Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey into an Ancient Empire
by Karin Muller (Philippines 198789)
Adventure Press: National Geographic Society, $26.00
Reviewed by Ted Hall (Peru 196668)
I PICKED UP THIS BOOK with an unusual amount of expectation and anticipation. I was a PCV in Peru and familiar with the rich history of The Inca Road and its prominent role in the development of the Inca Empire. The Road was actually a network that stretched over 3,000 miles up and down the west coast of South America. It fostered both communications and transportation throughout the Empire. It was the central nervous system of a glorious indigenous civilization. For the Spanish Conquistadors it was an engineering marvel. It led the invaders from the coast through the otherwise impassable terrain of the Andes where laid the heart of the Inca Empire. The Road first gave life then brought death to the Empire.
The author of Along the Inca Road: A Womans Journey into an Ancient Empire, Karin Muller, received a grant from National Geographic Society to write the book, and in applying for the grant, she said she would write about life today along the Inca Road. But I had hoped her story would also be interspersed with ancient tales from the rich history of this unique piece of geography, and was disappointed when it wasnt.
Mullers fundamental problem, however, in addressing her subject is that only small portions of the Inca Road actually exist today. Over time, the road has been destroyed by deliberate act and natural erosion. For the most part, traveling the Inca Road today is not hiking over ancient trails and bridges but touring towns and villages and ruins where once the road ran. And all of these these locations are reachable by modern road and convenient types of transportation.
The author handled the lack of a non-existent road by doing detours. Instead of reporting on The Road or its amazing history, she mostly reports on incidents and people that she encountered at the various sites she visited. Many of her reports read like descriptions of sideshows at a circus. When adventure does not visit her, she attempts to create it.
She starts her journey by hiring a curandero (witch healer) to administer a cure for a non-existent illness. She coaxes a farmer to allow her to plow a furrow in a field by using the ancient method of buffalo and plow. She convinces an officer in the Ecuadorian army to allow her a days training with his troops and a visit to the site of land mines planted in the 1995 military engagement between Ecuador and Peru. The Bolivian military is pressed to allow her to accompany their special forces on a drug patrol.
I found little depth in the authors writing. As I was reading her observations at a cockfight, I recalled the great bullfight scenes that Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence painted in their novels. Hemingway loved the sport; Lawrence despised it. Ms. Muller gives us an adequate visual picture of the cockfight, but not a clue as to how she experienced it.
For me, the most troubling aspect of Ms. Mullers writing is that she does not demonstrate the insights of people and situations that I expect from a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. For example, in the midst of her description of a visit to a house of prostitution, she reveals that she had worked with prostitutes when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Here her writing should have shone. Her Peace Corps experience and her tour of The Inca Road were crossing. She certainly had something significant to tell about these indigent women who ply the worlds oldest profession. Again, I was disappointed. Reading her descriptions of the women was as superficial as the five-minute acts of sex in which they engage.
At times the author gets on track with the apparent theme of her book and discusses some of the important historical events that surround The Inca Road. The Spanish ransom then murder of the Inca king, the subsequent revolt by Inca nobles at Cuzco, and the discovery of the ruins at Machu Picchu are buried within the pages of this book. However, I found this book to be neither a serious study of Inca history, nor of contemporary Andean society. This is a book written by a tourist whose mission it was to write a book. I closed the book having learned little about The Inca Road or the people that now inhabit its environs. What I read was largely a travelogue filled with anecdotes of self inflicted adventure.
Ted Hall is Vice President of the Southern Nevada Peace Corps Association. He is a published author of legal and accounting texts, and is working on his first novel from his Peace Corps memoirs.