It felt kinda weird walking with your head down and your arm up, hand on your new buddy’s shoulder, but it was necessary, since it was still dark and she couldn’t bear the thought of tumbling down the mountain and forcing me to live without her (yes, she actually said that). I stopped often as I looked for the best place to shoot the sunrise, the grey sky definitely lightening the more I looked up.
She’d had a little smile as we’d passed the closed ticket booth, but after that had come the horrid though short climb in the dark up to what was called the Caretaker’s Hut. Having visited archaeological sites before, she knew a lot of ancient buildings had fanciful names that had nothing to do with reality–that Castle in Chichen Itza was like most other pyramids, after all–so she didn’t even bother with this, and certainly didn’t look through the gloom at Funerary Rock.
After what seemed like forever but turned out to be less than fifteen minutes, to her shock, I told her she could let go. Instead she pushed forward till she was hugging me from behind, kissing my neck and licking my ear. But of course as soon as I tried to turn around to return the favor, she stepped back and told me to get my shot already, and if I was a good boy she might let me take a shot of her topless with the sugarloaf in the background.
“And you’ll choose the exact moment it’ll start to rain,” I grinned.
Shrug and pout. “I don’t mind getting wet. You know that.”
In answer I handed her my backpack, which she set down at her feet, and climbed the rocks that made up a former wall. The top of the mound was only about fifteen feet high, but it still made her feel like I was up on Mount Olympus (she told me this too) and she was a mere mortal beseeching her god for. . .
Then she told me about this new fantasy she was working on, but admitted she’d need access to a wardrobe department. “But then, you’d never wear the costume I have in mind for you, so you’ll have to photograph me in the open flowing white robe I am now designing in my head. . . then set the camera on automatic as you ravish me. . .”
I let out a big fat yawn, which amused her. I let the camera dangle on its strap and then put on my headphones, having to make sure the wires didn’t get crossed up with said strap, as often happened, much to my neck’s pain.
“What song will you be playing?”
“‘Sunrise,’ of course.” I’d played the Shannon Hurley tune for her on the train.
“Of course,” she grinned, then sighed, “that song makes me all gooey inside.”
I refrained from asking “What doesn’t?” because it rarely turned out for the best, at least in my experience. Though I couldn’t resist adding, “Followed by ‘Morning Sun.’”
“Lovers Electric,” she sighed, remembering that song from the train as well.
Then she got the bright idea to shoot basically the same shot, though with less elevation, but that shouldn’t make much of a difference, right? She left my backpack there and wandered over till she was standing right below me, then tugged on the zipper of her purse to take out her own little digital camera.
Perhaps that was why she wasn’t paying attention as the gardener made his way toward us with a hose, spraying water on the already-dew-spangled grass. With the sun peeking over the horizon things were no longer shadows, and it seemed like suddenly rather than gradually the side of Huayna Picchu was suddenly glowing. I took my first shot, but since the sun was practically rising in my face, in the camera eye, I had to stop after each shot and recheck the exposure, making sure the coming brightness didn’t overwhelm the bulk of the picture and render it totally black. Point is, I was too busy to pay attention to anything else right now.
Katarina, not well versed in light and exposure, was also shooting away, a little part of her ego fooling her into thinking these shots would be just as good as mine. But since she didn’t have the camera to her eye like I did, holding it at arm’s length, she was able to see in her peripheral vision that the gardener was almost to her. He’d better not spray me, she smirked, then suddenly panicked as she remembered my backpack and all the photography gear, as well as my laptop and assorted papers.
She remembered dropping it off at the beginning of the slight rise, which couldn’t have been more than a dozen feet from her, but she couldn’t see it! Nobody could have possible stole it, and there was no way it tumbled down the hill, so–
It’s beige! It’s blending in against the wall! The gardener won’t see it!
And then she caught the ray of light glinting off the UCLA button, and she realized the water was only inches away. . .
“No. . .!” came the dopplering scream that startled the gardener, but not enough to make him switch his aim. The next thing he knew a woman–oh, the amazing blonde from the truck!–was hurtling in front of him, next to the wall, as if she thought it was a swimming pool she was diving into.
