Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Rajasthani girls with Mendhi on their hands. (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first blog about maps and decided that I would write a series on that topic– maps, their history, the people who made them, and how maps have been used by people. I did this because maps are integral to the series of books I write in the Cartographer Universe and I wanted to understand more deeply what maps have meant to humankind.

What I’ve come to understand is that maps can be a truth, a lie and a metaphor. They can present the ‘reality’ of the physical world—the mountains and rivers and roads and cities and can inspire men to superhuman acts just to complete a map. Just as often, though they represent lies or half-truths—the imaginary island of Brasilia, the shifting landscape of Prestor John’s Kingdom or, more overtly, contorted landscapes intended to lure the unwary into towns, gold fields and department stores. And that’s a problem, because we tend to think of maps as representing the truth and we don’t  approach maps with a ‘use at your own risk’ mentality or with the realization that any map may only represent the reality that the map’s maker wishes to represent. They’ve been used this way for centuries, so that the modern-day Chinese maps which change the location of major city thoroughfares to stymie the advance of any potential invasion are only an extension of the same tradition that caused British mapmakers to make erroneous maps of the West Coast of Canada (presumably to stymie the work of Spanish spies), and the Portuguese and Dutch Kings who kept secret their routes to the spice islands.

Ship off the Portuguese Algarve, (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps are much more than simply tools to convey or obscure information. Maps are a part of our psyche so deeply engrained that the map metaphor has seeped deep into our culture. Cervantes wrote ‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of travelling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’ Shakespeare wrote “In thy face I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty.”

The Camino Inca Trail to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps themselves are not truth, but metaphors. Once, in Fra Mauro’s time, they represented the mythical extent of man’s imagination and potential. Once, they represented the adventure, the spirit of mankind in the terra incognita of the empty sections of the map. Nowadays they represent the world as governments want it to be when they represent contested borders (think the current battle over islands between Japan and China, or the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that three countries claim). Maps are used to represent presidential aspirations, shifts in battlefields, oil pipeline routes, and enemy and friendly countries—not that these presentations are the truth, but they are one truth—the truth that the mapmaker wants us to believe.

In this day and age when maps are no longer produced by a person hunched over vellum and ink, we must remember that many things influence the mapmaker’s pen. Everything from politics, funding sources and the publishing company’s allegiances represent what is filtered onto the page. Which brings me to my final conclusion about maps and the truth. They have always been creatures of the imagination and not of the truth, no matter that they grew out of scientific endeavors, but now that purpose of inciting the imagination is being used with more strategic purpose than ever before. Can we trust maps? No.

As Herman Melville stated so well:

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Porto boats at dawn , Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen L. Abrahamson

Andean Civilizations: A Map of a Different Color

Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

When I think of maps I imagine back to when the first human made their first finger marks in mud to share a game trail, or a watering hole or an especially good berry bush. Surely that must have been the earliest form of map. Of course none of those primeval drawings exist, and so I’ve found myself writing a about the western development of maps over the ages and have tried to give a sense of the European tradition and the contributions of Arab and Chinese explorers and cartographers. This is the easy stuff to research and write about because the maps these cultures used were set down in a manner we are trained to see. Maps, to most of us, are a visual representation, usually on a flat medium like paper, that presents the relationship of one place to another. But other cultures have had other ways of presenting their landscapes, case in point are the great civilizations of the South American Andes.

What most of us think of as the Inca are actually a series of overlapping civilizations that rose and fell in the various livable areas of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and Chile. After the very effective conquest of South American by the Spanish, not much remains of any Inca records and to date no maps (as we define them) have ever been found. But did these cultures simply not have maps or did they represent their landscapes in a different way?

Anthropologists and Cartographers say that formal mapmaking tends to occur within highly organized, bureaucratic societies as a form of discourse. The conditions necessary for mapmaking include: demands for agriculture, private property, long distance trade, militarism, and tribute relationships, amongst others, all of which are attributes of the various Andean societies.

Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Anthropologists studying the various ancient cultures have begun to realize that westerners probably won’t recognize Andean maps until we start to see them through Andean eyes. The structure of maps aren’t only determined by geography, but also by social organization, cultural conventions and human perception. In the Inca worldview, the cosmos was built on a quartered circle, based on the way they viewed the Milky Way divide the heavens. They viewed their world that way as well, with the lands they ruled broken into four distinct quarters.

