3 min read
This plane was so small it could barely fit three people. Squeezed up front were the pilot and the director. Then the fuselage tapered to a congested cubicle, into which I was stuffed. I had never been in such a tiny plane. It was like a doghouse with wings.
And now we were bumping about on thermals rising from the Peruvian desert. All of this to view ancient drawings carved into the desert floor, two thousand feet below. It was a privilege to be in this literally rarified air… so why was I breathing so loudly? Were those strange whimpering sounds coming from me?
Our Pilot, who really didn’t speak much English, heard my groans, and made his own grunting sounds in sympathy much the way you would comfort a sick child… or dog. Still he continued with the flight, swooping and angling to get better views of the figures below… even as I hunched glassy eyed in the back.
The Sign Of The Monkey
But enough about me, let me tell you what we were doing up here. Our faces pressed against the plane’s rattling windows, we stared at a giant hummingbird, over 300 feet long, cut into the desert below. Beyond that, a 150-foot spider, frozen in mid-crawl. Then we sailed over a 400-foot condor.
Ahead, the most iconic image in this pre-Columbian collection, a 300-foot monkey with an immense curly tail.
These are some of the largest and well known figures in this ancient field of art - the ones you can find printed on T-shirts or crafted into jewelry, should you desire a souvenir.
These figures and hundreds of others were scraped into the desert roughly two thousand years ago by the people of this area, the Nazca. The drawings are accompanied by thousands of perfectly geometrical lines also etched into this plain. The entire field is called the Nazca Lines.
It is a big deal – UNESCO World Heritage Site and all that. The only way to truly appreciate the figures is from several thousand feet in the air, which just adds more mystery to their origin and purpose.
Ancient mysteries come in handy when you’re making a travel documentary, which we were. In Peru, mystery is enshrined in their culture of mummies, shamans and secret mountaintop cities. The Nazca Lines just added to the spooky fun of alien things we didn’t understand.
Speaking of aliens, the theories behind the lines are varied and rather colorful:
· They were created as landing strips for alien beings.
· They may have been welcoming symbols to the gods in the sky.
· The lines point to sources of water or as part of a ritual to summon water.
· The entire field is an observatory or a calendar – the lines marking the rising sun at the solstices.
Nobody knows for sure – just like with Stonehenge or the giant figures on Easter Island. Unlike those ancient sites, we do know how this phenomenon was created. The Nazca people removed the top layer of desert floor – the red rocks - revealing the contrasting grayish rocks below. But how did the lines survive for two thousand years? No mystery there. The answer: no wind, no rain. Nothing could erase these lines… that is, until 4-wheel drive vehicles came to this sacred plateau.
But for a thousand years, the Nazca people woke up to see their lines and figures just as perfect as the day before. This went on for decades, generations, centuries, millennia. Imagine carving a figure into the earth and knowing it would last forever. At least until Mad Max and friends came along. There has been some damage and the area is now restricted… hence our photographing from the air.
It’s a Big World After All
Now be honest. Had you heard of the Nazca Lines before this post? Probably not. I hadn’t heard of them before I found myself 200 miles south of Lima in the Nazca Desert. Yet these drawings are as big and beautiful and serious as those other destinations tourists immortalize everyday with selfies.
So, it was a privilege to be perusing up here. Ten million visit the Great Wall of China every year. But my guess is only a few thousand have been lucky enough to fly over the world’s oldest and largest art installation.
Only problem was I was viewing everything through the finder of a little video camera. To get the detail I needed for our documentary, I had to zoom in and that in turn, made for pretty rough viewing. It was a little like viewing the deepest mysteries of the ages… through a toilet paper roll. While on a pogo stick.
Up front, the director, who was also a cameraman, was shooting with the big camera and giving the pilot directions. But the director was an old hand at aerial photography and was unfazed by the turbulence. I, on the other hand, was jammed into my little corner in the tail, head buzzing from the engine, bones rattling with the plane. I was definitely fazed.
Breakfast Of Champions
What with all the bouncing on the thermals rising from the desert, I suppose it was just a matter of time before my thoughts ping-ponged between the timeless artifacts below and that morning’s breakfast. I recalled helpings of fried pork, gorgeous Peruvian potatoes and more. Unfortunately, much more.
Looking down I tried to concentrate on one of the ancient drawings - a hummingbird, the size of Yankee Stadium. But all I saw were plates of tamales, cheese and eggs - giant breakfast platters, painted onto the desert below. I blinked. The feeling in my gut was unmistakable. Nevertheless, I knew I could hold on. It had taken us a bit of negotiating to get this plane. Now we were up here, we had to get our shots.
I wiggled my toes, searching for reserves of willpower to stifle the rising nausea. Sweating, I struggled to focus on the vast canvas below – the centerpiece of life for generations over a thousand years. Here was artistry, vision and timeless labor that birthed an immortal landscape. I burped and stopped shooting.
I was hanging on by my fingernails. Yet, the nausea made me focus more intently on the hundreds of ancient figures below. There they lay, waiting for the slow creep of time to pass. Just like me.
And so, 2,000 feet above the Peruvian desert I fought the ancient battle between the body and the spirit. Between the sacred and the profane. Between art and… breakfast.
The skeletal remains of headless bodies have been found on this Nazca plain. Anthropologists say the tribe decapitated their own in sacred rituals. I envied them. And would gladly sacrifice myself to end the tribal dance now playing in my stomach. I had to hold on, just a little while… but I could no longer feel my face.
Finally, we had all the shots we needed and the plane leveled off… we were heading back! With one final effort to tamp down the quease, I fixated on the Peruvian horizon… and imagined a nice, quiet burial ground. This helped. I thought I was gonna make it. Let’s land this lawnmower.
And then the director spoke up:
“You know, I’d just like to get a banking… maybe diving shot around the Monkey. Something dramatic!”
The pilot nodded and pulled us into a bank. I held onto a door handle as we dropped into a dive. Speeding toward the ground I now saw before me a Giant Spinning Monkey – a prehistoric cartoon, all hands and feet and hypnotic curly tail.
I leaned forward as the monkey filled our windshield. As we dove and spun closer, I could almost hear the monkey hoot at me.
“Ooh. Ooh. Aaagh!!”
“NO, MONKEY NO!”
The pilot tossed me an air sickness bag. It was clearly re-purposed because it smelled like it had previously held burgers and fries. And that’s all it took. All was lost.
The sacrifice was quick. Somewhere above this ancient plain the gods were appeased. So were the animals below. They had claimed yet another gringo. Splayed out back in the plane’s rear cubby, I gripped my burger bag with its after-breakfast contents.
I was wasted but relieved. I actually felt… good, even happy. I looked down at the many animals and figures below, finally enjoying their spectacle. I wished we could have stayed longer but the plane was now turning away from this ancient miracle.
We had gotten our shots. And I had given them my best shot. Goodbye sacred monkey.
If you enjoyed this post please 'like' or leave a comment below, and share with friends.