Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Discovery Channel

For our last post of Travel Month, I thought I'd honor the thrill of discovery. For me, that's what travel is all about. Ever since I learned to read, I've loved stories of explorers discovering places long hidden from the world. My parents had a collection of National Geographic magazines dating back to the nineteen-teens, and I loved the pictures of long-lost ruins hidden in South American jungles and ancient tombs buried in the Egyptian sand.

When I visit an archeological site, I always try to imagine what it was like to actually discover it--to be the first to see the outlines of a Mayan temple in a vine-shrouded pile of rubble, or to enter a buried tomb untouched for centuries. In fact, if I could choose to be present at one historical moment, it would be Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Imagine working your way through the passageway and breaking the seals on the door to see, by wavering candlelight, a treasure trove that was hidden for over 3,000 years. I love Carter's own account:
"At first I could see nothing...but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold...When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

My other favorite tale of discovery is the story of Hiram Bingham, the Yale-educated historian who brought the ruins of Machu Picchu to the attention of the world. I first "discovered" these incredible Incan ruins in the pages of National Geographic when I was about ten years old. Last year, I was lucky enough to make my own trip of discovery to Peru.

We were celebrating a landmark birthday for Scrape. (Just which birthday will go unrecorded, per his request.) He decided he wanted to spend his day at Machu Picchu - which just happened to be the one place in the world I most wanted to see. Coincidence? I don't think so.

We flew to Lima, and from there hopped a plane to Cusco, a Peruvian city perched at 11,000 feet. The flight was amazing; snow-capped Andean peaks poked through the cloud cover outside our window. Landing in Cuzco is an adventure in itself. The plane does a long, banked turn around a moutain before easing down onto the runway.

After a night in Cuzco, we explored the town. As a gawking gringo, I obviously had a target etched on my forehead, and the local children knew a sucker when they saw on. Running up to me, they shoved a puppy into my arms and gathered around to pose for a picture. Naturally, I showered them with coins, which won me a charming, chattering entourage for a good part of the afternoon.

The next day, we took the train up to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the ruins. From there, we rode a bus up the precarious mountain road to Machu Picchu. If mountain roads scare you, this one will probably kill you. It's absurdly narrow, and the rear end of the bus hangs off in midair while the driver negotiates each of the many switchbacks.

We finally reached the gate, paid our fee, and stepped through an archway to see the ruins spread before us. Millions of tourists had seen the place over the years since its discovery, and dozens were exploring the ruins as we entered, but I still felt a little of the magic Carter expressed when he first laid eyes on King Tut's "wonderful things."
Later in the day, two Andean condors appeared as we stood atop one of the ruins. They soared and spun below us, putting on an air show that had to be God's birthday present for my fighter pilot companion.

That was the trip of a lifetime. I doubt we'll ever top it--but I'm always willing to try. Egypt, anyone?

If you could choose to be present at any historic moment of discovery, which one would you choose? Which explorer would you like to accompany on his (or her) adventures?


  1. Sounds fascinating, Joanne! Even if I don't get to visit these places, I enjoyed "seeing" them through your eyes! :) Thanks!

  2. My first answer would have been Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of ancient Troy, but a quick dip in the Wikipedia washed away my romantic notions that he "proved" that the ancient city really existed. While unquestionably a city has been in that spot for millennia, there's little evidence that indicates it is specifically Troy. Also he did more than a little bit of "site robbing."

    So now I don't know.

    I do know you totally caught me up in your descriptions of traveling to Machu Picchu.

  3. I love to travel even it it's in books and magazines. Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip with us.

    I would like to see the expressions on Lewis and Clark's faces when they saw all that land in front of them as they headed toward the Pacfic, or Custer's when he saw all those Indians, or John Andre when he learned Washington wasn't going to save him from the gallows. Oh, yes, there are many, many events from history that I would have loved to have seen.

  4. Thanks, everybody! Mary Margret, I read a book on Shliemann when I was a kid too, and was fascinated by that story.
    Actually, Bingham is controversial because many of the objects he found at Machu Picchu ended up in Yale's museum. The Peruvian government understandably wants them back.

  5. Amelia, I've been to the Custer battlefield many times, and it's fascinating. But I think I'd rather experience it from the Sioux point of view! I have a feeling I know roughly what Custer said when he saw all those braves coming at him...!

  6. Ooooh! I've always wanted to see Peru! It's consistently been in my top 5 for the last couple years.

    Since it's been hotly debated whether Christopher Columbus died of syphilis or the side-effects of reactive arthritis, I'd kind of like to go back and find out for sure. I'm not as interested in his discoveries, but I'd sure like to know the state of his wanker when he died.

    What, too much?


  7. I once had a hairstylist named Jose who was from Peru. That's as close as I've ever gotten!
    Great post!

  8. Great post, Joanne! I would like to explore so many places, I can't pick one. Thanks for taking me to Machu Picchu! Next time I'd like to go in person, though.

  9. Cool post Joanne! It reminded me of when I went to Italy--it was the Spring after 9/11, and our tour group was scheduled to be in Rome during Easter... we all thought we'd see the Pope make audience on Easter Sunday. But because we were a rather large group of American tourists and security was already heavier than usual becuase of 9/11 and the Pope making audience, so we ended up not going. BUT we did get to go to Tivoli and visit a Renaissance castle... but the real gem of the trip was seeing the Ruins of Ostia, the most complete ancient Romance ruins that have survived all of these years. We were able to wander through them, and explore and it was unbelievable. I didn't discover anything new, but it was like going on a treasure hunt!

  10. Tawna, thanks for the laugh! My keyboard was in imminent danger when I got to the line about Christopher Columbus's wanker!!!!!

  11. Danielle, that sounds like a great trip! I need to go to Italy....

  12. And Robin, you should go! We only had a few days, but it was the best trip ever. The people there are so friendly, and the landscape is incredible. We're hoping to go back someday and stay longer.

  13. Same here on family having tons of old National Geographics. My dad's collection went way back.

    I'm with you on Egypt. Taking lots of sunblock though. :}

  14. Hi Robin - your pictures are wonderful, especially for the armchair traveler! I would love to go back in time and see America before "modern" civilization got to it... and paved it over.

  15. Joanne, you had me for Macchu Picchu (I was a Spanish major in college, so this and Chichen Itza have always been on my To-Do lists. I've made it to Chichen Itza) UNTIL the part about the bus. I've ridden in those kinds of buses with those kinds of drivers on those kinds of roads. Tossing a mountain peak in with those other three things is one item too many for me. I'll just enjoy your stories.

    And, yes, Tawna, that was too much! And I loved it!

  16. Joanne is a great travel companion, and not just because she'll study the history and culture ahead of time.

    And yes, she's a sucker for cute little kids (and fighter pilots for that matter).

    ;-) Loved the trip. Let's do it again! (Fortune Cookie)

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  18. I love the sense of wonder that comes from discovery too, Joanne! I think that's why I write fantasy. :}