The Inca also had to map unusual terrain, from the coastal deserts and river oasis, up through the highlands to the alte-plano and Andes mountains and down again into the Amazon basin. Trade and tribute came those long distances, and north and south from Ecuador to Chile. Over those distict terrains there were distinctions of crop and animals at each of the different elevations. So, for an ancient Andean, among the things they needed to represent, were the different elevations, the different foods, and the waters that made life possible across these sometimes inhospitable terrains, as well as capturing the four quarters of the world and social relations.

Market Scene, Chivay. Note the Inca rock that shows terracing and irrigation techniques. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Market Scene, Chivay. Note the Inca rock that shows terracing and irrigation techniques. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The resulting landscape representations convey things like ownership and elevation. Ancient weavings show the long narrow fields of produce separated by clan-assigned canals. Pottery shows spatial designs that encode critical social structures, and still other sculptures, such as Chieftain Vessels correspond to Andean landscapes with the head of the figure as the summit, the shoulders as central mountain slopes, the lower hips as the coastal plains where mountain rivers diverge on fields. Still other sculptures show realistic representations of the terraced fields and irrigation systems that make up areas of central highland valleys.

So while we might say the Inca made no maps, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t represent their landscape. The difference is that the Inca ‘maps’ were often three dimensional and layered with meaning, both in terms of the landscape, ownership and familial relationships, and the relationship of the landscape to their ancestors, the spirits and the cosmos.



Maps, Highways, and Their Imprint on The World

Path through the rain forest on the Camino Inca, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The ancient T.O. maps didn’t represent reality, but they did map the reality of the Christian spirit at the time. Portolan Charts gave a realistic representation of coastlines and the work of the Indian spy/cartographers, placed rivers on the maps well before aerial mapping existed.

One of the last bastions of ‘unmapped’ territory was the Amazon basin of Brazil. In 1799 Alexander von Humboldt, the son of a Prussian baron, spent five years travelling from Venezuela’s Orinoco river through the Amazon, collecting specimens and surveying. Afterwards he produced 33 volumes of maps and illustrations. That was the last mapping for over a hundred and fifty years except for the occasional scientific or rubber company exploration.

Until 1970.

That’s when the Brazilian government got the idea to construct a highway from the Atlantic Coast, across 5,000 kilometers (about 3,400 miles) of rainforest to the Peruvian border. The construction was a nightmare due to a dearth of maps. The rainforest had too many clouds and—gee, rain in a rainforest?—for aerial mapping to work. The result was construction following ground-based surveyors who were barely ahead of the bulldozers and this led to the construction having to cross the same river multiple times leading to enormous unforeseen costs.

Cloud Forest tree along Camino Inca, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Enter the cartographers. In this case it was cartographers and the invention of side-looking radar (SLAR). SLAR is an improvement on the radar that helped safe Great Britain during the Battle of Britain. It’s the invention that allows radar to be shot out the side of an aircraft to take long horizontal pictures of the landscape. This technology can ‘see’ through clouds and trees to the landforms. With the help of computers, SLAR can provide accurate pictures of the rise and fall of the landscape.

The survey team with their aircraft arrived in Brazil on the summer of 1971. In just under a year SLAR mapped the Amazon in 32-kilometer-wide swaths which lead to the first detailed maps of the Amazon and an understanding that this huge territory wasn’t the previously-thought Amazon “basin”. Instead they found that only about 20% of the area was lowlands, with most of the landscape being hilly and mountainous.

This ‘sped up’ the construction of the highway which was completed in 2011 except for a single bridge in the Peruvian part of the road. But what has this meant for the area? For some, it replaces weeks of travel on dirt roads to a relatively short drive. For others it promises income from a potential huge influx of tourists. But what it also means is environmental degradation.

Brazil has a long history of environmental issues springing directly from road-building into this relatively delicate biosphere. Previous road building shows that almost 90% of deforestation lies within 50 kilometers of a road (about 23miles). Timber and mineral extraction are followed by hydroelectric dam development and the destruction this causes.

What’s disturbing is that the Amazon is truly the lungs of the world and cartography has provided the data needed to seriously damage those lungs. It places a different perspective on maps; one that undermines the beauty of what I’ve always thought and suggests the need for ethical standards that stand up to the push of corporate greed.

Path along the Yukon River. The quiet places like this are the ones lost in rampant development. (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

There are means to ameliorate the potential destructiveness of developments like the Transoceanic Highway or the construction of pipelines like the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, but it requires people like cartographers, citizens, and government officials to demand agreements that protect the environment BEFORE, planning starts. Otherwise ‘progress’ can just as easily lead to widespread destruction like what is happening in the Amazon.

