Denver Bar Association
January 2011
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New Perspectives from an Ancient World

by Derek Blass

Cloistered in a toasty office several weeks after my wife and I visited Peru, I still vividly recall two people we encountered on our journey. They had so little of what we strive for on a daily basis, and so much of what we lose in the chase. They offered us two beautiful examples of happiness being a choice—and that we can be happy with so much less than we have.

I received my first dose of “travel perspective” from a vendor in Cuzco. She was a small woman whom I found perched outside our hotel every day, usually at her cart before we woke up and was still there after we retired for the night. She hunched underneath a plastic tarp that hung from one end of her cart, which was approximately arms-width, with a top that I had to duck under to see the merchandise. Regardless of whether it was rainy and cold, early in the morning, or late at night, the woman’s demeanor was as warm as the cups of coca tea we drank to fend off the altitude sickness.

We chatted daily while I loaded up on water, Oreos, and other snacks from her cart. Although her worn face suggested otherwise, she was relatively young, perhaps only in her mid-30s. During one of these conversations, I asked her something derived from my perhaps sick, American curiosity: “Cuánto ganas al mes?” or “How much do you make a month?” “Almost 300 Nuevos Soles,” she responded without hesitation. Math being no strong suit, I struggled with the conversion, which is approximately 2.8 Nuevos Soles for every dollar. Almost $100? My ticket just to get to Peru was nearly the equivalent of her annual pay. A sheepish and bewildered smile flickered across my face as I handed her money for the latest snacks and walked away.

Two days later, after a three-hour, 60-mile train ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, we arrived full of anticipation at the base of Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination. It did not disappoint. Many people have since asked me to describe this wonder of the world, and words are barely enough – majestic; sacred; awe-inspiring.

The bus ride up the mountain followed 14 switchbacks on a one-bus-wide dirt road to the top. The drivers negotiated the route with aplomb, jetting around corners as if they were in a time trial. Once at the top, we shifted impatiently on our feet as people filed out of the bus. Several minutes later, we met Fabrizio, our Peruvian tour guide.

Following him through the gate, and then gaining our first glimpse of the ruins of Machu Picchu, was unforgettable. Terraces stretched one after another down the angular slope of the mountain. Machu Picchu, meaning “old mountain,” hunkered behind us. Huayna Picchu, meaning “new mountain,” jagged up in front of us. We followed Fabrizio along a terrace, nearly losing balance as we peered up hundreds of feet at the guard tower, the highest point in Machu Picchu. Llamas with decorative red earrings grazed in a group several terraces below us. Fabrizio pointed out ingenuous architectural methods and the locations of festivals honoring the “Pachamama.” The majesty of what the Incans had created—a work of astrological, architectural, and spiritual beauty—was hardly outdone by the natural beauty of the location. Nothing could compare to the plush range of mountains, their whole vertical faces visible except for tops shrouded in a constantly moving mist.

When the tour ended, our legs ached from the climbing and descending. We headed back down to Aguas Calientes. Once there, we plopped into seats at a restaurant just 10 feet from the train rails we rumbled in on. I was getting ready to grumble about yet another meal of pizza (a lone alternative to the “cuy,” or guinea pig, which is one of Peru’s specialties), when a short, lean man came pattering down the rails. His face was leathery, creased with lines. A loose tunic hung from his bony shoulders, and threadbare pants stretched down to meet the sandals on his dirty feet. He leaned forward against the weight of the gear on his back, almost perpendicular to his lower body. It wasn’t his gear. He was one of the porters for the people who decided to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. He held the mountain of gear on his back with a simple string, his hands tucked in between the string and his chest. He worked down the tracks in that position until he was in front of us. The weight of my astonished stare must have called his attention because he looked me in the eyes, remained expressionless for several seconds as he walked, and then smiled broadly and dipped his head back to the tracks.

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