Yes, I am ready.  And yes, I know that llamas spit, coca tea helps with altitude sickness, and that “cuy” is a local delicacy I’d probably rather avoid. (That’s guinea pig.  Yes, really.)

My Spanish is “meh”, but it’s there.  I can locate the bathroom, ask for the time, and tell someone to shut up quickly and accurately.  Funny story, though.  As I was filling out the online form for our Machu Picchu trek, I clicked on the drop down box under “nationality” and was astonished to find absolutely NO line item for the U.S.  Not USA, not United States of America.  Nothing.  I scrolled down to the N’s in hopes of perhaps finding something under North America when it hit me.  Hey genio, it’s under E for Estados Unidos.  Way to go, gringaAy, carumba.

Let’s see…what else have I been advised /asked about.  Oh yes!  Am I physically in shape for this trip?  Well, besides the fact I run, swim, hike, and kayak, I’m also an exercise instructor.  (We ain’t talkin’ your mama’s Zumba class, baby!) And so, I defer to my students for the answer to that question.  Eh hem.  Okay, that’s all I have to say about that.

For the record, though, succumbing to altitude sickness has absolutely nothing to do with one’s level of fitness, so I will be well-armed with my acetazolamide prescription and a LOT of agua as I hang out in Cusco at around 11,500 feet.  The highest altitude I’ve experienced so far is 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.  I was fine.  But hey, I’m not taking any chances here!

Neither is my doctor.  Upon hearing of my trip, she hammered out two more prescriptions to help if I should, let’s say, accidentally drink the water down there.  I asked if, in the event I start to feel ill, I should plan to take the one for dysentery first and then take the one for parasites if the symptoms don’t improve, to which she kind of half-shreaked in reply, “TAKE THEM ALL!”  Thanks, doc.  Getting the warm fuzzies here.  Hoping they’re not parasites…

No, I choose to imagine instead Mo and me kicking back with a little canela aguita, or coca tea.  Whichever strikes our fancy, as we catch up on each other’s life.

In other news, I successfully whittled away the items in my pack until it reached the magical weight of 17 pounds!  Granted, I will be walking through airport terminals looking like the Michelin Man with hiking boots, but I will NOT be checking any bags for this trip!  It takes three different planes to get me to my destination and back.  Checking a bag is like issuing a written invitation to the airlines to lose my luggage.  Can I get an “amen”?  And I kind of need my gear for this trip, if you know what I mean.

I re-waterproofed my boots, packed some extra pens with my journal, loaded up the Kindle with the likes of Joseph Campbell, Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Darwin, and Homer; and filled my iPod with an eclectic mix of Blue October, Jewel, Celtic Woman, and R. Carlos Nakai.  Now I wait.

But waiting is not wasted time.  It is a gift, a time to be mindful and reflective, not hurried and anxious.  For me, that means casting aside the endless To Do list to which I am so addicted and taking note of the way the lights from the Christmas tree play off my son’s hair, the way my husband hugs me a little tighter and a little longer these last days before I leave.  They have no idea how much I will miss them.

And so, I think it’s time I signed off and enjoy the “wait” with my loved ones a bit more.

¡Adios, mis amigos!  ¡ Estoy saliendo de los Estados Unidos prontos!

Until next year…

Armed with my Spanish books and prescriptions meant to keep my tummy feeling good!
Getting ready is a process!  Here I am, armed with my Spanish books and prescriptions.
Only the bare essentials in an effort to keep the pack weight under 17 pounds!  My secret?  Compression packs!
Only the bare essentials in an effort to keep the pack weight under 17 pounds! My secret? Compression packs!




The big trip is less than two weeks away, so I continue to cram as much Peruvian history into my little brain as possible.  I share a little of it with you here in hopes it will make the photos I bring back from the trip more meaningful for you, as well.  (That is code for “if you are writing a term paper on Peruvian history, you might want to keep searching”.)

That said, let’s talk a little about Franciso Pizarro (the guy with the Voldemort-like tendencies I alluded to in my last post) and Atahualpa, the last king of the Inca Empire.

Apparently growing up illegitimate and illiterate in Spain in the early 16th century didn’t get you much further than the village pig pen.  I suppose you could aspire to head pig herder, but let’s face it, who does that?

After 34 years of such a less-than-glamorous lifestyle, Francisco Pizarro found himself on a boat bound for Colombia with Alonzo de Ojeda.  The expedition was a bust, but Pizarro seized the chance to do something all successful business people instinctively do:  He made himself indispensable.