The new maps of the Amazon not only map progress, but also the destruction of a reality. Unlike the T.O. maps of the Christians that cemented the Christian spirit firmly in Jerusalem, these maps not only mark destruction of biodiversity, but they record the destruction of the spirit of the indigenous people.



What’s in a Map? Aboriginal Maps and Writer’s Dreams

A Huaca, or sacred stone, in the landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Last night I received an article from my local Romance Writers of America chapter about world building for writers and how making a map of a location can help to create your story and your plot. I got thinking about this and how it relates to human history. In particular I got to thinking about how some anthropologists and historians have drawn a line in the sand (the 15th Century) about when true maps came into existence. (See my last post here.) But it got me wondering whether they were short-sighted in their definition.

The authors of this theory have said that prior to the 15th century while people might have made maps, they largely weren’t made for the same purpose of orienting the landscape like maps are used for today. They talked about how maps of older civilizations presented a cosmology, not a spatial map, or were used to show relationships, which could as easily be represented in text or the spoken word. This, they posited, means that earlier map-like creations are not true maps. Whether they are wrong or right is a matter of some debate.

Trail along the Camino Inca, the path to Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A case in point is Native American cartography. The literature about Native American maps is challenged by the fact that not only is it hard to find maps from pre-European contact (birch bark and leather just don’t stand up to five hundred years of colonization), but most of the records of native maps are colored by the perspectives of those who collected the map. The few maps that do exist require the reader to think of maps in more than one way. For example, records of a Virginian Algonquin map collected by John Smith in 1624 (while he was a prisoner), show a cosmological view of the world, but also a spatial linking of places. The map shows three concentric circles around a fire, with the first circle being a circle of meal representing the Algonquin Territory, the second being an inner circle of corn representing North America, and the third circle of corn representing the edge of the supposedly circular world. To try to understand John Smith’s origins from beyond North America, the Algonquin created a thatched stick island between circle two and three. Clearly this shows a sense of spatial distribution, even if it is not based on any scale a western European would use.

The ruins of Saqcsaywaman, Cusco, once part of the center of the Inca world. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Another interesting ‘map’ was a gesture used by a Native American Elder to describe the location of his town. The elder held his forefinger and thumb like a not-quite-closed-looped ‘okay’ symbol. The location of his town was between the unclosed tips of the finger and thumb, with Quebec, Montreal, New York, Boston and Halifax all located along the knuckles and joints of the rest of that looped finger set. This again clearly places the Native American town in relation to the major cities. So the question may not be whether Native American’s had maps, but whether they recorded their map information in a different way. Native American communities and living accommodations like the Navajo Hogan, the Pawnee earth lodge and even some longhouses could be said to be map-like in their structural symbolism of the concept of the sky dome or celestial vault providing shelter for a two dimensional geography with the four directions spreading out from a pivotal centre of the house. It might not be written on a piece of paper, but clearly there is a sense of direction and relationship to place within their sacred geography.

Finally, Petroglyphs, a primary source of pre-contact information about Native American culture, have also yielded examples of what could be maps, though there continues to be some debate. Some appear to show river routes and tributaries along with trails. Still other stone paintings appear to represent drive fences (fences used to drive prey animals into capture areas) complete with pictures of the animals that resided in the area.

Across the world we look for the sublime meaning of everything. Prayer flags, Tibetan area of Northern India, (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Which brings me back to the RWA article. It spoke about how, for a writer, a map can help you to give a greater sense of place to your writing. The writer will know where the towns and roads and lakes and mountains are in relationship to where the character is. But drawing a map can help the writer to also learn something beyond thethe lay of the land. A writer’s map can help you to understand what monsters live in what areas, what territory belongs to the enemy and what resources there are to harvest, along with your character’s place in the world. This leaves me to think the Native Americans understood modern (writerly) mapping better than the anthropologists and historians think they did, and that the modern writer’s map is based in something much deeper and perhaps more linked to the notion of a sacred human landscape. Both look for something more than just scaled lines on a page to find our way through either our imagination or the world.



In Search of a World Map

This week I finished the second draft of book two in my post apocalyptic fantasy, Terra Incognita, series. It wasn’t easy because it required a fairly major rewrite of much of my major character’s attitudes and motivations because I hadn’t mapped my character out from book one to book three. As I get started on Book Three, I’m thinking about how the importance of a consistent road map across a series of books is just as important as a consistent map of the world.