Now instinct took over, and even though his mind wondered why she wanted to get wet, his brain still made his hand move the hose so that it no longer pointed in her direction. Still watching carefully, and a little fearfully, hoping he wouldn’t get into trouble, he watched the woman stand up, dripping, glare at him, then turn around and lift a backpack he’d never seen before, checking to see if it was dry.
Apparently it was, for she sighed in relief, gave him a rueful smile, and went back to the spot where she’d been standing to shoot the sunrise.
But there was one more squeal left in her as I jumped down to join her. “You owe me so big for this,” she muttered, handing me the backpack because she was still dripping.
“Do you think this would have happened if you hadn’t said, just a few minutes ago, ‘I don’t mind getting wet?’”
She laughed at that, then glanced at the sky uncertainly, as if not wanting to tempt the gods anymore. A thought made her unzip her jacket, but no, her shirt was dry, so she wouldn’t be winning any damp blouse contests while she braved the high-altitude cold. She started to rip off the wet jacket, then thought better of it, because her hair was still dripping. The jeans were another matter, but luckily she was a cold-weather girl and she had someone who could warm her up if needed later.
Not that I could do much right now, other than grab a replacement t-shirt from my backpack and wipe her face and neck dry, as tenderly as I could. She closed her eyes and shivered, though she couldn’t tell ya if it was from the cold or something else, and then she opened her eyes and kissed me on the nose she almost broke on the way up as I ran the shirt through her hair.
I whispered, “Don’t forget to pick up that little camera you’re almost stepping on.”
As thanks for saving my equipment–or because she’d allowed it to be in danger in the first place–she was forced to don the backpack to keep it safe, as well as to make it easy for me to grab whatever I needed. It was heavier than she expected, but she resolved to take it, as long as she dried out quickly.
It was still too early for the tourists to be allowed in, so I took advantage of the empty space to shoot some more of the site. From this vantage point and with the sun up, we were able to see the site’s full layout, especially how clearly different the agricultural and urban zones were. It was the perfect spot from which to not only get a photographic overview but also to zoom in and get at least a hundred shots covering just about every inch of the place. The workers were still walking around, but most of them had started here and made their way down, in some faraway places already looking like ants. And there wasn’t much to shoot behind me, except for long shadows, because we were already on the edge of the site, with a steep canyon on the other side.
So, figuring I’d never see it this empty again, I decided to take as many shots as I could before getting bored.
“Hey,” she yelped, “what’s with the llamas?” She couldn’t imagine a historical site or museum anywhere else in the world where animals ran wild, but on the other hand, maybe someone could sell her a sweater to take the place of the wet jacket presently tied around her wet waist but below the dry backpack.
She looked both cute and sexy with the pack straps having to go around her breasts, so I took a shot, reminding myself to try it later with suspenders and sans shirt; she’d love it, no doubt.
Then she took off the backpack and set it down between her legs as she sat on a rock outcropping, sighing a little heavily. As for me, I’d finally stopped yawning, at least for now, but was also feeling a little tired. “Altitude,” I pondered aloud.
She smiled and nodded, then reached into the backpack for the book she’d spotted me putting in, the one that was kinda like a tour book but with much more non-touristy info that the famous guides didn’t include.
“The Cusco Valley and the Incas are synonymous in most people’s minds, but the area was populated well before they arrived on the scene and they simply built their empire on the toil and ingenuity of generations of previous cultures.” She wrinkled her nose. “So Neruda wasn’t kidding about slaves building this place. I thought he was stacking the deck to make me feel sorry for them.” She looked up to see what I was thinking about, but I was too busy taking a photo of her wrinkled nose, which she instantly ruined by smiling. Not wanting an annoyed photographer on her hands, she stuck out her tongue at me, now that the bite had finally stopped hurting, then went back to the book.
“Hiram Bingham coined the phrase ‘The Lost City of the Incas,’ which was the title of his first book. He never gave any credit to those who led him to Machu Picchu, mentioning only ‘local rumor’ as his guide.”
“That’s one of the reasons I don’t like him. Typical Ivy League crap. John Lloyd Stephens was never like that.”
She smiled, glad that I was warming up to the conversation even as I looked for more shots.
“There’s reports of plenty of people who were here before, some even carved their names in the rocks,” I continued. “Guess that makes him more like that Champollion asshole than anyone else.”
“Not lost, just deserted.”
