Treasures of the Trip (Issue 696)

In which we are encouraged to savor and ask questions that go beyond the obvious.

I’m not popular on guided tours.

Our adventure in Peru began with a guided tour of a few major sites in the City – the Barranco district including the crumbling yet still elegant church of La Ermita and the nearby Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs), the remains of La Huaca Pucllana pyramid that dates from the 10th century, San Martin Square and the Plaza Mayor, and the Convento de San Francisco.

Walking a guided tour with groups of people listening, one learns a bit. For the most part, tour group members “oooh and aaah” a bit, gazing at the façade of a colonial church or the expanse of a central square. The obvious stuff.

When the tour guide asks for questions, there might be one or two at each stop. For example, in the Convento de San Francisco library (which looks like an inspiration for a wizard’s laboratory at Hogwarts), world renowned, containing the first Spanish dictionary and antique texts that predate the Spanish conquest, a brief stop to hear that the Franciscans used this library for study. There were a couple of questions about the wood paneling and the age of the books….

As we left the library, I asked Edgar, our bilingual but struggling tour guide, the first few of dozens of questions that came to mind – where did the wood come from and who carved it? How have the books survived five centuries while exposed to open air? What are the primary subjects of the books in the library? How were they chosen? How are they organized? How recently was the library used regularly….

He rolled his eyes (universal language, it turns out) and moved quickly to the next speaking spot.

Same experience when touring the circular agricultural terraces in Moray. While others were admiring the symmetry of the circles and bemoaning the rain-induced collapse of walls, I wanted to know how did the Quechua people build the underground viaducts that transported water several miles, over the mountain behind us, to this site? How were their methods different from Roman methods? Has anybody figured out how many micro climates there are in these circles (since the temperature can vary 15 degrees from lowest circle to highest)? How did the Quechua pass this information from one generation to the next, since there was no written language? How did….

And the looks I get from tour group companions, whether they are English-speaking or other language speaking, are usually, “What? Are you kidding, with those questions? Let’s get to the next site, shall we?”

So, I offer the partially apologetic “there’s one in every crowd” shrug and shuffle with the group to the next location.

I enjoy a good view. I admire what things are – a thousand year old wall, a spectacularly red hand-woven scarf, a delicate altar carving. An on-off bus tour or your garden variety walking tour of an archeological treasure is a great way to see such sites, to gulp a lot of ground quickly.

But I enjoy rolling the moments on my tongue, understanding how things worked, why they happened at this spot and not some other, what people thought about them, how they evolved over time.

To me, the answers to those questions beyond the obvious are greatest treasures of the trip.

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