My last post spoke of the work done to standardize measures in mapmaking that led to the creation of the scientific metric measuring system. But the creation of the metric system was only the start in a venture to create of a consistent set of maps of the world. This might not seem sexy, but think about traveling to a different locale and finding the maps you are using don’t use consistent measurements and contradict each other. You end doing a mass of translations to make the maps work or you might end up throwing the maps out because they are so inconsistent it’s easier to simply start from scratch. That was the situation for many explorers because the maps they had might have used a consistent measurement scale (but not always), but were also based on measurements started from different starting points. In other words the Prime Meridian had never been agreed upon.

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

After the agreement about the metric system, there were still disagreements in the cartographic world. One of the major ones was the position on the earth from which meridians (the imaginary lines drawn on the earth from pole to pole that connect all spots along the longitude) should be referenced – in other words where was the zero point on the globe from which all other distances would be measured. To this point in time, where measurements began depended upon the nationality of the scientist conducting the measurement.

The need for a Prime Meridian had existed for all Cartographers. Ptolemy had chosen the Fortunate Islands – at his time the westernmost extent of the world. But the age of politics had national sentiment taking precedent with the French recommending the zero point’s location in Paris, the Spanish recommending either Toledo or Cadiz, the Italian Pisa or Rome, and Americans wanting Washington or Philadelphia etc. It took the International Meridian Conference in 1884 to settle on Greenwich as the Prime Meridian which gave us our zero longitude, and also set our clocks and time zones with Greenwich Mean Time.

Venice's Grand Canal (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A later conference of the International Geographic Congress realized the mapping issues I mentioned above meant that there was a need to revise the world’s maps to create a consistent map of the world. It led to a proposal for an International Map of the World that would all be drawn to a single scale – 1:1,000,000 (1 centimeter =10 kilometers or 1 inch equals 15.78 miles) – leading to the name of the project being the Millionth Map. It would also be drawn using standardized symbols and colors. The project was debated for a period, but after examples of the maps were produced, in 1913 an agreement was reached. Maps were to be created for each 4 degrees of latitude and 6 degrees of longitude, not paying attention to national boundaries. All place names had to use the Roman alphabet.

Little Uigher girl, Sunday Market, Kashgar, Western China (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

It was a slow process. Between 1913 and the start of the First World War only eight maps were produced out of a total of 2,500 required to map the world. Between 1921 and 1946, the American Geological Survey produced the 107 maps that comprised the map of Hispanic American (North and South America). By the 1930s 405 maps had been produced in total, but the central repository of the maps (in Paris) was largely destroyed during the Second World War. In 1953, the United Nations assumed responsibility for oversight of the project, but by the 1980s only 800-1000 maps had been completed and many were not completed using exactly the same standards. Since then the U.N. has stopped even reporting on the project, so after all this work the Millionth Map languishes and who knows when you’ll fall right off its edges when you visit another country and have to work with maps that don’t mesh.

This suggests that I had better get busy and piece together the latitudes and longitudes of book three in my series, so that all of the books provide a complete and consistent picture of Terra’s world.



Mapping Dark Matter – Walking Like an Inca

A recent Facebook posting referred me to an article about dark matter and how astronomers are mapping dark matter through space by identifying how light distorts as it travels through the invisible web of the dark. Scientists hope that, by mapping dark matter’s distribution through the sky, they can gain a better understanding of this substance and the underlying physics of the universe.

Reading this article reminded me of my recent trip to Peru and the unique Incan astronomy. Most of us are taught that the Incan’s worshiped the sun, and indeed the sun was a deity to the nobles. But beyond that worship, the Inca used their astronomical studies to not only follow the sun, moon and stars, but also to map the dark parts of the sky. They even had a special word for those places: ‘Yana Phuyu’, or dark clouds – the vacant places in the sky.

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Inca believed the Milky Way was a great river and the Yana Phuyu were animals called Pachatira that came from mother earth to drink at its side. These dark clouds were known and tracked across the sky and watched with interest. There was the fox, the black llama with her child, the serpent, the toad, the partridge. Each had their place in the sky and each was watched for signs of what would happen on earth. As the black llama descended from the sky she would lower her head and drink from the oceans to stop flooding. The toad, Hanaptu, rose in the sky, when the toads came out of hibernation, and Azoq, the fox rose during the summer solstice when foxes gave birth. For that was the strength of Inca astronomy, they truly believed ‘as above so below’. They watched the heavens and foretold the seasons and the rains by when certain animals appeared over the horizon or climbed the sky and, according to legends, major ecological events like devastating earthquakes and floods, along with the ages of the world.

