Machu Picchu: The Engineering of a Civilization

To this day it still amazes me how the empires of yonder past accomplished jaw-dropping feats that we can only hope to achieve with the help of modern technology. They moved mountains and erected monumental structures that have withstood the test of time, despite their civilizations having faded into obscurity. 

The Incan Empire is no different. There were signs and remains of their ingenuity dispersed all throughout Machu Picchu, and Freddy, our guide, took the time to point these subtle clues out to our group. 

Our first stop was at a water bath. Baths are something that were abundantly found along the Inca Trail as all visitors, including the emperor, were expected to arrive at the sanctuary pure of soul and mind. Ritual cleansing of the body was very common; the upper class would us the higher levels of the baths and, as ranking decreased, the lower class would use tiers of the baths that were at a lower level (basically they washed in the water run-off). 

The bath had a carved channel with grooves  to divert and control the flow of water to the lower baths. Additionally, the edges of the stone had a sloped incline that served as a weir to reduce the rate of flow to the lower levels, allowing each individual in a bath module to enjoy a sufficient amount of water depth before it moved on to the next person. 

We then sat inside one of the four temples on-site. The stonework was so incredibly intricate! In the beginning of our hike we were told that stones pieced together with mortal were always essential buildings such as houses or forts, whereas stones puzzle-constructed with no invisible joints were generally palaces or temples.

It was sad, however, to see that the temple was starting to crumble at its edges. The white lines you see were drawn by archaeologists in order to document the rate of decline of certain at-risk structures in the sanctuary. 

We were told that when UNESCO first certified the complex, they recommended limiting the number of visitors to nor more than 1,000 at a time. However, the Peruvian president, in his greed, set the actual limit at 4,000, 4X the recommended limit! As a result, since Machu Picchu was never originally designed for this amount of human loading, parts of the citadel are starting to sink at a rate of about 2 cm per year. To combat this, timed-entry tickets were introduced this year in July, with only two visits allowed per ticket between the hours of 6-12 and 12-5:30. 

The Incans would cut each stone with precision. They would carve a nook into each large stone and hammer a piece of wood into the opening. Water would then be poured in to saturate the wood, which would expand upon freezing introducing stresses into the adjacent stone gradually forcing the segments apart. See the full split of the rock just right of the fern? We could see clear through it.

The stones were moved into place with a combination of rollers and handles chipped into the face of the rock. The handles would then be left in place, or sheared off after the piece reached its final position. 

You may recall the solar eclipse that crossed the entire continental US on August 21; solar eclipse sunglasses were flying off the shelves!

Since it was so important to their survival, and the agricultural season, the Incans very meticulously tracked the sun. Knowing that they could not look directly at it, they designed “reflecting bowls,” so that they could monitor the sun’s position in the sky without fear of harming their eyes. 

They also needed to be aware of geographical locations and the appearance / disappearance of certain constellations in the sky (in order to track the wet and dry seasons). 

To accomplish this, they carved a kite-shaped rock with the tip of it pointed toward true North. Many visitors, including our group, couldn’t help but use our smartphone compasses to test the accuracy of the stone.

 Compass North and Kite-North were 100% consistent!

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Maras: Salt Terraces and Agricultural Science

Today, Tom and I headed out on a half-day tour around the town of Maras located in the Sacred Valley. Maras is 40 Km (25 Miles) north of Cusco and it took roughly 1-hr to get there since we had to weave through cobblestone streets to first work our way out of central Cusco. 

Our first stop was the Salinas de Maras, salt evaporation ponds that have been used since pre-Incan times. An underground stream with an extremely high salt content emerges as a small spring whose flow is directed through a series of tiny channels. This intricate membrane of channels allows the water to gradually fill hundreds of ancient terraces whose maximum depth rarely exceeds 10 cm (4 in). 

The sun gradually warms each pond resulting in evaporation that supersaturates the water and allows the salt to precipitate forming crystals of various sizes. Our guide told us that harvesting takes place about once every 30 days and produces about $30 USD of supplemental income for the local family that owns it. 

