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Lost Civilization

Friday, August 26

Lima (Miraflores)

7:50 in the morning


The Incas were an astonishing empire—the most astonishing empire you’ve sort of never heard of. You know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome?” You know it because in Europe in the Long Ago, the Romans were natural civic engineers. They built roads. A LOT of roads. They built them to last (a whole slew of them are still in existence, lurking under asphalt and road signs, because modern civil engineers couldn’t do any better). And they built them so they could move messengers along them—and armies if necessary—and goods to trade. The Roman empire was an empire because they built roads.


Well, the Incas lived in a VERY different landscape. Most of their territory was vertical—up and over the Andes (which are, geologically speaking, a very new chain of mountains, meaning time hasn’t worn them down to mild bumps on the horizon). The Andes are jagged and mighty and insanely vertical.


But the Inca brain…man, there’s some serious Next Level civil engineering going on in there. They built roads, too. The difference is that their roads were disguised as staircases. Really, REALLY long staircases. And on those staircases?


Runners. Messengers. Fleet-footed Stair Masters, in every sense of the words. If the ruler in Cuzco (11,000 feet up, let’s remember) wanted fish for dinner, he’d be served fresh fish. Because the runners could get a fish from the coast to his table before it even thought about going bad.


At the height of the Incan empire, the road system was TEN THOUSAND MILES LONG. Take that, ancient Rome! That’s long enough to stretch from St. Petersburg to Cairo. And they were truly only REALLY mighty for just short of a hundred years. That’s pretty good for only a century old!


I woke up this morning and found we were in a cloud. I’m in a steel and glass tower; this hotel is ultra posh and modern. I wandered to the window, scratching my belly, to see what I could see through the fog.


Taking up the majority of visible landscape is the Pacific. Flat, today, with regular waves rolling to shore. As they break, they leave white streaks on the water like occult calligraphy. What do they say? I no longer possess the literacy to read them.


Then the beach. Absolutely empty on this August morning. (It’s winter here in this hemisphere; this is like January to a northern hemisphere brain—although the winter is extremely mild here. Not even jacket weather.)


After the beach, the coastal highway, busy with the cars of people rushing off to work. Most of the highway is invisible to me from my aerie because next there’s a fifty-foot shelf of rock facing the beach. We cling to the tiny strip of “flat” land along the Peruvian coast, but even here in the flats, the Andes make their presence felt, and cars on that coastal highway have beach on one side and a wall of rock on the other. I noticed tsunami evacuation route signs on our way in last night; imagine being trapped on the beach with a ripper of a storm coming in. Shudder.


On top of this shelf of land I can see more evidence of civil engineering. There’s a strip of land across the street from the hotel, ending at the top of the cliff. Someone paved it, put in a parking garage and stores and multi-level plazas and then roofed the whole thing over, bringing it to “street level.” I put that in quotes because it seems very clear that there is no way to know what’s below the tarmac at the foot of this hotel. There was mention of a large casino in the basement, and now I’m thinking that the surface road below me is actually the casino’s roof (??). Serious civil engineering happening here in the monied environs of Miraflores.


From my window, I can see fountains on the plaza (now still, their reflections mirroring a row of impressive palm trees) and open air bars and a huge screen still endlessly flickering with—what? Ads? Music videos? Opportunities off-world? We’re in Fancy Blade Runner territory here. I can see dozens (like twenty or thirty) of landscapers in fluorescent yellow vests meticulously tidying this space. There’s a guy on a mini-Zamboni thing buffing the terraces in the misty rain, and a team with leaf blowers, and a scurrying ant colony of workers tending the flower beds (from way up here the plantings make beautiful patterns).


And there are joggers out for their morning exercise.


There they go, running along the coast. Running. Running. Running. MY GOD, the Inca are still here. The Spanish wiped out the dominant civilization in the 1500s, but they didn’t kill off the DNA that tamed a wilderness, nor the desire to stretch those thigh muscles and inhale to the bottom of those lungs and feel the wind in their faces.


I have no Inca DNA. I find no joy in running (or climbing stairs or civil engineering, for that matter). But I’m really pleased it’s all still here. Perhaps that civilization is not so lost after all.



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