But the Inca did more than that. They saw the heavens as a map of their world, with the great river of the Andes, the Rio Vilconota (aka the Urubamba) as the terrestrial version of the Milky Way. They recognized hundreds of holy sites (Huacas) around their empire that often were related to special days of the year and the places where the rising and falling sun was observed.

Today, stories of the skies are still taught to children in Inca villages. In Quechua they teach how the llamas in the fields watch the heavenly llama for news of the rains. They tell tales of the moon and his wife and how the ‘fall’ of the Moon’s wife led to the pumpkin-color of the soil in the Amazon. So though we will never know the true depths of Inca astronomical knowledge – too much was lost to the Spanish conquest – we do know that the Inca were much like the scientists of today: They mapped the heavens as a means to understand the connections of the universe around them.

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson




The Roots of the World

The Grand Canal, Venice (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For men like Fra Mauro (see last post), the exploration of the external world led to an understanding of the inner landscape of men. So too, from the triangulation of the world (see post here) came a greater understanding of the internal shape of the earth.

I mentioned previously that in order to determine the shape of the world, a French survey team went to Ecuador and Peru at the same time as a team went to Lapland. Unfortunately for the Peruvian team, the Lapland team discovered the answer to the scientific question long before the Peruvian team ever finished their survey. While in South America, however, the Peruvian team struggled over mountains and through jungles and noted different gravity readings as they took their survey measurements along their route. They surmised that the differences in the readings might reflect the varying landscape and theorized that mountains might be made of less dense material than the lowlands. A good theory, but it took over a hundred years for the matter to be more fully explored and the discovery was made far from South America. It took the British Raj’s need to survey India to bring understanding to what the mass of mountains might mean.

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In the mid nineteenth century, the horrendous task of surveying India through triangulation was almost undone by the discovery of an error of some 150 meters between the distance the triangulation measurements computed, and an actual direct surface measurement. To determine what had led to the error, the cartographers involved had to reexamine their assumptions – in this case they had assumed that the mass of the Himalayan Mountains would greatly influence the gravity measurements of their survey instruments. What they found was that they had overestimated the lower mass of the mountains.

This led to a theory of the earth’s crust that still exists today, namely that every (theoretical) column of the earth (from core to outer surface following a theoretical plum line) should have approximately the same mass. Given that tall mountains have a lower mass, they must have an equally large (but low mass) protuberance at the bottom of the earth’s crust to achieve the same mass as denser areas of the earth’s crust. Conversely, under the oceans where the ocean basins are very dense, the earth’s crust would be relatively thin. The theoretical result would be that inside the earth there would be a mirroring of the plains, mountains and ocean valleys we see on the surface, much like a tall iceberg has a large underwater presence to balance it out. Modern science has supported this, by obtaining crust measurements off the coast of South America that show the Andes have roots as deep as 75 kilometers.

Stupa and Prayer flags at the Manali Summit (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Think of this the next time you are crossing the mountains, staring up at those tall, snow-covered peaks, for they are the frosting, the outer conceit of an iceberg of stone that conceals the deeper reality of the roots of the mountains.

Much like Fra Mauro saw the illusions of men obscure the truth of his map of the world.

Peruvian time

Women in the moment of Cusco Parade(2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Women in the moment of Cusco Parade(2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Coming home from another continent affords lots of time to sit in airports and to reflect (as you cross time zones) on the nature of time, and timing, and how we experience it. Coming from North America we are so driven by the clock – to be punctual, to punch the clock, and to resent those who don’t bow to the ticking moments in the same way the rest of us do. I speak from experience. I lost a very good friend because she refused to honor my time as I honored hers. She always kept me waiting for at least an hour every time I was to meet her for a social engagement and when I pressed her on the issue she decided my friendship wasn’t worth trying to change her time sense. So we parted ways.

In Peru I ran into a similar phenomena. There I was, sitting in the train station at Aguas Caliente, going home from Machu Picchu, and the train before mine arrived. They called the train’s arrival. They called boarding and the foreign tourists crowded around to load. They called last call and a few Peruvians came running. They called last call again (I guess they didn’t mean it the first time). More Peruvians came running. They called last call again and an entire tour group (Peruvian) came trotting up. They closed the gate and announced the train was leaving.