 

A cooperative that was established during the time of the Incas, and remains in place to this day, allows local residents and pond workers to properly maintain the feeder channels, control the rate of water-entry, and systematically remove the salt deposits, among other things.

Our second, and last, stop of the tour was to the Maras Moray, round circular depressions located on a high plateau at 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) located just west of Maras. The archeological site had three terraces in total, with the largest and deepest one being 30 meters (98 ft deep). The series of depressions in conjunction with their depth, design, and orientation relative to the sun and wind seem to indicate that this area was a testing ground for agricultural crops. Temperature variances of up to 15 C (27 F) have been recorded between the top and the bottom, resulting in a a wide range of climactic differences.

Our guide mentioned that it is at sites such as these that the Incans genetically engineered new types of corn and potatoes resulting in the large diversity of local crops that modern Peru maintains to this day; there are now over 55 varieties of corn and 4,000 varieties of potato that can be found in Peru!

Tom looking old-school cool while waiting for me to take pictures.

We then headed back to Cusco arriving around 1:30 PM, and relaxed for the rest of the day before rendezvousing with SAS Travel and our fellow Inca Trail Trekkers for our 7:00 PM pre-trek meeting.  

Copenhagen: A Perplexing Start

 

Tom had a perplexing start to his day. While we were waiting for our lattes at a table, we noticed a giant Rubik’s Cube right next to us. Obviously, being the engineers we are, we started solving it piece by piece. Ironically, neither one of us could remember how to solve the last layer, so we had to leave it behind with only 2 out of 3 of the rows solved. I also learned that my boyfriend is a nerd; Apparently he attended Rubik’s Cube club meetings while he was in college. 

 Our first stop was the National Museum of Denmark. Housed in the Prince’s Mansion, one of the earliest Roccoco buildings in Copenhagen, the National Museum has the largest collection of Danish cultural history in all of Denmark. Its  exhibition covers 14,000 years from prehistoric times to present-day lives. It would have been easy to spend our entire day there, but Tom and I had a lot more to see (not to mention, we’ve pretty much had our fill of museums for this trip). My favorite part was their collection of dollhouses, I always wanted one as a little girl. The scaling of each piece of furniture and the detail associated with it has always fascinated me. Tom couldn’t share my enthusiasm, because well, I’m pretty certain that he has never been a little girl. 😀

 We grabbed some Smørrebrød for lunch, a traditional open-faced sandwich of meat, fish, cheese, or spread, on a buttered piece of rye bread, before heading over to the Parliament building. Officially, the building is called Christiansborg Palace,  a metonym meaning, “Castle of the Realm.” It is the only one in the world the houses all three branches of the government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers. We took two elevators to the top of the tower, the tallest tower in Copenhagen, and were greeted with some scenic views of the city.
 After returning to ground level, we took a closer look at the Børsen, the old stock exchange. We passed by it yesterday during the walking tour, but I wanted a closer look at its spire. Built by Christian IV between 1619-1614, the building is known for its  the Dragon Spire which consists of four dragon tails wounded together reaching a height of 56 meters. I really admire the expressive artistry that older buildings have. It’s a tradition that has been lost and overtaken by a desire for modern, sleek shapes. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to build elaborately carved or scuplted details into structures these days since I’m sure the cost would be astronomical.

 We stopped by a few historical churches and then took a stroll along Nyhavn. Nyhavn is a man-made port dug between 1670 to 1673 by Swedish prisoners of the Dano-Swedish War. It was constructed by Christian V and served as a gateway from the sea to the old inner city, Kongens Nytorv the “King’s Square.” The harbor area was notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution. On our walk yesterday, Benjamin mentioned that the first tattoo parlor in the city was opened here, and the artist had a two sided machine. Back in those days it was common for sailors to put their names on their lady-friends, but it was also bad business for the woman. So if the woman handed the artist a few extra bucks, a wink, the tattoo artist would us the semi-permanent needle on his machine, allowing the name to wash away a few days later rather than being permanent. The famous fairytale author, Hans Christian Anderson also lived along this street for 18 years. 

