The Highway to Machu Picchu

This May I will visit Machu Picchu with Jessica, my wife, and Libby, our friend from Des Moines. I’m currently in Des Moines, attending interviews of some would-be new web developers at my company, which is putting me up in a hotel for a few days. It’s an odd experience, both because I’m living like a tourist in a city that still feels like home, and also because I’m living like a businessperson, which I don’t feel like at all.

For example, this afternoon I was sitting in the hotel room, which my company paid for, eating leftovers from last night’s dinner, which my company will also pay for. I feel like I should instead be going out for lunch, since my company is paying for meals anyway, maybe take out some other businessperson and explain to them the synergy of our new product or something. But I was happy eating my cold Pad Thai and watching the end of a show on the History channel about Machu Picchu.

In that show I learned something that you might have learned if you followed the previous link to Wikipedia’s article on Machu Picchu: that Peru is suing Yale University over some bones taken from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham. In 1911, Bingham rediscovered the Incan city of Macchu Picchu, which had been abandoned since the 1500s, when the Spanish conquered the Incan empire, after first dividing it. The Incan government did not have clear lines of succession, and the Spanish took advantage of this by promoting a competition of authority within the government, which ended up destroying the empire. History repeats itself.

So then everyone left Machu Picchu, and it was empty when Hiram Bingham started digging up bones. He brought the bones back to Yale, where they remain today. Then he went on to become Governor of Connecticut, then US Senator. Interesting footnote: he was only governor for one day before he became Senator. In 1929, Bingham was censured by the Senate on corruption charges involving lobbyists. History repeats itself.

Hiram Bingham was a Republican, and was pushed from office in 1932 when Democrats won in a nationwide landslide following the Great Depression. Bingham’s father and namesake was a missionary to Hawaii, as was his grandfather. Interesting footnote: his grandfather was also pastor of an African American church in Connecticut. One of his sons was a Democratic congressman, while his namesake son helped Jews escape the Holocaust in France to the US, despite official US policies intended to limit such immigration. US Secretary of State Colin Powell later praised Hiram Bingham, the 4th, for his “constructive dissent.” History repeats itself.

Getting back to Machu Picchu, I found one line from the BBC’s report on the lawsuit from Peru particularly interesting: But Yale says it followed standard collecting practices at the time, and that it has made a reasonable offer to return some of the artefacts. That phrase, a reasonable offer, was recently used by the White House to explain why members of the American government will not be testifying under oath about their actions. History repeats itself.

President Bush, you may recall, is a graduate of Yale, so perhaps that’s where he developed the impression that an offer in clear violation of established rules is "a reasonable offer." Unlike the Incans, there is little ambiguity about authorites in the American government. And there is apparently little ambiguity over who owns the Machu Picchu bones at Yale. Hiram Bingham the third, the one who took the bones, wrote Now they [the bones] do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in eighteen months. That was ninety five years ago.

I suspect riding up the Hiram Bingham Highway to Machu Picchu will be just as odd an experience as this week in Des Moines, or most of my travels for that matter. Another place I don’t really belong, playing another role I don’t really understand. I guess that’s what makes this life interesting.

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