Collective Roots

Out of the untamed jungle highlands of Peru rises one of the great feats of civilization, simultaneously shrouded in ancient mystery and standing naked and exposed for the world to see. Steeped in history and dripping with the long-gone memories of worlds we can but dream of, Machu Picchu hovers in the minds of the citizens of the world as a coveted destination for both its beauty and its profound reminder of a layer of ourselves that we long to touch but still can never be again.

It’s impossible to go here without taking this picture.

There is an inescapable sense of being a part of such a bigger whole, bigger than a city or a country or a continent. Languages fill the air, dozens of them, English and Spanish and German and French intermingled with the occasional Quechua exchange between tour guides. Old and young, grungy penny-pinching backpackers and retired couples paying thousands to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge, we are all here, and we are all in awe as we stand in the midst of this ancient world.

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I study the Peruvians here and think how they must feel to come here, knowing that somewhere in the deep recesses of their veins runs the same stuff that composed the magnificent civilization that built this place. Their ancestors walked here; their families hoisted these massive stones one on top of the other, crafted ingenious drainage systems to protect the city from rain, aligned the windows to perfectly distribute the sun on the solstices. Whether a family tree hangs completed in their living rooms or not, they can at least know that their roots lie here. I wonder if it feels like going home.

None of these things hold true for me. My ancestors came from thousands of miles away, with a rich history to be sure, but so mixed and muddled over the ages that I could claim nearly every historical event on the European continent as part of my heritage. I am jealous of the ability to point to a place like Machu Picchu and say, “This is where I came from.” And yet . . . I am drawn to this place. I feel connected to it, not as though my ancestors walked these streets, but something, some deep human instinct surges in me when I imagine sandaled feet floating through the ancient mountains, calloused hands harvesting coca leaves, voices crying in a strange language and worshiping strange gods. Maybe I am not descended from the great dynasty of the Incas, but as the world grows smaller and we strive to understand each other better, I feel that it is still a part of me. It is our collective existence, another chapter in the magnificent story of all of humankind. We must tell our story this way, not as an individual sequence of events, but as a great mosaic of success and failure, triumph and tragedy, sprinkled throughout the ages and flooding in waves over every society, over every unique human that calls this earth home.

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