened Indian came striding up and over and started straight down the other side without a pause.
    A couple of thousand feet down I met a fellow coming back up: he had dropped his camera somewhere. He later told me that one of the people in the party now coming to the top of the pass felt so miserable from altitude-sickness, which people often got above thirteen thousand feet, that she handed him her camera, and he took 225 photographs with it on the trail. (Thirteen thousand feet, by the way, is the average depth of the abyssal plain of the oceans.) I was drawing fewer and fewer sketches — I had to heave the whole pack off my back to get at my sketchbook — and they were so sketchy as to be intelligible only to me. How could I, with a scratchy point on a little page, indicate these enormous interlocking sails of slope, and the immense raise of the eyes to the pass where I had earlier been? In this second valley-system, the Pacai Mayu, I became worried that I was on a side-trail leading out of it too high to the south, because I seemed to be clambering across a slope rather than following a valley; not till coming correctly to the ruins of Runkuraqay did I realize that the valleys shown on the map were more like drainpipes down the side of a house. By these ruins (a very short day's stage) the twenty-six Indians were setting up the next camp for their clients — tents and even latrines. The first visible bit of road-masonry started just before Runkuraqay. This whole "Inca trail" really was a piece of the road-system; it was the only way from the upper Urubamba (hence from Cuzco) to the lower Urubamba (Machu Picchu and other hidden cities). For down to the right was the Grand Canyon of the Urubamba (the gorge starting at Torontoi), virtually impassable till the railway was blasted along it; up to the left was the range of Salcantay and Soray, too high to cross (or almost — there was a severe pass between those two peaks). This was why the road struggled up and down over such notches as it could find in the ridges descending from Salcantay.
    For the rest of the long day I walked without seeing anybody, over the second pass with its wild boggy lakes above the upstreaming clouds, past caves and the ruins of Sayaqmarca, bathing in a jungly waterfall. The trail became almost continuously paved, the best part being a causeway snaking across a marsh that filled a large pocket in the mountainsides. It was hardly easier to walk on than the black mud or sandy groove or virtual streambed found elsewhere: the blocks were rough, the bigger ones set at the edge, the rest a stony prickle along which I had to pick my way with eyes down. (A microcosm of the Andes themselves: flat-topped causeway exceptioned by peaks and gashes increasingly toward the edges.) The trail was essentially level as it skirted high along the rim of the Aobamba valley; but I was tiring more, not less, on such climbs and descents as there were, probably because of having too little to eat. In places this five-hundred-year-old road had fallen away or been buried by avalanches. In two places, slabs of rock larger than churches had slid down and settled over it; I had to get past behind them by "tunnels," long enough that I was stepping by faith in complete darkness. My pack projected above my head, and often the vegetation when I ducked under it caught me (bringing down showers); for it was now dense enough to be called jungle, with bamboos and lianas mixed in. You could rather easily slip on a wet block or be catapulted off the trail by a branch; it must happen a few times a year; usually there is a drop of five hundred or fifteen hundred feet beside you; you most likely would get stopped by vegetation not very far down, but it would be tough to struggle back up, especially if you had been knocked on the head; you'd just become a statistic; in short I could see why it wasn't entirely a good idea to be alone. For some hours of the afternoon I was walking inside cloud, which thickened to heavy rain, then ceased early enough for me to walk myself dry. Then I came to the most thunderously abrupt view:
    The narrow masonry trail, following a contour along the dark left-sloping hillside, approached a saddle. The trail curved leftward to get onto and run along this saddle, which was only about twenty yards long; from its farther end the trail curved left again and thus ran away along the same contour on the same back-side of the ridge, without having crossed it. But from the paved saddle, as from a balcony, I looked down over a mighty void, at the bottom of which was the Urubamba! Two fragments of the gleaming band of water could be seen, twisting to hide themselves among the boots of the ridges. The saddle must have been at about twelve thousand feet, the river at about six thousand, and the angle approaching forty-five degrees, which when you are looking down seems near vertical.
    The trail kept westward at about the same level to Phuyupatamarka, where I certainly had to camp, having walked several times farther in the day than would be sensible if one were properly supplied and wanted to enjoy it. Two and a quarter days all together; people usually take three to five; on level ground 33 kilometers would be only a day.
    I had even rebelled against the idea of a tent. Now it was raining solidly as I pushed the skewers into a soggy marsh of straw, spread on a spur below the top of the hill which was already occupied by campers with, again, Indian cook-bearers. This was the longest night; I didn't sleep at all; but what can you do for thirteen hours of darkness on a pinnacle between canyons? Again the rain gave way to crystalline black air so that I could watch the comet tracing the slow hours above me.
    I got up as soon as I could, and it was none too soon to see the most overpowering dawn. The screens of mountains descended zigzag-topped to the right, mostly below me, cloud-layers floating in the chasms between them like water in docks; all was in violet darkness, except that the high leftward crest of the farthest range, about six sharp icy peaks, nevadas, caught and threw back the pink blaze of the lowest light. And just above hung at an angle an orange fish of cloud. Straight below me was a sort of terraced stone ship with curious apertures: Phuyupatamarca, the largest and most complex ruin so far.
    An Indian was playing a flute in the otherwise dormant camp behind me. The path went down past Phuyupatamarca and was from then on almost all the way (instead of just in many parts) a staircase of deep rough steps. In fact it descended four thousand feet without pause. This unrelenting crashing down from block to block did in my legs. The jungle that filled the damp slot was ever more multifarious in its plants and insects and birds; there were butterflies with electric blue underwings. When I first came in sight of the mountain of Machu Picchu and its smaller but sharper prow, Huayna Picchu, both looming above the tourists who arrived up to them, they were far below, small as toothpicks. They barely pricked into the sunlight that grazed down into the cavernous valley. This was the more-vertical-than-horizontal environment of my imaginings. I passed a small camp of people who, in exchange for correct information about how to see the comet (they had been looking at Jupiter), gave me maté de coca to drink and some coca leaves to chew. A bare slope leftward from this ravine to Wiñaywaina (also spelt Winayhuayna and said to mean "eternally young"; I read that a satellite city was discovered there seven years later). The last roughly level miles were along some of the sheerest cliffsides, with bridges of sticks across gaps in the ledge, and the Urubamba two thousand feet below. Finally Intipunku, a sort of gatehouse fortress, on the corner of the shoulder of Machu Picchu mountain, and the view down over the green-and-grey tracery of the city.