Time worn ripples in the stone of Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Time worn ripples in the stone of Sacsaywaman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

About 5 minutes later another entire Peruvian tour group arrived and were a tad put out that the train had left without them.

I watched this and put the phenomena down to this being a tourist train and Peruvian tourists, but then I had to catch a plane to get from Cusco to Lima. There, I was, sitting in the departure lounge as LAN airlines boarded a flight. They announce last call. A couple of people come running. They announce last call again, and a few more people come. They announce that they were closing the gate and a western tourist who had been guarding the belongings of a Peruvian friend, finally tossed the friend’s belongings to the gate crew and boarded. His friend eventually showed up and was choked that the plane wasn’t waiting for her. They announced last call again and at that point – after Airport staff had been walking around for at least ten minutes paging missing passengers (by name) – someone pointed out to a group of businessmen in the waiting area that they were supposed to be on that plane. They dashed off, madly. So after about 4 last calls, personal pages and various and sundry announcements the gate was finally locked and the plane took off, but the whole thing got me thinking.

Village near Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Village near Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

What was it about Peruvians? Did they just not pay attention? Was the whole world to wait for them? Did they just not care that they were holding up an entire airport? Was there something called ‘Peruvian time’?

While waiting for another flight (this time in Canada), I had the chance to chat with a Peruvian woman who has lived in North America a long time. I ran my story past her and she laughed and said that the Peruvian psyche is not so Machiavellian. Instead the reason those passengers missed their trains and almost their planes was more likely because Peruvians are more ‘in the moment’. When they engage with friends they are totally ‘present’, and so they miss little things like the announcement for a train or last call for a plane. She told me that when friends get together for dinner they had best plan for people to arrive two hours late.

Which is interesting for a writer, because, from personal experience, our sense of timing is such a rich source of conflict.

Peruvian mountain woman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Peruvian mountain woman (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

And now I’ve come home to Canada to find my mother in the hospital from a stroke and my family playing a waiting game. No longer is our focus on punctuality. Now we live in the moment and keep hoping for a few moments more – Peruvian time. Let the world pass us by for a long, long time.

The masses at the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The masses at the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu Redux

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Okay, I guess I have a type A personality. If it isn’t right the first time I’ve been known to do something again and again and again, until I get it – if not right, at least closer to right. I’ve been known to go back to the same place again and again and again to get THE photo I want, when previous attempts didn’t yield what I wanted. With writing, I’ve been known to trash manuscripts 2 or 3 or 4 times before getting what I originally envisioned.

Terraces (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Terraces (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Given this, it shouldn’t surprise you that I decided to return to Machu Picchu after blowing out my legs on the Inca trail so that on my first visit to the site I was basically stationary. So up I got at 4:45 am on April 24, to catch the train to Aguas Caliente, an hour and a half train ride as the Andes unwound their scrub grass into jungle. Picture dawn light on magnificent glaciers, and then we slid into Aguas Caliente and I had to catch a bus up the mountain. And there I was. Again.

The Orchids of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Orchids of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Not that my ankles were 100% yet. Nope. I was still using a walking stick and my left ankle was still swollen and sore, but darn it, I’d come all this way and I darn well was going to enjoy the view. So I set off uphill, up innumerable steps to the guardhouse that perched along the path between the Sungate and what was once the main gate to the city. There I sat on the edge of a terrace and overlooked the city, trying to believe I was really here. It was still incredibly busy with tourists, but this time I could move away, an take cover in the shade of bamboo farther up the terraces.

The Guardhouse, many steps above the city (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Guardhouse, many steps above the city (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I ambled (read limped) around the ruins and found the series of fountains the Inca had built. Now don’t think spraying water and dolphins or cherubs – these are a series of small pools fed by a single spring that still supplies the ruins with water from far up the mountain. The story goes that each small pool has its own voice. I think could almost make out the tonal differences out over the myriad loud tourists. So I focused on the liquid song and, on as hot a day as this was, and after seeing children crying because foolish parents forgot to bring drinks, I could believe that the Inca built this series of fountains as homage to the importance of water to life.

There were swallows soaring and song sparrows trilling and generally it was a glorious day – except for the tourists. The final straw for me was some children who were determined to separate a very young baby llama from its mother because they wanted to pet it. I mean where were those darn children’s parents? I was about to use my walking stick and not on the llamas! Thankfully another tourist intervened before I got myself arrested. But I did get some photos I’m happy with and so here you go.

Enjoy! Ciao, from Peru!

The last view of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The last view of Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson