9780792277279 / 0792277279

Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey into an Ancient Empire (Adventure Press)


Publisher:National Geographic



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About the book:

What's an American woman doing shaking a pink cape at a bull on a hillside in Peru? Ask Karin Muller, a self-described vagabond who is game for anything, especially if it's a traditionally male task in strictly sex role-divided South America. After years of contemplating the thin red line of the Inca Road on her map of the world, Muller takes off with a grant from the National Geographic Society (which also supplied a cameraman) for a six-month jaunt through Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Chile. Along the way, she searches for remnants of the ancient stone-paved road and jumps headfirst into whatever adventure she can find. First stop, a cuy doctor whacks her on the back and head with a whimpering guinea pig, then offers her a diagnosis based on the quality of the animal's intestines. She's tear-gassed in an indigenous antigovernment protest, and dresses in an orange cloak, gold sparkles, and black face paint (a concoction made of tar and animal fat) to pull a 200-pound roast pig during the Festival of Mama Negra. In a surreal moment, she witnesses the mysterious crash of a Brazilian military helicopter in the Andean highlands, and in a horrific one, crawls through a mole-like tunnel deep into a mountainside where men spend years digging for gold, leaving only to eat, wash, and haul their ore 423 steps to a giant crushing machine. She even watches a military crew clear live mines planted by Peruvians during the Ecuador-Peruvian border war.

Throughout her adventures, Muller weaves a lively history of the rise and fall of the Incan empire. While the old road is hard to find, the Incan legacy is everywhere, from curanderismo (shamanism) to roundups of golden-fleeced vicunas by villagers spread in human chains to the farming of coca leaves. Her explication of the coca tradition is particularly interesting: the "quintessential Andean sacrament" and the ultimate marker of indigenous identity, chewing coca leaves is akin to sharing a cup of coffee. Of course, she also joins a Bolivian special forces drug patrol in the Amazon to see the more familiar face of cocaine. While Muller doesn't slow down long enough for introspection or much genuine human connection (and you have to occasionally wonder about her cultural sensitivity), she does have a remarkable knack for putting herself in the middle of events, and an unflagging enthusiasm for taking risks most tourists wouldn't dream of. --Lesley Reed

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