• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

No matter whom we wind up with as president come next Wednesday
morning, we’d like as not go for a real change of pace. One of the
easier and less damaging mind-altering experiences you can find is
picking up Karin Muller’s “Along the Inca Road,” and plunge into some
first-rate vicarious experiences.

Swiss-born Ms. Muller is a young woman who passionately quests after
adventure, to a positively masochistic degree. Awarded a grant by the
National Geographic Society — yes, they’re the folks who’ve been
publishing the magazine since 1888 — she was set to follow the
extraordinary Royal Highway built by the Incas.

Setting out from the Ecuador border, she traveled some 3,125 miles
down to Santiago, Chile traversing the Andes, Peru and Bolivia by about
every means of transport imaginable, following the remains of the royal
road. You name it, she experienced it. Foot, horse, mule, motorbike,
truck, bus, reed boat, train — none of them remotely comfortable to say
the least.

She did her share of hitchhiking, sleeping many a night on
bug-infested mattresses. Eating was always an adventure in itself –
guinea pigs, worm-riddled potatoes and swigging cassava fermented with
human saliva, whose preparation she witnessed uneasily before partaking.

The National Geographic Society gave her a cameraman, who did not
appear to share in her delight for some of the more hair-raising
experiences they underwent. His preferring to go surfing, rather than
wanting to trudge through jungles or camp out all night in Inca ruins
left her perplexed.

How the cameraman felt about it all is best summed up when, scheduled
to fly back to the States, she asks him to wake her in the morning so
she can say good-bye, “but when the early sunlight fell across my bed, I
got up to see that he was already gone.”

Whatever befell her, however, she greets with high enthusiasm, even
if it involved some considerable downright discomfort and often drew
hoots of laughter from Indian bystanders. She was game to try
absolutely anything and everything from taking part in a roundup of
1,600 rare vicunas to lugging a 200-pound pig on her back in a religious
procession.

Her encounters with shaman did have its limits though. When taking
part in a ritual where the shaman poured thick tobacco juice into a
small cup and called on participants to inhale it, first up one nostril,
then the other, she discreetly balked, pouring the noxious brew on the
ground behind her.

Each chapter opens with a phrase taken from her field notes. Some of
them do make you gulp, propelling you rapidly forward to find out just
what on earth was going on. As, for instance, the heading to Chapter
2: “To The Northernmost Reaches of the Empire,” which is followed by
field notes: “The doctor sat me down and whacked me on the head with a
guinea pig until the poor thing died, then tore it open to figure out
what diseases I had.” You see what I mean about her being game?

Enough of the grungier, if highly colorful, aspects of her seven
months on the road. Where she merits — nay, downright grabs — your
interest is in her splendidly evocative passages telling of the Inca
Empire, the coming of the Spaniards, the astounding battles where a
handful of white men mounted on horses (unknown in the New World)
defeated thousands of Inca warriors. She has a genuine gift for making
history live.

Curiously, although she encounters a Bolivian army drug patrol — and
talks a young lieutenant into letting her accompany them on a raid of a
cocaine lab buried deep in the jungle — she seems almost oblivious of
all the politics roiling around in most of the countries she passed
through. The guerrilla movement of the late Che Guevara through much of
the same territory she covers is never mentioned, for instance. She is
sympathetic to the lot of the peasants she meets but seems to regard
them as still carrying out the heritage of their long-gone ancestors
without any particular concern with how they are being treated by their
respective governments today.

But since the magic of history is what clearly grips her spirit and
is what she communicates so well to you, the reader, you really don’t
mind. Go “Along on the Inca Road.” It’s a trip you might even be
tempted to take one day yourself, provided you’re a mite less
enthusiastic about experiencing every last possible adventure to the
fullest.

This book is the fifth in a new publishing venture of the National
Geographic Society. You might like to do some adventuring yourself at
the society’s

website.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.