Lines in the sand

I went to Peru to see the Nazca lines. I know most people go for the ruins at Machu Picchu, or for a tour of the Amazon, or possible even solely for the ceviche, which is sufficiently delicious to warrant a nine-hour plane ride. And those are perfectly good reasons to travel to Peru. Truly, anything that piques your curiosity sufficiently to draw you from the comfort and security of your own abode and out into the dangerous, enthralling world at large is worth pursuing. But for my part, that impetus was the Nazca lines.

I can’t recall when or how I first became aware of the existence of these lines. I know that I was very young, certainly not older than 10, and I suspect that my awareness of these remarkable apparitions in a desert in the central part of a South American country thousands of miles from my own California home was linked to my desire to one day become an archaeologist. (A significant factor motivating this career choice was the fact that I watched too many Indiana Jones movies as a kid. Eventually I would realize that being an archaeologist mostly entails squatting in scorching deserts dusting bones with paintbrushes for months at a time, and my focus would shift to a faster-paced profession.) But I dreamed of Peru. It kicked off my desperate desire to to travel. And it all started with a desert sketchpad that has endured some 1,400 years.

After a three-hour bus ride through what I described in my notes as “nothing and nothing and nothing”–though I later learned I was wrong because the PanAmerican Highway cuts off the tail of the glyph of the lizard–we Peru_Blog Images_1arrived in Nazca. I wanted to go to the airport immediately, but Colin managed to talk me into finding a hostel and dropping off our luggage–an incredible feat considering how close I finally was to those infuriating lines. Nazca is a city that seems to exist solely from the income of tourists visiting the lines. All the stores carry Nazca lines jewelry and mugs and purses, and there are at least a dozen claptrap tourist restaurants that look like treehouse cabanas that somehow escaped the Caribbean. But I wasn’t there for them.

As soon as we’d located and checked into a hostel, I asked our host, in what little broken Spanish I’m mistress of, whether she could help arrange a tour of the lines. AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. I didn’t even bother trying to conceal my impatience. She hopped on the phone to her husband and communicated in Spanish I didn’t understand, eventually passing me the phone. He spoke perfect English, with either an Australian or South African accent. It was late in the afternoon–the time of day when the last of the planes are taking off with the final loads of lucky tourists off to fulfill their lifelong desire to see sketches of monkeys and condors in the desert. He sounded doubtful, but said he’d call back in five minutes. The phone rang within three, and our hostess told us to run and get our cameras. Run, run, run, have to catch a taxi, run!

The trip to the airport took a mere 10 minutes, and once there we were raced through a series of formalities including being weighed, signing a release form, and finally being searched by security. The guard pulled Colin’s plastic Jesus out of his backpack and gave him an amused, dismissive look as though he couldn’t possibly be dangerous.

We were shuffled into the backseats of a small prop plane which, our guide warned us very seriously, could get a little bumpy, especially at that time of day. He gestured to plastic bags we were to use in the event that we needed to throw up. I chuckled dismissively. My grandparents on my mom’s side were both pilots, had both flown the exact sort of plane we were clambering into at the airport in Nazca, and I wouldn’t consider disgracing their memories by throwing up in a prop plane. Who climbs into a tiny plane in Peru expecting a smooth ride? I made a mental note to ask if they had any video footage of tourists getting sick in the plane once we were done. Anyway, I was so shot through with adrenaline I don’t know if I would have noticed if someone had clubbed me with a broomstick at that point.

They gave us a card with images of the various figures we would be seeing on the flight. There are hundreds: birds, fish, llamas, sharks, jaguars, humans, orcas, spiders, trees, and flowers. But we would be seeing just 10: whale, “astronaut,” hummingbird, condor, dog, tree, hands, trapezoid, spider, and monkey. We took off, and I immediately realized that the ground we’d walked and driven over was riddled with pale scar tissue in the dusty ground. There were lines running in all directions, some of them straight, some of them careening drunkenly in all directions.

Then our guide pointed down and told us the whale was directly below. I looked and looked, and saw Peru_Blog Images_2the same lines I’d seen before, lines that didn’t mean anything–or nothing I was capable of detecting or understanding. My mind exploded with panic and sadness. What if I couldn’t see the lines? I knew they were there. I’d seen the photos. But there were just so many lines, and I couldn’t see what the guide was indicating. It was worse than every time someone had pointed to something in the distance and said, with excitement in their voice, “Look!” At what? Most of the time, I’ll just fake it. “Oh yeah, really cool!” But I’d come too far. And I really wanted to see those lines. More than I’d wanted to see the Coliseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the souks in Fez. I wanted to see those lines.

Then, suddenly, whimsical and twisting and delicate, there was a whale. A playful, joyful incredible NPeru_Blog_Imagesapparition from a culture long extinct. I wanted to cry. Maybe I did. And I think I snapped 10 photos of that whale with the film camera I’d borrowed from Colin. Somehow I felt more connected to the Peruvian people, to all of humanity, while hovering high above the Earth and removed from its inhabitants than I ever did while actually on the ground. It’s a decided fact that being surrounded by people makes me feel isolated and, quite often, rather disgusted. The hoards of bleating tourists at Machu Picchu very nearly made me vomit, but in a rickety plane where I was, apparently, expected to be ill, I felt a sense of peace and connection that I rarely experience on the ground.

Our guide informed us that this was one of the most arid regions in the world, and I can believe that. So much nothing. Just rocks. And rocks. And rocks. And hundreds of paintings in the sand, the largest of which measure 660 feet across, connecting an American born in 1984 to a people who put an immense amount of thought and effort into creating paintings for the gods, perhaps prayers for water and prosperity, perhaps documenting what they knew of the heavens. And it’s the not knowing, the wondering why and how, that I truly appreciate. There are too many answers just a Google search away. There have to be some questions left to posterity, something for future people to scratch their heads over and marvel at the amazing feats we humans are capable of.

Two weeks ago, I saw something I’ve dreamed of since I was a child. And the world didn’t feel quite normal for several days afterward, doesn’t feel quite normal as I think of it now. I guess what I’m saying is this–traveling, connecting the dots across centuries and cultures that were probably never meant to know one another–is my act of faith. This is my kind of religion. When you leave your home, your country, you’re putting your faith in so many people you’ve never met and you’re doing it because you believe they have something worth teaching, worth showing, worth learning, worth hearing. It’s faith in humanity. Curiosity about the people who sketched that strange, beautiful whale in the desert–the kind of people I’d have loved to have known. And pride in my own willingness to sacrifice comfort and potentially health to do and see something that will enrich me as a human being.

I saw the Nazca lines. And I hope I never recover from the wonder of it.

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  1. […] 5. Nazca lines. I’d wanted to see the Nazca lines since I was a child. In fact, I remember my dad putting Peruvian flute music on the stereo while my brother and I played four corners in the house. And actually seeing the lines was as close as I’ve come to a spiritual experience. […]

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