 Our last stop today was to the Rundetaarn, or “Round Tower.” Originally built by Christian IV in the 17th century, the cylindrical tower is made of masonry with alternating yellow and red bricks, the colors of the Oldenburgs. It also has has an equestrian ramp rather than a staircase; this design was chosen to allow a horse and carriage to reach the library and for heavy and sensitive equipment to be transported to the astronomical observatory on top. Tom and I walked up the 7.5 turn helical corridor, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Are we there yet?”

Stockholm: Ticking Hands of Time

 We woke up first thing this morning and grabbed breakfast to-go during our walk to City Hall. Stockholm City Hall is the center of governance for the municipality, and also the location of the Nobel Prize banquet every year on December 10th. You may recall my previous post from Oslo concerning the Peace Prize. However, it is the only Nobel Prize that is presented in Oslo rather than in Stockholm. This is because Alfred Nobel specifically wrote this request into his will. Originally there were only 5 awards, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace to award individuals who had made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of humanity. The Economics award was added by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968.

Interestingly enough, City Hall is not an old building. It’s celebrating only its 93rd birthday this year. Designed by the architect After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact Ragner Östberg in 1923, he desired for the building’s structure and facade to look old without actually being old. Ragnar drew inspiration for the interior rooms from a variety of historical eras, but also made major design changes as the building progressed and his whims of fancy changed. 

 

The Blue Room (although not actually blue) recalls the elegance of a wide open Italian piazza, an assembly space for various events and banquets. Knowing that patrons would be making their entrance via the grand staircase, Ragnar included a star on the far-opposite wall. It is said that if a person focuses on that star as they descend, they will maintain proper posture while all eyes are focused on them; and so far, no Nobel Prize winner has ever tripped or fallen as they enter a banquet in their honor. 

 The Gold Room is opulently decorated in colorful gold mosaic, bringing to mind the glitz and glamour of the Byzantine Empire. The artist and his assistants only had two years to complete the room’s walls prior to a certain event that had to take place on a specific date for historical reasons. As a result, some mistakes were made with no time to correct them. The depicted castle is missing one of the three crowns (this was supposed to depict Tre Kronos, the Castle of Three Crowns), and the king riding the horse is without a head due to scaling errors (although it is historically accurate since the king was eventually beheaded). 

After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact (98% original) 17th century ship to ever be recovered. The ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Aldophus in due part because of a military expansion campaign he initiated with Poland-Lithuania and his desire to enter the Thirty Years War. At the time, Sweden’s political and military power was an afterthought and neighboring nations barely acknowledged its presence. Gustavus is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. He was progressive in his governance, innovative in his military weaponry, raised Sweden to be a Great Power.

 The Vasa would have been the first double-decker war ship of the time, and one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. She was constructed under contract by private Dutch entrepreneurs between 1626 and 1627. The ship was richly decorated in symbolic carvings illustrating his ambition for Sweden. However, due to severe time constraints, and a lack of expertise (as no one in the country had ever built a double-decker), the Vasa’s final design proved too unstable and top-heavy. 

 On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, she was only 1300 meters out of port when a wind caused her to keel and ultimately sink. Fortunately for us, the ship-channel she sank in has a low salt content. This allowed her to lay relatively undisturbed and remarkably well-preserved for over 300 years. The Vasa did not sail again until her hull was lifted from the harbor floor in 1961.

 

I was personally astounded by the size of the ship. She is the first thing you see when you enter the museum, and she simply dominates the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of her intricate carvings and exquisite detail.

Our take-away from the day is that time is a double-edged sword. For some, time is a luxury, while for others, time is a looming specter. In both the cases of the Gold Room and the Vasa, had the designers had sufficient time to complete the tasks at hand, we believe that the inherent flaws could have been avoided. 

 Speaking of time, Tom and I spent the rest of our afternoon enjoy the Swedish tradition of Fika. Fika is equivalent to the British Tradition of tea-time, where people take a break from their day to savor some coffee and sweets. We went to Vette-Kaffen a traditional Fika institution. It was both tasty and relaxing. 🙂

Stockholm: Voulez Vous La Musique

Anyone born in the in the 50s, or the child of parents born in this period are familiar with the band ABBA. To date, they are the most successful pop band to emerge from Sweden, and have been only second in success to the Beatles. Furthermore, they are the only band from a non-English speaking country to ever top the charts of English-speaking countries.   

