Shared Wounds at Machu Picchu
Last month I visited Machu Picchu. Since I was exploring the ruins by myself, I chose to hike to the site so I could meet people along the way. I made the trek with a few Colombians, a couple of Spaniards, some Peruvians, and a group of Panamanians. There was one other US citizen among us, of Mexican heritage. We spoke Spanish the whole way up the mountain, sharing stories about other parts of Peru we had traveled, and advice for future destinations. When we reached the entrance to the national park that led to the site, we drifted apart looking for our designated tour guides. Originally, I was with an English-speaking guide. There was more blonde hair and blue eyes in this group than those I had hiked with. Less than ten minutes into the hike to the top of the mountain where we would see Machu Picchu, the 18 month-old baby nestled in a carrier around her mother began to wail. It became harder to hear the tour guide and my patience began to wane.
I'm not a baby-hater but I didn't understand why anyone would choose to carry a baby to Machu Picchu. The terrain is not flat or stable. There were times when I had to step on slippery rocks and climb some steep stone steps. I can't image doing that while hauling a squirming 30lb human strapped to my body. The weather was humid and cool, the kind that sticks to you so you're simultaneously cold as you sweat. that poor baby was probably cold and sweaty. To really get the full experience, it is recommended you spend at least four hours at the site, after you've hiked at least an hour to the park, and another 30-45 minutes to the ruins. Again, it was hard to envision enjoying that while keeping a baby comfortable. It was clearly a challenge for the couple in my group as their baby got louder and louder. Luckily, I had made some friends. As I became more annoyed and the couple gave off vibes of despair when their baby wasn't consoled with snacks or bottles, I looked over and saw some of the people with whom I had hiked. I casually walked over and joined their group. Tour guides have to be arranged and paid in advance. I expected their guide to tell me to kick rocks back to my original tour guide but thankfully, he did not. I am still grateful for his welcoming spirit and tipped him accordingly after the tour.
Not only did I love to hear about the history in the language much of the story occurred, being in a group of Latin Americans made the overall impact that much more powerful. It also reinforced why I rarely say I am from the United States when I travel, especially when I travel solo internationally. A lot of what I will share will make me sound like a hypocrite and I own that. My account of this experience comes from a place of priviledge and I realize that, too. Going to Machu Picchu at all is not to be taken lightly, much less as a woman there by herself, I get it.
I'll admit, I didn't do a lot of research about Machu Picchu before going. Aside from the weather so I knew what to pack, I knew only basic facts about this archeological wonder of the Andes. Thankfully, my guide did a wonderful job explaining how it went from a hidden gem enjoyed by the locals to the spectacle it is today.
In 1912 Hiram Bingham, a hisorian from the United States who taught Latin American history at Yale University became somewhat obsessed with finding the Lost City of the Incas, a place he probably thought would be dripping with gold, but more on that later. His search led him to Cuzco, a city in south-central Peru that was once the capital of the Incan empire. While there, he interviewed several locals about his suspicions that the lost city was nearby. In doing so, he met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer who spoke Quechua and led Bingham on a 2-day journey through the thickly forested valley to the site. It was completely covered in vegetation but that did not stop Bingham from claiming to have discovered what he thought was Vilcapampa, a lost city of the Incas. However, what I loved about my tour guide is that he didn't credit Bingham with 'discovering' Machu Picchu. He made it clear that the locals knew about the site and had been using parts of it for generations. It was clear to everyone in the group that Bingham took credit in the same way that many colonizers did before him. He didn't discover anything; he pillaged and commercialized it.
Over the next three years Bingham and his team, along with locals who were familiar with the tough terrain, excavated and uncovered countless treasures that have helped historians better understand the ingenuity and agricultural genius of the Incas. While the site is massive, and at one time thousands lived there, it has been determined that Bingham was wrong. It was not a city, but most likely a military chief's estate. It was covered in vegetation when he got there, so Bingham set the site on fire three times before he got started. Since the estate was home to people from all over the region, it had plants and herbs that had been carefully cultivated by the ancient inhabitants. But Bingham did not value their medicinal worth of the plants as the Incas did. For all we know, he could have wiped out the plants that could have led to the cure for diseases that plague us today in his search for gold and riches rumored to be buried there.
Bingham took over 12,000 photographs of the site that he used to create a book about his findngs. There is no indication that the local Quechua people who helped him find and dig up the site got any credit in, or compensation from sales of Bingham's book. In fact, I saw Bingham's name on a few buildings in Cuzco and Aguas Calientes but none of the Areaga family who made his work possible. Ironically, Bingham's book became accidental evidence that others had been at the site before Bingham. In fact, a Peruvian explorer named Agustín Lizárraga Ruiz carved his name and the year 1902 onto a rock at the site, nearly a decade before Bingham set foot there. Instead of finding Ruiz and perhaps collaborating with him, Bingham altered the site by having the name and year scrubbed from the rock, forgetting that he had photographed it and submitted the photo for his book. Eventually he admitted that he was not the first person to explore the site in depth.
While excavating Machu Picchu, 48,000 artifacts were unearthed. The Peruvian government granted Bingham permission to borrow those artifacts and take them to his lab in the United States to study them and report the findings. He returned 5,000 of those pieces. To this day, the Perivian government is waiting for the US to repatriate the rest of the artifacts. As the guide told that part of the story, many of the people in the group made comments, rolled their eyes, and expressed frustration. All of them came from countries the US had also tampered with and manipulated so none were surprised by the theft.
Their disgust was rightly aimed at a country that will deface ancient ruins to claim discovery; lie to steal valuable art, and pat itself on the back as a catalyst for development, with no credit or regard for the people who made it possible.This is the pattern on which the US was founded. Enslaved people, including North American natives built the first buildings from which Euro-descendents created rules and laws to disenfranchise those who gave their sweat, blood and tears to create the many accomplishmants and milestones the US celebrates. Africans and Indigenous Nations did the hardest work in the beginnings of the nation and still fight to be valued. Asians used Eastern engineering techniques to build our railroads and the US thanked them by prohibiting them from bringing their wives to the US. Latin-Americans still break their backs planting and cultivating the crops that feed the US while they work in abhorrent conditions with no path to citizenship or rights. These examples go on and on. That's not to say the US hasn't done some good in the world, but so much harm and pain permeates most of it.
As an ambiguously Brown person, I often blend into the populations where I've traveled. The times I am asked where I am from, I often say Puerto Rico. I realize this is not true. I have never lived on the island and only know it from a handful of visits and the stories of my parents. While Puerto Rico is associated with the United States, it has not led the atrocities the US has put in place across the globe. It's universally understood, as it was that day in the valley of the Andes mountains, that Puerto Rico is a victim of the US. It has been bled dry of the resources that would allow it to be an independent nation free of the oppressive hand of its longest lasting colonizer. While the US calls Puerto Rico a commonwealth, the rest of the world sees it for what it is and when I say I am Puerto Rican, the reactions around the world have not been eye rolls. People understand that we share similar ancestral wounds. My Puerto Ricanness affords me the freedom to travel and other US birthright privileges, but it is a complicated existence. It is why when I travel alone, I steer clear of the English-speaking travelers easily identifiable as US citizens. I feel safer blending in and acknowleging the shared experience of the abuse of power the US has inflicted across the earth, my little island included.