Lima - The dramamine was not needed, although it was easy to find some in Lima's multitude of boticas. For some mysterious reason, Lima has at least one drug store on every block. Planning to see the Nazca lines, I'd heard tales of turning green on tour planes looping in search of the perfect desert floor view. Such stories disturb those who have a history of nausea on merry-go-round horses.
One of the strangest archaeological landscapes in the world, the Nazca lines have meaning, but no one can agree on what it might be. Some see a huge astronomical notebook written by sandy stargazers. Others see tribal logos staking out the prehistoric desert real estate. Still others imagine magic jogging tracks for running messages to a higher mystical zone. One theory describes the lines as giant knitting diagrams to remind everyone how to make holy textiles.
Erich von Daniken's idea of the lines as landing strips for aliens is the most notorious. His book sales could build a small spaceship, or more practically, provide water for the inhabitants of Lima's shantytowns. Von Daniken ranks with the mental bubblegum of the Celestine Prophesy, and irritates Peruvians by suggesting their ancestors needed ET to phone home for Peru's artifacts.
After a parched eight-hour drive south from Lima, the sensible theory seems to me to be that the lines are about the thirst for water. The southern coast of Peru is one of the driest places on earth.
It's amazing to see massive 2,000-metre sand dunes near Ica, north of Nazca. These are serious dunes. In my head, I run a film called Lawrence Of Peru, using alpacas instead of camels. The rocky plain near Nazca looks like a grainy home video from the moon's Sea of Tranquility.
Early lines from 400 BC are spirals, a tribal symbol of water. These evolved into water creatures and creatures drinking. We drink our last liquids as Hannibal, our Nascar Nazca driver, zooms through quivering heat haze. It's obvious that water would be a desperate obsession here. If water came from a high place in heaven or a distant glacier zone, it was wise to communicate with that place.
A dozen tour companies run Nazca's spotter plane air force. There's an electric atmosphere as white-shirted pilots hustle to the planes and hand us an official certificate with a map of the different images we'll see. Our pilot has a baby face but a megaphone voice fighting the plane's roar.
"You will watch the tip of the wing. I will tilt the tip of the wing to point at the lines. I will turn and point both sides of the place. Do you understand? Yes?" All three of us say yes, glancing at the small cross of the wing tip dangling against the incandescent sky.
Tiny-plane giddiness is exaggerated by the strangeness of the landscape below. The manganese and iron oxide surface of the San Jose desert is a scroll written in an archaic language. In all directions stretch trapezoidal lines, diagonals, obscure geometric cross-hatching and, although I was too spaced on Dramamine to count, over 70 giant plant and animal figures.
Favourites are the abstract hummingbird searching for heavenly nectar, a seriously beaked parrot calling for rain, a killer whale determined to find the perfect wave and a giant spider looking for water droplets in the web of the world. What to von Daniken was an astronaut in a space suit looked to me like a wide-eyed monkey asking for a drink.
Forty-five minutes airborne leaves stark images of an ancient landscape telling tales of a lost civilization. Elaboration of the water worship theory suggests the lines were ritual paths where hundreds of people walked to make images come alive for water gods above.
I close my eyes in the glaring desert light on our return to the more prosaic line of the Nazca airstrip. I'm shaken, not by Dramamine or vertigo, but by a dizzying sense of people reaching across time, expressing their struggle to understand the world.
Nazca is a monument to environmental struggle and the life-giving water of the human imagination. In our world, where fresh water is the subject of urgent political debate, the ancient symbols of thirst have continuing relevance.