 I remember fondly the songs I listened to with my mother as a child, popular hits such as the “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” and “S.O.S.” would regularly feature on our car rides. Therefore, how could we not take some time to visit the ABBA Museum while we were in Stockholm?

 The museum documents how Agnetha, Björn, Benni, and Anni-Frid found their musical starts. It then demonstrates their creative process and the transpiring events that served as their inspiration. Memorabilia, outfits, and props are proudly on display while imaginative use of technology allows you to do anything from record a vocal track, dance in a music video, or take the stage as their fifth member alongside their holograms. 

 Tom and I tried the first two with mixed results. It turns out (although I’ve always known this), that I am beyond tone-deaf. Once I bowed out of trying to sing Dancing Queen, Tom’s solo vocals gained a much better score. It was abundantly clear that my inability to carry a pitch was bringing the team down. :(. We also tried to dance in a music-video but couldn’t manage to stop laughing. The hologrammed stage would have been interesting, but there was a line, and the performance would have been public to any passerbys. Stage-fright, a lack of dance moves, and not being a fan-girl were sufficient enough reason to hold back.

  
We then headed to the highest point in Stockholm to enjoy a breather and take in a scenic view of the city before heading back to the hostel for a break.

 After a brief repose, we grabbed dinner at an Irish Pub nearby before heading on an adventurous walking tour of our own. There are some well-documented odd, secret, and hidden items to be found around Gamla Stan, so Tom and I went on a hunt calling it our own Ghost Walk (quite a few of them were particularly morbid). We visited Hell, commemorated the Stockholm Bloodbath, and admired a Bartizan.

 One of my favorite stops was the statue, “Boy Looking at the Moon.” Arguably the smallest public sculpture in Sweden, it was sculpted by Liss Eriksson in 1954 and retells the memory of his childhood when he would sit on his bed and stare at the moon through his window on sleepless nights. It is made of sandstone and wrought iron. Superstition says that he will bring good luck to anyone that rubs his head. He was wearing a cute knit hat and scarf when we visited him, a gift that Stockholmers like to provide him with during the winter, so we merely patted him on his head. 

Oslo: The Norwegian Spirit of Adventure

Norway not only has a rich maritime heritage, but its citizens have also consistently demonstrateda thirst and tenacity for adventure. We visited museums dedicated to two of such explorations, and the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Fram Museum.

 An explorer named Thor Heyerdal developed a theory that Polynesia was settled by inhabitants from South America. According to an Incan legend, there was a sun-god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the leader of a mythical fair-skin tribe from Peru. His people were nearly massacred during battle on an island in Lake Titicaca when Chief Cari from the Coquimbo Valley came to call. Con-Tici managed to escape with some close companions and disappeared westward out to sea.

In an effort to prove this myth, and demonstrate the plausibility that Polynesians and Peruvians exhibited common traits (such that they shared fair skin coloring generations ago), Thor and five other companions set out on an expedition. The raft was made out of balsa logs and other native materials in the traditional indigenous style documented by the Spanish Conquistadors. After being towed out to sea on April 28, 1947 and being left to the mercy of the wind and currents, they traveled a distance of 4,300 miles in 101 days across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef in Raroia in the Tuamoto Islands on August 7, 1947. Against all odds, and defying expert options that each crew member was facing ultimate death, successful landfall was achieved.  

It’s hard for me to imagine how brave and courageous these men had to be. Not only did anthropologists dismiss Thor’s theories as impossible, but each member had to withstand the pressure and burden of knowing that everyone thought they would perish. 

Another historical vessel we had the wonderful opportunity to board and explore was the Fram Polar Ship. The captain, Fridtjof Nansen’s ambition was to explore the Artic further north than anyone else. From the beginning, he planned the for wooden ship to freeze in a polar ice sheet and float with it over the Noth Pole.