I smiled at her, and she returned it brightly, another of those little moments we cherished. Remembering to look up that French-sounding name later, she kept on reading, looking for another juicy bit. “Bingham built strong relationships with top Peruvian officials, so he had little trouble obtaining permission to ‘borrow’ artifacts. Upon returning to Yale he had more than 5,000 such objects to be kept in the university’s care until such time as the Peruvian government requested their return.”
“Which happened not that long ago,” I mused, “and guess what? Yale refused. Shocker, huh?”
Not wanting to get into that right now, and not bothering with the hand gesture I’d taught her, she went to a more touristy section. “Some people claim the silhouette of the mountain range behind Machu Picchu was in the form of an Inca face looking up at the sky, with the largest peak, the sugarloaf known as Huayna Picchu, representing his pierced nose.” Wrinkling her own nose again, she looked up at the landscape in question.
Having heard that before, I had tried to photograph it on every trip, but it was pretty hard to do when you’ve never seen it, never got it, looked like just a bunch of peaks.
She’d asked me numerous times about what Machu Picchu meant, let alone Huayna Picchu, but I always warned her it was a big letdown. Which of course made her wonder all the harder, but so far she’d refrained. And next time I chided her about her lack of self-control, she had this card to play, so better to leave it for now.
Standing up to look at the edges of the site now, she remembered her earlier thought about falling off the mountain and wondered if there was any lookout from which she could glance down. I had told her it was close to 2000 feet pretty much straight down till you hit the Urubamba River, but then I’m afraid of heights, so she figured I wanted to scare her away from such a thing. I’d also told her that due to the deep precipice and the mountains, it had been an excellent natural fort, and even if the Spaniards had found it, they probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.
“Like Masada,” she mused, having picked up on my penchant for military history, then wondered if the Incas had a failsafe back door if they needed to get the hell out. I’d mentioned something about a rope and/or trunk bridge, and she’d made it one of her goals to find the path down to it, though of course not go all the way down, mostly because she sure as hell wasn’t in the mood to come all the way back up before breakfast.
Scanning quickly through the book, she found what she’d just been thinking about. “The location of the city was a military secret because its deep precipices and mountains were an excellent natural defense. The rope bridge across the Urubamba River provided a secret entrance for the Inca army.”
“Do you have a plan for today or are you just going to wander?” she found herself asking.
I rightly took that to mean she was asking about up here on the mountain, not the rest of the day in town. “There’s some stuff I need to shoot, but no plan. I’ll hit them all eventually. If you feel the need to go off on your own, feel free. I’ll try not to miss you.”
She grinned and almost replied, but stopped herself before she could be accused of playing both sides of the argument, as she often did, because she found herself frowning at the wall in front of her, coincidentally glancing at the section between my legs. I saw the frown, smiled, and didn’t ask, nor did I photograph it, for I had plenty of confused shots from her. My amusement grew as I saw her flipping through the book.
“The unmortared stones fit so snugly they might as well have been grown together.”
I’d noticed that on a previous trip, and while it had seemed quite amazing then, it was old hat now, so all I told her was, “These walls have survived earthquakes that leveled entire towns.”
“Maybe that’s why,” she mused as she kept reading. “This says the junctions are so perfect you can’t fit a knife through them. . . one hundred and forty structures? Really?” She got up to gaze around again.
“And I’m shooting them all,” I sighed, knowing the sympathy ploy always worked.
Except this time she wasn’t paying attention. “One hundred flights of stairs. . . that I can believe. Hmmm, it says some are carved from a single piece of granite. I wanna see that.”
“So let’s go find it.” I started down the stairs in front of us, then waited for her to make sure she was paying attention to where she was stepping while she checked how many pieces the steps were made from.
“What’s this big puppy here?” She was pointing to a big structure next to us, and was apparently too lazy to check the book in her hand.
“Temple of the Sun.”
Shivering, she wondered, “Should I pray, or make a sacrifice? I’m still damp.”
I passed up the cheap joke and went for a closeup. Of the round tower, not her. “Here’s were the stones fit together without a seam.”
Instantly quelling her shivers, she rushed forward to look, though still asking, “Is there a reason why it’s called this, or are they being prosaic as usual?”
“Hey, you learned a new word.” Or maybe she was just throwing it out without knowing what it meant, I didn’t add. “If you were standing on that ledge during the June winter solstice, you’d see the window is perfectly–”
“What? Time out! June winter solstice? You’re as deranged as. . . Oh! Southern hemisphere! Never mind, carry on.”
“In my deranged way?”
She smiled and shrugged, knowing there was nothing she could say to get out of a punishment later. Instead she looked around, then grinned. “Hey, no one could see us if we wanted to slip by this cordon and go inside and grab a little souvenir pebble. . .”
I grinned at her, the grin that told her if I thought she was serious I’d be calling the cops. Her reply smile was to make me think she hadn’t been serious. Sighing, she reached for the book, and quickly found something much more fun. “Fountains! Lead me to ‘em, gotta photograph them! See if they make me think of the Alhambra.”
“You sure are a water baby, especially for a Teutonic gal.”
“I’m making up for my childhood deprivation,” she replied absently. “Are we gonna climb the sugarloaf?”
“Not today. I will, because the view is so different you think it’s another place, but I’ll save it for the next time we come.”
“You mean, in a few years?”
“No, silly. I’m gonna see other stuff the next few days, so maybe I’ll come back the morning I leave for Chile.”
“You’re not supposed to tell me your itinerary! You promised!”
“Then down ask!” Blonde.
She ended up disappointed with the fountains, expecting tall ones, but was mollified when I told her they’d been used for plumbing, not show. “No wonder there’s so many,” she mused, then gazed over my shoulder–she was certainly tall enough–as I studied an aerial photo of the site, which showed the waterways and some of the trails, one of which connected to the Urubamba river in the valley below.
“A-ha!” she thought as she remembered her earlier quest, then tried to figure out where it was without asking. Then decided she’d look for it the next time, maybe spot it from the sugarloaf. Since we were just standing there, she took the moment to sit down and rest, realizing the lesser oxygenized air up here was tiring her out quickly. Plus she could see tourists now entering the place, so that honeymoon was over.
Remembering the book in her hand, she quoted aloud again. “Machu Picchu is an official Historical Sanctuary of Peru. Sounds like a national park or something. This area, which is not limited to the ruins themselves, also includes the regional landscape with its flora and fauna, highlighting the abundance of orchids. Orchids? We have to go see that!” she squealed.
I gave her the look, and her face did that half-pouty/half “Oops” thing she did so well. She was already formulating plans to convince me how much I’d enjoy shooting the flowers when I said, “Don’t you think I already scheduled that? It was going to be a surprise, but as usual–”
Feeling bad about misjudging me, but not wanting to face what she knew she richly deserved, she leaped on me and kissed my mouth shut.
After kissing back roughly, I pouted, “That’s your answer for everything, airhead.”
Letting that roll off her back, for a change, and struggling to keep pace now that I was back on the move, she tried to pretend she had just read something else, when in actually she’d been saving it for such a moment. “Hey! According to this you can visit at night! Need special permission and a guide, but you think you can swing that?”
“Probably. Did you bring your cold-weather gear? It’ll be a lot more dangerous, as well as spooky. And since you didn’t seem to like walking in the dark an hour ago. . .”
“Hmmm. I’ll have to think about it.”
Which I knew was her way of changing her mind without admitting it. Instead of actually making the potentially fatal mistake of saying that out loud, I stopped at a particular structure and told her to pose, which of course she immediately did, spending a few moments being serious, channeling her modeling muse, before hamming it up as usual. “Why this one?” she asked perkily when she skipped back to me.
“For some reason this one was named ‘Sexy Woman’ by the Incas. What better model could I have?”
“Aw. . . wait, let me pose better.”
“Too late. And keep your clothes on.”
“Well, I am no longer cold. . . though I might be getting damp another way. . .”
I faked a sigh so well she wanted to take notes, but instead enjoyed the hell out of it as I said, “Don’t you ever think about anything but sex?”
“Butt sex? Is that what–Hi there!” she saluted the obviously American couple who’d already made their way this far into the ruins in such a short time. The couple looked really happy to be there, no doubt fulfilling a lifelong ambition, but seemed to be moving far too fast to enjoy it.
“Probably going to climb the sugarloaf first,” I figured as I yawned. “There are no more sexy women places to shoot, so if you wanna go wander on your own, come up with some new fantasies for when we get back to the hotel. . .”
