I still remember those quiet afternoons leafing through old copies of National Geographic magazine in the stuffy basement of my grandparents’ house in Maryland. My parents didn’t travel much, but that was the one big trip we made every year. Unlike me, they had a habit of napping after lunch, and I spent that time rummaging through those dusty magazines, engrossed by how mysterious the world had become. Ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, giant statues on Easter Island, modern day tribes in Kurdistan. It was also the first time I saw a picture of Machu Picchu, and I never forgot it.
On a cool misty morning more than two decades later, divorced and searching for a new beginning, I boarded a bus in the rustic hillside town of Aguas Calientes. Tucked away high up in the Peruvian Andes, this backpacker’s refuge was my final stop on a journey that had started two days prior in Gainesville, Florida.
I woke up at 4:30 that morning in my hotel room, adrenaline pumping through my veins. I washed down an ordinary western breakfast with coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice, grabbed my backpack and made my way through narrow cobblestone streets to the bus terminal teaming with wide-eyed tourists. Next to me was a young lady who turned out to be from Poland. She was about my age with brown hair and hazel eyes that evoked a longing hard to put into words. When the bus took off, I asked my Polish neighbor if she was meeting anyone up there. She took a deep breath and replied, “no.”
“This is for me,” she said without further elaboration.
“Is that an English accent I detect?” I later asked.
“Well,” she said, smiling. “I lived in England for a few years.”
As the bus looped around the muddy road and we began approaching the clouds, I started to catch glimpses of that picture I saw long ago in my grandparents’ basement, fluttering in and out like a distant hummingbird.
To finally behold Machu Picchu is to approach something magnificently sublime. There are few places in the world where feeling precedes sight itself. From that first observation point, my Polish companion and I gazed into a world that was as foreign as it was familiar. Mist was gently rising over the mountain top, and granite walls still intact five hundred years later shimmered in the morning sun.
As we continued to higher ground, long lines of people were waiting to take selfies. A young couple, lying against a terrace, had their eyes closed. I wanted to ask my new friend what had brought her here, but it felt obtrusive. We eventually lost track of each other, and I made my way up the terraces for a better view.
We ran into each other again on her way back down from the Sun Gate. Her face was beaming with excitement.
“I couldn’t make it all the way,” she exclaimed.
“Maybe I’ll go for it,” I offered.
“Do it for me too,” she said.
An hour later, sweaty and breathless, I finally found the Sun Gate. I was over nine thousand feet high. A cool breeze washed over my damp shirt. In the distance, stood the Sanctuary- ancient, regal, and very much alive. In broken Spanish, I spoke to one of the guides who was kind enough to tell me that the Sun Gate was the original entry point to Machu Picchu. I took a few pictures hoping to run into my friend again, but that was the last time I saw her.
On the bus ride back that night, I sat next to an Italian couple and a young lady from Canada with close cropped hair who later shared that she had gotten over a serious bout of cancer and now cherished each day as though it was a gift. We told each other stories and laughed at our cultural stereotypes.
After we parted ways, as I walked back to my hotel room with only the moonlight as my guide, I thought of our Inca forebears, and how little they truly knew centuries ago of what they had gifted us that day, even for my Polish friend.