Lessons from Machu Picchu

By Sarah Masker
Foreign Correspondent

Fall break at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito is so much cooler than fall break at Washington College. Instead of two days, we get 10 days. Instead of traveling to a nearby state, we travel to a nearby country. Instead of eating mom’s home-cooked goodness, we eat alpaca. (Just kidding, I’m a vegetarian. I ate cactus.) With fellow WC student Nico Campisi as company, I took advantage of the time off and hopped a plane to Peru.

Although being chosen for a random search and questioning by Cusco’s airport police was a lot of fun, I won’t write about that. I’m going to write about Machu Picchu and try to do it justice. Like the Grand Canyon, pictures cannot possibly portray how breathtaking it is.

The ancient city of Machu Picch is something every person should see before dying. Situated way up high in the mountains, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel to discover it.

Imagine just hiking along through the Andes, all out of breath and wondering what happens if you slip and fall, when – BAM! Lost city, right in front of you, and you didn’t even know it was there. Given the high amount of fog and mist that likes to frequent Machu Picchu in the afternoons, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hiram Bingham thought he was dreaming, or hallucinating. One or the other.

At one point in the afternoon, Nico and I sat on a log and just stared off into the valley, watching the fog creep up the mountain towards the city. That’s when I asked him, “Do you think the Inca realized how beautiful a location they had?” It wasn’t like they had planes and could fly off to Antigua and see the beautiful beaches there and then regret having to go back to Peru and those cold, foggy mountains. Those mountains were their whole world – did it ever get mundane, did they take its beauty for granted?

I did that a lot when I was younger. I didn’t appreciate what it meant to still own the old house where my dad grew up in upstate Pennsylvania.

The rocks I climbed all over, the river I swam in, the chestnut tree whose spiny burrs pierced my bare feet every autumn, the snowstorms that made living in the house during the winter months impossible, unless you were one of the many bears we had for neighbors…I didn’t realize how beautiful it actually was, because it was my second home and I went there all the time. Its regular presence in my life made it seem normal and therefore plain ordinary. I now realize how lucky my family is to have the farm.

Seeing Machu Picchu really threw my whole life into perspective. The Inca built the entire city without using any sort of machinery or equipment; they only used manpower. They didn’t just throw a few stones together and call it a house, either; they layered smaller rocks over larger ones to make sure the building stayed sturdy during earthquakes.

I’m a pacifist and never have been able to understand why people kill each other for things like power and money, so seeing the remains of such a remarkable society really hit home. So many cultures have been wiped out because people felt the need to take over. Just because you’re different doesn’t mean your way is right.

Maybe if more people today tried to understand that cultures function in their own ways and those differences don’t equate to being wrong, there would be fewer wars in which countries try to force democracy onto other nations.

I can’t understand how teenage girls at Machu Picchu actually felt honored to be sacrificed, but that doesn’t make it brutal or barbaric, just different; that’s how life was for them. The United States has Black Friday, the epitome of consumerism, just a day after giving thanks for what we already have. I can only imagine what other countries think of us for that.

The differences between South America and the United States have taken a lot of getting used to, but I think those differences are a great thing. If everyone in the world were the same, life would be really boring; the United States wouldn’t even have anyone to bully on the playground, and then what would we do?

Studying abroad has been one of the best experiences of my life because it has allowed me to experience many strange yet exciting things. I think more people should spend time among other cultures and see what they can learn. Having an open mind and trying something new will never hurt you, but rather teach you to be more understanding and accepting towards unfamiliar things.

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