 In order to accomplish this, several creative and technologically advance design changes were made to what would have otherwise been a traditional wooden ship. The hull was built unusually wide and atypically shallow. This allowed do the force of the pressing ice to push the ship up to “float” on top of it rather than being crushed by it. 

Credit: Tom

Additionally, the ship had almost no keel to handle shallow waters, while the rudder and propeller were designed to be retracted. The outer layer of greenheart wood provided for a strong hull, and careful insulation decisions were made so that the crew could live on board for a maximum time of five years. The inclusion of a windmill allowed the ship to generate its own electricity. 

The Fram Polar ship was in service from 1893 to 1912, and is said to have sailed further north and further south than any other wooden ship. 

Travel: Ancient India

Today, Nick and I learned the true meaning of IST ‘Indian Standard Time.’ We went to Vodaphone with the intent of acquiring pre-paid SIM cards. Needless to say, 2.5 hours later, we finally had our SIM cards, however, neither of us have managed to get service.

imagePart of the challenge was that regulations for foreigners to acquire SIM cards are much more stringent than it has been previously due to the 2008 Mumbai Attacks – 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting over four days by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

With our errands over for the day, we were finally able to explore part of Delhi’s ancient past. Delhi has been home to a total of seven previous dynasties, and as a result, retains unique heritage structures that illustrate the diverse differences between each kingdom.

 

As we cut our way through the bazaar of Connaught Place, one of the largest commercial, financial, and business centers of New Delhi, we went from the Inner Circle, Rajiv Chowk, to the outer ring, Indira Chowk.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Nick managed adopt a little girl along the way. We were both confused and laughing at the time, because we simply did not know how to react. Truthfully, it was heartbreaking. She couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, and she just latched onto the corner of Nick’s polo, and followed us for a few blocks.

 

It was at this moment that I understood why some are proponents of Child Labor. While it may seem like a travesty against human rights, it does provide a means for children in developing countries to earn an income, and provide essentials for their survival. It’s a sad reality, but a necessary truth.

Outside the Rajiv Chowk, lies the Jantar Mantar complex. Built in 1724, it comprises 13 astronomical instruments. This site is one of five built by the Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, after he was given the task of revising the calendar and astronomical tables by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah.

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The Mughal Empire lasted for over 300 years, and spans the timeline from 1526-1857. Babur, the founder, had turned to India to satisfy his political ambitions after being ousted from his ancestral domain in Central Asia.

 

The towering instrument that greets us as enter the grounds is the Samrat Yantra, a giant triangle that is essentially a massive sundial. The 128-ft long hypotenuse is parallel to the Earth’s axis and points toward the North Pole. Each side has a quadrant, with graduations that indicate hours, minutes, and seconds, turning the basic instrument, into a precision tool.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

We next came across the Jayaprakesh Yantra; A hollowed out hemisphere with cross-wires stretching out between points of the rim. An observer at the center, could align the position of a star with the various ribs.

 

 

Then, we came across the Misra Yantra, a tool used to determine the shortest and longest days of the year in addition to the exact moment of noon in cities and locations worldwide, regardless of geographical distance from Delhi.

imageDescending even deeper into time, the Qutab Minar is the 2nd tallest Minaret in the world at a total height of 73 meters. It is made of red sandstone and marble, and has a diameter gradient that begins at 14.3 meteers at its base before narrowing to 2.7 meters at its peak. This sprawling tower has five layers, and despite construction beginning in 1192, was not complete until 1368.

You will often see minarets as an iconic feature of muslim mosques. It is from these spires that Adhans, the call to prayer, are issued five times each day.

imageIf you look closer, you can see the islamic influence in the shape of the Muqarnas that encircle each tier of the tower. Remniscient of stalactites, they take the form of small pointed niches stacked in radially symmetric tiers that project outward. The number of unique tiles is limited by N-gonal symmetry, or the equation N = N/2 -1.

imageWe then stopped by the Dilli Haat, a market that hosts unique handicrafts from each of India’s 29 states, and snacked on some Momo’s, which are essentially dumplings. This makes sense, given that this ethnic food is from north-eastern India near the Chinese border.

 

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