Mark Adams drops in on Machu Picchu

Back when Al Franken was a comedian and not a U.S. senator, he did a bit on “Saturday Night Live” in which he would describe some major event and end by asking, “how does this affect me, Al Franken?”

Book cover for Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark AdamsThat is the stupid heart of the stunt memoir, those books in which the author undertakes a challenge outside his or her comfort zone, and then reports back on what it means to him. Such memoirs start with the assumption that the author is much more interesting than whatever they’re doing (usually false) and that just become something interesting happens to them makes them even more interesting (always false).

Thankfully, Mark Adams doesn’t participate in that nonsense. Although “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” starts with a similar elevator pitch ? “travel magazine copy editor gets out from behind his desk to explore Incan ruins in Peru” ? he comes back with a book that looks more outward than inward. Like a “Seinfeld” episode, there’s no learning and no hugging.

Adams uses three narrative threads to weave his story, starting with the Incans and their fatal encounters with the Spanish invaders during the 1500s. It’s not a pretty story, starting with the most commonly known story of Francisco Pizarro and Atahualpa, in which the Incan emperor promised a room full of gold in return for his freedom, an offer which Pizarro accepted and then reneged on by having Atahualpa strangled

Over the next three decades, subsequent Incan ruler moved between building new capitals in the jungle and raiding the Spanish. The Spanish responded with raids and various atrocities until, in 1572, they declared all-out war on the rebel Incan state. The empire dissolved when its last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed.

(In one of those cross-cultural oddities that I find fascinating, his son, Tupac Amaru II, also led a failed revolt and was executed as well. Nearly 200 years later, he inspired Black Panther member Aferni Shakur, to name her future-rapper son after him.)

The book’s second thread involves Hiram Bingham III, the product of two generations of missionaries. His grandfather converted the natives in Hawaii and his father the natives on Gilbert Islands, and Hiram III was bound for the same destiny. But after matriculating at Yale and marrying into the wealthy and connected Tiffany family, he became a university professor and turned his attention instead to exploring.

Guided by a desire to travel and leave his mark like his namesakes, he journeyed across Venezuela and Colombia, traveling nearly a thousand miles in 115 days. On a subsequent trip to Peru, Bingham saw the Incan ruins and heard tales off hidden cities where their treasure was moved to keep them out of Pizarro’s hands. Between 1911 and 1915, he led three expeditions, finding not only Machu Picchu, but other major Incan sites as well. With the help of National Geographic, which helped shape and promote Bingham’s story, he became a celebrity, and later a U.S. senator and governor.

The third string is Adams’ adventures. Unlike the Spaniards and Bingham, he was motivated less by finding gold or lost cities but simply the desire to go out and do something. Married to a Peruvian woman he met in New York, he jokes that he’d probably set a record for the number of times visiting Peru without seeing Machu Picchu. With the help of an Australian guide (who looked a lot like Bingham), Adams follows in Bingham’s footsteps, pausing in his narrative to describe his encounters with Peruvian mule wranglers, archeologists and the raw beauty of the landscape, where the Incan-built trails are still used, including one memorable stretch described by Bingham as “a veritable American Switzerland.”

“Turn Right” also takes the time to explore the volatile issues surrounding Machu Picchu. A Peruvian family claims to own the site outright. Peru and Yale University have been wrangling over the fate of the thousands of artifacts Bingham had smuggled out of the country (some with the intervention of President Taft). There’s also questions about the city’s purpose, whether it was a hideout in the jungle, a religious site, or the emperor’s royal estate.

There’s also the question of what constitutes a discovery. Bingham’s reputation has fallen in the years since his death as his theory that Machu Picchu was the birthplace of Incan civilization has been discredited. Plus, how can someone be given credit as the discoverer when the locals knew where Machu Picchu was all along? Bingham had arrived to find several families living at the site, a fact which disappears from his books. There’s even the possibility a prospector had gotten there years before Bingham and had looted the site.

These questions Adams dives into with an admirable thoroughness and conciseness. He’s a genial traveling companion, capable of taking his time and willing to explore interesting side issues.

At the end of the book, he ties up his threads by joining New Age shamans and other spiritual travelers Machu Picchu for the summer solstice. As the dawn breaks to illuminate another of the city’s mysteries — how and why the Peruvians built and aligned the site so accurately — you’ll leave with a greater understanding of Peruvians, Incans, explorers, spiritualists, and maybe even middle-aged martini explorer turned traveler. And without a hug in sight.

(To publicize the book, Mark Adams wrote about visiting Machu Picchu recently in The New York Times.