Short Story: Temple of the Sun
Author’s Note: Is this an essay or a short story? I still can’t tell. I wrote this piece BEFORE we went to Machu Picchu. The writing contest theme I entered was “Summer Solstice, June 20” and I thought I’d flip it around by writing about June 20, the WINTER solstice in Peru. I didn’t win. Though I changed a few things, like Jenn’s birthday being on the Summer/Winter solstice (her 40th birthday was actually 5 days before the true solstice) and though it was purely fiction at this point because I hadn’t been there yet, I tried to write it from a realistic standpoint. I went back to read it after our trip and was shocked that I wasn’t very far off. This is also why I insisted on going to the Temple of the Sun for sunrise that morning we visited. And why I kind of freaked out when Jenn started crying. Life imitating art and all that! I wrote this on June 6, 2011. We visited sunrise on June 15th. I took the picture below during the sunrise.
June 20, 2012 – just outside of Aguas Calientes
“Why are there so many people here? I’m in so much pain!!!” I whined.
Jenn pretended not to hear me. We climbed the final steps up to the terrace that over looked the Temple of the Sun. Both of my quadriceps and knees were crying out in pain. What the hell? I had not signed up for this.
Three days, two flights and one terrifying bus ride later, we had finally arrived at Machu Picchu. And now we were standing in a crowd three rows deep. I couldn’t see a thing.
“Seriously, why all of the people?”
“Quiet!” Jenn hissed at me, “Take it all in.”
Jenn rarely hisses at me, so I knew I was treading on thin ice. Scratch that, I was treading on thin rock. I figured I should keep my thoughts inside for a bit.
But let me just point out, this wasn’t MY trip. Jenn turned 40 at the stroke of midnight. The only thing she wanted for her 40th birthday was to be in Machu Picchu. I was the fool crazy enough to be talked into taking this trip. But that’s what sisters are for, right?
I just didn’t get the point. You stay in a crappy South American one-horse town. You get up at the middle of the night. You’re freezing, you stand at a bus stop and you feel like you would be mugged at any point. But the magical bus shows up and there’s hope. Then comes a hair raising bus ride where are any moment you are inches away from death as the crazy bus driver takes hair pin turns at about 70 mph. Its just light enough at this point to imagine your impending death as the bus topples over the side of the mountains. We were let off at the entrance, only to find out that you have to climb about a zillion steps to get where you need to be. I mean, where do you NEED to be in ancient ruins? It’s not like anything is happening.
Oof, someone pushed into me from behind. Really? I haven’t had coffee, I hate mornings, crowds and heights – this was my version of hell. Though, if I spoke one more word of complaint, Jenn might have killed me. I grunted loudly instead. It had the intended effect.
“It’s the winter solstice,” Jenn whispered to me, “We are watching the sunrise”.
“Hey, no it’s not. It’s June 20th. It’s the SUMMER solstice!” I whispered back triumphantly.
Jenn looked at me like I had three heads. The nearby swallows echoed greetings and salutations through the stone formations. The sound was deafening.
“We’re south of the equator, dummy, this is the WINTER solstice.”
“Ooooh,” I said slowly, “No wonder it’s so cold.” Lame answer, I know, but I was still wrapping my head around this. Jenn seemed like she was open to more questions.
“And everyone is standing here because…” I wanted Jenn to finish my sentence.
Exasperated, she turned to me. “Did you read the guide book I gave you, like, six months ago?”
“I didn’t want to ruin the surprise,” I said sarcastically. No, I didn’t read the guide book. I like to experience things naturally. That day, “naturally” was taking a slower course than normal.
Jenn granted me a moment of patience and gave me a full explanation. “It’s the winter solstice. We are standing at the Temple of the Sun. One day a year, during the solstice, the winter sun lights up that window over there and the sun falls on that ancient alter. It’s how the Incas knew to start their harvest.”
“Wait,” I exclaimed, “This happens only once a year? And it’s your birthday? And it’s your 40th birthday? This is amazing!”
“It’s not a coincidence,” Jenn replied knowingly, “I needed to come here.”
At this point, the sun had peaked over the Andes mountains. The front row moved away, letting us get one row closer to the wall overlooking the Temple of the Sun. Someone blew on a conch shell. Conch shell? Did they bring it here? There were many things I thought about bringing today, but a conch shell was not one of them. However, the sound was soothing and surprisingly mystical. I pulled out my camera.
“I can almost see,” I muttered. The excitement was rising up inside of me. I pointed to a small opening in the first row and tugged on Jenn’s shirt as a signal to follow me. We elbowed our way in, our bellies hitting the stone wall as our fellow crowd mates graciously made room for us. I looked down at my camera and set it up. It was a complicated camera that require a lot of tinkering. I put my eye on the shutter and lifted my camera up to view.
A big wind rose in my lungs. There it was in front of me, the majestic view of Machu Picchu. I tore the camera away from my eyes without taking a single picture. I needed to see all of this and take these pictures with my brain. I meant to say something to Jenn, but all of my words had left me. I needed to tell her how I felt. I was awestruck. No guide book in the world could prepare me for this view.
I tried to open my eyes wider so I could see more. It didn’t work. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jenn point to the Temple of the Sun. I followed her finger. Sure enough, the sun was streaming into the ancient window casting a bright yellow light onto the alter. I lifted the camera again and started taking pictures like my life depended on it. I could not snap the shutter quickly enough. I was possessed by the feeling of wanting to capture this moment. In the near distance, I heard more conch shell horns and screeching swallows.
Once the frenzy had passed, I lowered my camera and looked at the view again. I turned to Jenn and watched tears streaming down her face. I was surprised to find water dripping off of my cheeks as well. I needed to say something to cement this moment in our shared history. I silently got her attention and said the first thing that came to my mind.