Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu - by Mark Adams

In two years time, for my fiftieth birthday, I plan to make a pilgrimage to Peru's "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu. I do not plan to make so much of an adventure of it as Adams did and will risk the ridicule of Adams' guide, John Leievers - who lamented to Adams the first time they met that "People used to be travelers....Now they're tourists". I plan to stay in a hotel in Cusco and take the train ride up to the ruins. Which is not to say I cannot appreciate the voyage undertaken by the author, who had virtually never slept in a tent before, much less done any serious hiking. He, however, eschewed the namby-pamby 4-day hike on the famed Incan Trail in favor a month long trek worthy of a real "traveler" - like explorer Hiram Bingham - the Yale University professor credited with "discovering" Machu Picchu in 1911.

This work is much more than an inspiring travelogue. Adams weaves his own adventure into the story of Bingham, and that of the ancient Incan empire and  its ultimate conquest by the Spanish. Of course to do this kind of history telling properly, one must spend much time in libraries doing research, and clearly our hero (the author) did so, as he points out, did Bingham.

Early in the book Adams describes taking a day off of work, so he could take the train into Yale where "he spent hours in the library, leafing through Bingham's diaries and expedition journals...in the neo-Gothic splendor of Yale's Rare Books and Manuscripts room". He read much of Bingham's work, and acknowledges that Bingham wasn't really a very good writer. This may be the reason that when he checked out Bingham's Journal of an Expedition Across Venezuela and Colombia the librarian pointed out that "the last due date had been stamped in 1914."

The author tells of at least three specific trips to libraries, as well he gives nods to the Yale Sterling Library and "Melanie James of the sublime General Society Library" in his acknowledgments (and "sublime" is not a word the author uses lightly, either).

Descriptions of Bingham's library research at Yale, and in Lima, illustrate that his quest for information went hand-in-hand with this quest for finding the lost city.
the more hours he [Bingham] spent in the university library researching the final days of the Inca empire, the more convinced he became that their lost city really did exist - except it was called Vilcabamba".
Bingham pursued this notion with a visit to the National Library in Lima, where he spent "much of his brief time" with historian Carlos Romero "whose archival research had raised the prospect that Vitcos, not Vilcabamba was the Lost City of the Incas". The follow up to all of this, with explanations of the difference between the two places, and flaws in theories, is a beautiful demonstration of just how messy research can become, with one piece of information leading the scholar down new paths - something I spend a lot of my time teaching students about, explaining that it is not necessarily a bad thing, either.

There are also at least three other places in which Adams tells of other researchers use of libraries, and how these also piqued the scholars' interests into tracking down more information.

And finally, I will say that reading this book prompted me to add the following movies to my Netflix list: Secret of the Incas and Lost City of the Incas as well as an Indiana Jones movie, not because there is some evidence that the character Indiana Jones is based in Hiram Bingham, but rather because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull includes a scene in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, complete with "mousy student". Adams gives this brief review of the film
The team behind Crystal Skull  might have benefited from a few more hours in the library, since the story is riddled with embarrassing errors, not the least of which is Indy's greeting at a Peruvian airport by a Mexican mariachi band.
It is never a bad idea to spend a little extra time in the library. Perhaps the mousy students are actually on to something.

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