Monday, May 30, 2011

The Nazca Lines of Peru

"But we must watch the video first!" the Dutch woman demanded shrilly. She had salt-and-pepper hair and looked to be in her fifties.
"But señora, we must fly now. The light, you see,” said the pilot.
"Yes," I chimed in, "we need to go now."
The Dutch woman's beefy companion, most certainly her husband, threw me a steely look and in a menacing voice said: "Stay out of this!"
I shut my mouth and sat down to watch the woman argue with the Peruvian pilot.
I had come here to Nazca to see the mysterious figures etched into the desert floor centuries ago by the people who lived here. These are not your garden-variety sidewalk art, but stylized figures of monkey, flamingo, hummingbird, whale, dog, man and various whorls, lines and trapezoids miles in length and diameter. They are so huge that for centuries no one knew they existed until they were spotted by a pilot in the 1930's. Because it hardly rains in the Nazca plains and no high winds existed that would have eroded them, they had remained intact ever since their creation. Their makers simply removed layers of dark topsoil covering the lighter earth underneath and voilà: a Nazca line. Archaeologists studied them and puzzled over their significance. Erich von Daniken wrote a wildly popular book in the `70's called "The Chariots of the Gods" wherein he postulated that these figures, and most specially the trapezoids and lines were actually landing strips for aliens from outer space. Less fanciful students of the lines thought they were offerings to an all-seeing sky-god. You can see similar figures in pottery excavated from graves around the area, so the theory that they were connected to the religious culture of the time is probably the most logical one. The Nazca Lines are the second most visited archaeological site in Peru after Macchu Picchu.
They cannot be seen at ground level. Not even their creators could have seen them at all. To fully appreciate them, you have to hire a small plane that will bring you 500 feet up into the air in order for you to view them in their magnificent totality.
Which is the reason why I found myself in the small airport of Nazca this early morning of Janury 27, the year of our lord 2008, barely three days after the end of my Inca Trail adventure, listening to a woman from Holland insisting that she and her husband must first watch the orientation video about the Nazca lines promised in the brochure. Meanwhile, as the morning wore on, the light and wind were subtly changing. The quality of our viewing was in danger of being altered. There could be passing clouds, obscuring the furrows in the lines. It could rain. There could be an earthquake.
"Come on, woman!" I seethed inwardly. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and scream:"No video will ever be useful or effective enough to compare with actually seeing the lines themselves!." A look at the wide shoulders and sledgehammer arms of her husband discouraged me from doing so.
There are actually two kinds of plane trips you can take: one to take in the Nazca lines, and the other to take in the Palpa lines, a totally different grouping. I decided to go with the more famous one although you can see both sets of lines if you paid for more plane time.
Finally, the pilot managed to convince the couple to go up in the plane without watching the hour-long video presentation. They could do it after the trip. We squeezed into the four-seater piper cub, me beside one window, the woman occupying the one opposite mine, and the husband's bulk filling the space in between us. The man stank. We did not exchange a word throughout the entire trip. The pilot did all the talking. Up we went, the husband wildly clicking  his camera, my face, resolutely turned away from them, pressed against the window.
I looked down at the brown, treeless plateau below. The pilot pointed out the figures as they came into view. The man craned his neck to see through my window. I firmly blocked his view. Anyway, he was going to see what I was seeing when the plane banked over to turn back to the airport.
The hour-long flight was soon over and as the plane taxied to a halt and as we three passengers had all scrambled out of the plane, I reflected a little on the sights I'd seen.
It was a fast transient view, like a video in four dimensions. Unlike stationary monuments like Macchu Picchu or the Pyramids of Egypt, the Nazca lines can only be appreciated in an instant, and then you may never have the chance to see them again. How often do you really want to go up in a rickety plane to do in-depth viewings of these lines? How often do you want to take a mind-numbing, if pleasant half-day bus trip from Lima through a featureless desert landscape and depressing towns that still bore marks of destruction from a recent earthquake? No, the hour you spent up in the air could be the only time you can spare to watch these wondrous lines and the rest of your life you would have no choice but to re-imagine them. Hummingbird, Monkey, Flamingo, the Astronaut on the mountainside, Snake, Dog and a host of other strange whorls, intersecting lines that went straight as arrows from one mountaintop to another, trapezoids, parallel lines so straight you can be forgiven if you thought that perhaps, as von Daniken averred, they really were landing spaces for alien craft: all these would have to be conjured up again in your mind's eye. Of course, a videocamera would be useful as well.
This much is beyond doubt: the lines were made not by aliens but by a hardworking, religious, creative race, forebears of today's Peruvian Indians. How and why they created them are still subject of study and speculation. A German woman named Maria Reiche who spent her life studying these lines probably came close to explaining their function. She theorized that they formed a giant astronomical chart that reflected the skies above the Nazca plains and was connected with the seasons of sowing, growing and harvesting crops. It is enough to believe this, and continue to feel the magic of the lines in one's memory ... whining Dutchwoman or no.

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