One by one they introduced themselves. Eight porters, a cook, an assistant cook and our guide. They told us their name, age and where they live. Eleven people were making it possible for Gary and me and two of our children to trek the ancient Inca Trail in Peru for four days to Machu Picchu, one of the great wonders of our world.
As I walked that first day, I feared that we were simply tourists, stereotypical “ugly Americans,” using our wealth and other people to satisfy our own desire for travel and adventure. However, our time together that first night dispelled my guilt.
Our guide, Eddy, thanked us for coming to Peru to learn more about the Incas and Peruvian culture and experience one of the most beautiful places in our world. He explained that in order to preserve the Inca Trail, no one is permitted to hike unless assisted by a guide and porters. All of the porters in our group, who each carry up to 25 kilos of equipment and food, come from Peruvian farms in the countryside and would otherwise not be able to support their families. In fact, the owner of Alpaca Expeditions specifically recruits porters from poor areas and pays them more than schoolteachers receive.
Some of the porters did not even speak Spanish and communicated in Quechua, a Native American language spoken primarily in the Andean Mountains of South America. As each porter spoke, I was deeply touched by their simplicity, gracious smiles and amazing ability to nimbly walk and even run across the most challenging terrain imaginable. Some even wore sandals or tennis shoes, whereas we, in our sturdy hiking boots, huffed and puffed our way through up to ten hours a day of hiking at altitudes as high as 13,800 feet. Because Andean Peruvians live at such a high altitude, they are born with an increased oxygen level in their hemoglobin and an enlarged lung capacity.
After Eddy thanked us, I expressed gratitude for the privilege our family had of journeying with them on the 550 year old Inca Trail, the stones of which are still original. The Inca Trails were begun in the 1450’s and took 50 years to build, with 2,000 people a day working. By walking the trail we became one with the Inca people, their land and their history.
Along the way I pondered the spiritual nature of travel. Travel enables us to move out of our own tiny world and enlarge our borders. The world flattens when we realize that we are, indeed, all connected. The Incas were a highly advanced civilization in South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their engineering and scientific capabilities were far beyond other parts of the world, and Machu Picchu was a center of their religion and culture.
As we slowly made our way toward Machu Picchu, our guide shared the mystery of this amazing site, a 15th century Incan citadel high in the Andes Mountains. Machu Picchu is known for its walls that fuse huge stone blocks without mortar, buildings that reflect sophisticated astronomical alignments and its contextual architecture. Machu Picchu was “discovered” by Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham in several expeditions in the 1910’s and was popularized by National Geographic in the April 1913 issue. Bingham removed thousands of valuable artifacts, which were displayed at Yale until a few years ago when they were rightfully returned to Peru.
In 2007 Machu Picchu was named a new “Wonder of the World,” and in 2011, Peru and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) agreed to limit visitors to 2,500 a day. In addition, to protect the Inca Trail, only 500 people are permitted to start the 28 mile trail each day. That number includes 200 hikers and 300 porters and guides. Just last week a new master plan was revealed that will reconceptualize Machu Picchu to allow more visitors to enlarge their own borders and safely visit this amazing site, which was built before Columbus “discovered” America in 1492.
Our world becomes smaller as our knowledge and understanding of God’s people around the world increases. Right now our ability to participate in earthquake recovery in Nepal through our prayers and gifts allows us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are in desperate need.
Travel also empowers us to build bridges of understanding and appreciate the importance of diversity and context. The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, and their administrative, political, and military center was located in Cusco, Peru. The Incas had a way of seeing the uniqueness and potential in each site, as their architecture fit the geography, crops and spiritual nature of each location. The Incas worked with local people, giving them a degree of autonomy within the empire.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1533, they decided to build a Catholic Cathedral in Cusco over the site of an Incan temple. Unfortunately, the Spanish did not honor Incan culture, nature gods and religious practices and eventually conquered the Incans through sheer brutality, including decimating the native population by the introduction of smallpox.
At the same time, the Spanish acknowledged the context in which they now lived. A famous painting of the Lord’s Supper by Marcos Zapata in the Cusco Cathedral shows Jesus and the disciples eating a local guinea pig and drinking glasses of chicha. Judas has the face of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador credited with capture and murder of Inca Emperor Atahualpa. By using food and drink common to the area, the Spanish attempted to teach the Incans about the Christian religion.
In similar fashion, we are called to share the gospel today in a way that is unique to who we are and where we live. There is no one size fits all in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Of course, this does not excuse the violence of the conquistadors. Nor does it excuse the intolerance of many of our churches today and their inability to connect with our culture.
Honoring diversity and other religious expressions rather than imposing our own understandings leads to a recognition that we are more alike than different, and in the process we become one human family. This gets at the heart of white privilege in the United States and is a factor in ongoing incidents between police forces and African Americans over the past year. Until we are willing to humbly examine ourselves and our ingrained attitudes toward those who are different, the kingdom of God will not come in all its fullness.
Third, travel brings us closer together, as we realize that people the world over have the same hopes and dreams that we have. Wherever I am in the world, whether in Cuba, Haiti, Zimbabwe or Peru, I often run early in the morning when children are walking to school. They are usually dressed neatly in uniforms, the younger ones accompanied by their parents, and they all have smiles on their faces and hope in their hearts. When I asked Eddy where he sees himself in ten years, he said, “I hope to be the owner of a building business with a wife and children and a home.” By living and working together as a team, knowing that we are all part of each other, each life was transformed and enriched, Peruvian and American.
The last Inca site we visited before Machu Picchu was a sacred spot called Winay Wayna. Eddy spoke eloquently about Inca culture and the importance of community. He said that the rainbow was used by the Incas to represent the joining of different cultures in South America to bring peace and harmony to all. The rainbow also symbolizes fertility, mother earth and the spirit world. The rainbow flag is the flag for the ancient Incan capital of Cusco, which is the gateway to Machu Picchu.
As I sat in the middle of this sacred spot surrounded on all sides by the magnificent Andes Mountains, unrivaled anywhere on earth, I looked up and saw a rainbow. But this was not any old rainbow. It was a vertical rainbow so thick and bright that it shone like the amazing diversity of our planet; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Most rainbows go away shortly after you see them, but this one stayed bright for over 15 minutes.
Rainbows are a sign from God. So this one was as well. What was God teaching us? Through the rainbow, God was reminding us the importance of community, courage, context and covenant. God is with the people of Nepal. God is with the people of Baltimore. God is with the people of Peru. But God also challenges us to reflect the love of God for every living creature in our world. Guinea pig and chicha. The body of Christ reflected in the children – and in you and me. Hope for the world.