Three years later, he was a shoe-in for Vasco Núñez Balboa’s crew on the voyage where the Pacific Ocean was discovered.  Five years later, Pizarro led a force to arrest Balboa on trumped up charges by the crooked Governor Pedrarias, which eventually led to Balboa’s execution.

Losing no sleep over the incident, Pizarro happily accepted a position as mayor in what is now known as Panama, and set up housekeeping on a lovely estate there.  Not too shabby for a former swine herder, but it was a temporary placation of his burgeoning greed.  Six years later, he was ready for more.  Much, much more.

In 1524 Pizarro teamed up with navigator Diego de Almagro and the priest Fernando de Luque, who held the purse strings for the three subsequent expeditions they did together.  The first took them only to what is now known as Ecuador.  They reached Peru with the second, which is where they first heard about the riches of the Inca Empire.   Pizarro must have returned from that trip with his eyes glazed over with gold because his next step was a little cruise over to Spain to convince Emperor Charles V to let him lead an expedition to conquer the Inca for the Spanish flag.  Pizarro returned to Panama having secured the emperor’s blessing, as well as his word that Pizarro would receive the lion’s share of the profits.  Of course, Pizarro kept the latter part of that deal away from his traveling compadres.

On November 15, 1532, Pizarro’s path finally crossed that of the Inca Atahualpa.  I imagine it might have been rather awkward, given Atahualpa was bathing in the hot springs in Cajamarca at the time.  He was celebrating his recent victory over his half-brother, Huascar, for control of the Inca Empire, and preparing to march on Huascar’s former capital of Cusco.  The conniving Pizarro gave Atahualpa a big ole “atta boy” by inviting him to a feast to be held the very next day in celebration of his recent victory; an invitation Atahualpa readily accepted.  Atahualpa showed up to the feast with several thousand men, all of whom were unarmed.  Probably not his wisest move.  Pizarro brought 180 men to the party, complete with artillery and guns.

Atahualpa was probably taken further off guard when a Spanish priest presented him with a Bible and pressed him to accept both Christianity and the sovereign reign of Emperor Charles V.  He flung the Bible to the ground, and let’s just say it was on.

Pizarro attacked, capturing Atahualpa and killing thousands of his men.  Trying to keep his head, literally and figuratively, Atahualpa offered what turned out to be the richest ransom in the history of the world:  A large room filled half with gold and twice over with silver.  Pizarro was quite agreeable, and soon treasure started pouring in from all over the Andes Mountains.  The conquistadors made sport of breaking up the gold so that it took longer to fill the room.  In the end, after it was all destroyed and melted down, they had about 24 tons of gold and silver.

At that point, Pizarro apparently decided the goose that laid the golden egg was no longer useful.  So, in true Governor Pedrarias fashion (remember Balboa’s downfall?), Pizarro charged Atahualpa with plotting to overthrow the Spanish (as if!), having his half-brother murdered, plus a few other lesser charges for good measure.  I think you can guess what happened next.  Atahualpa was sentenced to death.

Apparently Atahualpa was a pretty likeable guy, despite the fact he had been rather ruthless in his own ascent to power.  During his months in captivity, some of his captors had come to know him better.  They respected his bravery, intellect, commitment to ruling (which he continued to do after his capture), and the strong bonds he had with his children.  So on August 29, 1533, the day Atahualpa was sentenced to die, some of them had a pretty hard time with it.

On that day, Atahualpa was tied to a stake and given a choice.  He could be burned alive, or he could convert to Christianity and be strangled by garrote.  Atahualpa believed, as did his people, that mummification was necessary to get to the afterlife, so he stoically did what he had to do to ensure his body would remain intact and unaltered.  It is said he stared directly into Pizarro’s eyes as the life left him.

Now, for those who like to see people get what’s coming to them, take heart.  Remember how Pizarro cheated his old friend  Almagro out of his share of the Incan spoils?  Fast forward a few years.  It turns out Almagro regrouped and seized Cusco during a civil war in 1538.  Unfortunately for Almagro, Pizarro had his half-brother track Almagro down and kill him.  BUT Almagro’s son broke into Pizarro’s palace in 1541 and killed him as he ate dinner.

Who needs soap operas when we have history, right?!  Time marches on, of course.  Unrest continued in the area, thanks mainly to the fighting between conquistadors, until the late 1550s.

I understand from Mo, who is already in Cusco, that many of the Spanish structures were built on the ruins of the Inca.  That is mostly what I will be seeing.  But in my mind’s eye, I will see the Incas in their glory and imagine what life might have looked like – before the invasion, before a foreign belief system was forced on them, before their home was desecrated by strangers.

On a side note, Machu Picchu, which is about 46 miles northwest of Cusco, was never discovered by the Spanish – to which I say, “Bully for the Inca!”  It was built around 1450 and mysteriously abandoned by 1572.  It is not known exactly what Machu Picchu was used for, but we do know it was built on and around mountains of great religious importance to the Incan civilization.

I am grateful for the chance to stand on sacred ground left unblemished by the greed, hate, and cruelty of the Spanish Conquest.  Of course, I can’t help but imagine how it would torture Pizarro’s very soul to know such a close treasure eluded him!  You know.  Kind of like the Cruciatus Curse.

Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro

INCAS, AZTECS AND MAYANS! OH MY! (A Short History Lesson That Didn’t Make My 12-Year-Old Yawn)

Let me explain.  Before I visit a new place, I try to learn as much as I can about its history.  Call me a geek, but it makes the whole experience burst with life.  Recently, as I have answered questions from friends, family and even strangers about my upcoming trip to Peru, I noticed what seems like a pervasive disconnect between the notion that it’s a super-cool, exotic vacation (which it is!), and an appreciation for the rich history of a civilization that lived, worked and died there.  I am referring to the Incas, of course, but I knew there was a problem when more than one person told me they’re jealous because they’ve always wanted to see the Mayan ruins.  I tell them they are in luck because their flight will be much shorter than mine.

Turns out, the Incas and the Mayans aren’t the same.  In fact, they didn’t even hang out.  Time and distance kind of got in the way.

Now, I’m no history snob.  A fledgling history buff, at best.  So trust me, I had to lean on Google and a small pile of library books to refresh my own understanding of Incan history.  But I figured I wasn’t the only one with, shall we say, memory lapses.  At times like this, I find starting with the basics prudent.

Feeling a little smarter after my quality time on various history sites, I tried a little experiment.  It involved me cornering people and saying, “Quick!  What’s the difference between Incas, Aztecs and Mayans?”  Moving past the incredulous looks, which I get frequently, the most coherent answer I got was, “Um, well, they worshipped the sun and mysteriously disappeared from Mexico, right?”  (For the record, the least coherent answer involved UFOs.  Okay, so maybe I need new friends.)

The 411, should you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, is that the Mayans didn’t stop with sun worship.  They also bowed to the moon gods, as well as to those of rain and corn.  While they certainly inhabited parts of Mexico, their ‘hood also included parts of modern-day Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Go ahead, look it up on a map.  I’ll wait.

Now, of the three civilizations mentioned, the Mayans lasted the longest (came onto the scene around 1800 B.C.), but they disappeared rather abruptly around 900 A.D.  The big mystery is why.  There are many plausible theories, everything from overpopulation to endemic warfare to the exhaustion of their natural resources.  I’m pretty sure none of the theories involve UFOs.  Just a hunch.

The Aztecs also lived in what is mostly modern-day Mexico about 400 years after the Mayans disappeared.  They, too, worshipped the sun…along with hundreds of other gods and goddesses.  Must have made for some great stand-up comedy:  “So CentzonTotochtin, the god of intoxication, and Tlazolteotl, the goddess of filth, guilt and cleansing walk into a bar…”  You get the idea.

On a less humorous note, there is no mystery surrounding the fall of the Aztecs.  After much I-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up kind of drama, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztecs by force in 1521, razing their capital and building Mexico City on its ruins.  Around 240,000 people died in that conquest.

A few years later, the Incas, way down in the area of modern-day Peru, had their own issues with a Spanish Conquistador by the name of Francisco Pizarro.  Ironically, Pizarro was inspired by Hernán Cortés and his defeat of the Aztecs in Mexico.  In 1533 he too met with a stunning victory for the Spanish flag with the fall of the Incan empire.  Without any assistance from UFOs, I should add.

And so I give my friend credit for the “worshipped the sun” part of his answer.  It’s true.  All three civilizations did it.  They also engaged in ritualistic human sacrifice.  Hey, don’t judge…if you think our contemporary civilizations don’t do equally heinous things to each other, you might want to put down the sports page every now and then.

Speaking of heinous, stay tuned for my next post about Francisco Pizarro and how he overthrew the Incan empire with just 180 men at his side.  The dude makes Voldemort seem like a pussycat…

Incan Sun God