Remembering she’d already come up with one, but would under no circumstances admit it, she asked if I was trying to get rid of her.
“Maybe I want to get some photos of you when you’re not looking.”
“That works! See ya, studly!”
Not burdened by my backpack anymore, not that she’d carried it around all that much, she let her body do anything it wanted to, provided it wouldn’t hurt and wasn’t dangerous, until she found herself all alone and wondering just how the hell she’d gotten here. Turning around, she couldn’t spot me, so she’d gone too far to be photographed. On the other hand, she hoped I got some good photos of her frolicking her way up here.
Suddenly feeling tired, the thin oxygen thing again, she sat and reached for. . . what was there to reach for? she suddenly realized. The water bottles were in my backpack. She was now becoming annoyed by the jacket around her waist as well, and it had gotten too hot to wear. On the plus side, her jeans were now dry, though she couldn’t help smirking at the joke she’d thought of just a few minutes ago, right before that couple showed up.
And speaking of, once again strangers startled her out of her sexual reverie, though this time she didn’t mind. A tour group was just coming up the hill, a big one by the looks of it. The guide smiled at her and didn’t shoo her away, so she decided to stay right there and listen, hopefully learn something, if it was in English.
The guide pointed to a large hunk of rock, luckily not the one she was sitting on, and said, “This is known as the Hitching Post of the Sun. Experts believe it to be a sundial, or at least an astronomical and agricultural calendar, to let them know when it was time to plant the crops. If you look at it from a certain angle, you can see it appears to have the same shape as Huayna Picchu.” Everyone turned to look at the sugarloaf. “The Incas built similar devices all throughout their empire, but thinking they were for pagan worship, the Spaniards destroyed most of them. This one survived without a scratch till 2001, when some idiot bureaucrat allowed a beer commercial to be filmed here, and the film crew snuck in a thousand-pound crane, which promptly fell over and chipped off the top section here.”
She wondered just how someone managed to sneak a thousand-pound crane, or a thousand-pound anything, up here without anyone noticing. Oh, someone probably did notice and was paid off. Hopefully that asshole got fired too. She’d have to ask. . .
No longer really listening, she saw someone in the group slathering on the sunscreen and turned on her famous puppy eyes. Luckily it was a guy, who grinned and tossed the bottle to her. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might burn her very fair skin up here, but then realized the thin air wouldn’t do much to stop harmful rays, at least compared to lower elevations. Unfortunately it was a stinky sunblock, but that was the breaks.
Giggling, she was about to toss it back when she saw the guy was taking a drink; immediately she was thirsty again. The guy rolled his eyes, but was grinning as they exchanged bottles and she took a long and loud gulp. Through the distortion of the plastic she could see the guy taking a photo of her; maybe he was hoping to see some drip on her shirt, or more likely recognized her, but either was okay with her, and if the shot turned up in some paparazzi mag, she’d write it down as the most expensive drink of water ever. Sure felt worth it right now, though, gulp gulp.
The crowd moved on, and she joined the tail end, where hopefully the guide wouldn’t see her, and the guy wouldn’t be able to keep shooting her. She could imagine me getting a shot of her tagging along behind the group like a little kid, and her giggles almost drew the attention of the stragglers, except that the group had stopped and the guide started talking again; she barely managed to keep from running her nose into someone’s back, and she certainly didn’t want anyone to have a picture of that.
Even though the topic was a sacred rock that many believed contained energy–the guide actually called it “The Force”–she found her attention gathered by the sugarloaf mountain again, or as she should really learn to call it, Huayna Picchu. It looked truly big from here, and she realized there was a line of people going down a path in front of her, heading for it. Okay, now she knew, but did she want to?
Nah, that looks fuckin’ steep. Good thing we’re not climbing it today, but I may still not want to when we come back either.
The crowd broke up, some to follow the path to climb the sugarloaf, others going down to the rest of the site, and suddenly she found herself alone with the guide, who was grinning at her. Maybe she wants payment, Katarina thought, then quickly turned and barreled down the stairs, forgoing a touch of the sacred rock.
It felt like she didn’t stop running till she met up with me, and then I held her in a long and hard kiss that left her even more breathless. A stray thought eddied through her brain: what a way to die. . .
(to be continued)