I have just hiked up the old Inca trail and I am coming back down to approach the ruins of Machu Picchu - those miraculous ruins are more intact with life than many flourishing settlements.
Two men, farmers in rubber boots carrying farm tools, overtake me. We greet each other hesitantly, and they inquire if I am from North America. When I say yes, they ask if I do not think this is something very wonderful here in the mountains. One of the men adds something I cannot understand and touches his heart. I then touch my heart and sing in a loud, clear voice: ''Viva Peru!''
''Good,'' says one, ''OK,'' says the other, and they go on.
I clamber down two terraces and come on a large group of teen-agers with picnic equipment, a few parents, and an armed soldier in a starched dress uniform. A few of the boys and two of the girls are wearing uniforms.
The soldier stops me with a raised arm, and asks a question. I respond with a ''Buenas tardes.'' He indicates that the youngsters are to wish me the same, and so one by one we greet each other.
I am ready for the next question, and it is just as I thought it would be. What did I think of all this, and his arm sweeps over mountain peaks and the magnificent ruins.
''Precioso,'' I say, that being the grandest adjective I know in Spanish, meaning something like ''glorious'' or ''wonderful.'' The soldier looks stern and corrects me: ''Preciosisimo.'' I take that to mean grander than grand.
I then tell him that the Incas were a great people, achieving many things when much of the rest of the world was asleep. The soldier agrees that the Incas were good workers and points out the terracing of the mountainside to his young charges as well as to me.
One of the lads then says something which brings smiles and laughter to all - even the stern soldier unbends a bit. I ask in English: ''What did he say?'' At first no one dares tell me.
But I repeat my question, and one older girl answers in fairly good English: ''He says Peruvians are the best people in the whole world.''
I turn and face him, bow low, and agree. I say that God smiles on them, and my young interpreter repeats what I have said. Then the soldier begins his lecture, and I stay for a bit, joining in, and then move off to explore the ruins on my own. Just as I go, one asks if this is my first visit. When I nod in the affirmative, they all nod as well - for them, too, it is a dream come true.
Three hours later, after their picnic, lecture, and explorations, we meet again. I am sitting with a couple from Argentina fluent in both Spanish and English.
As each Scout or parent chaperone passes us, we exchange greetings and assure each other again of how magnificent are these Inca ruins. The Argentinians translate for me, as well as for some of the Peruvians.
They look at me when the group has passed and remark, ''Goodness, you must have had a remarkable meeting up past the watchtower.''
I hesitated, and the wife said, ''Your heart is touched, I can tell.''
Then I explained that we had shared our present greatness from God as well as the greatness in the time of the Incas and even before that. All our history was glorious.
''You could feel the pride,'' the husband said, and then after a pause, ''the right kind of pride.''
I took one last look around the ruins as clouds began lowering and thought: What a marvelous setting for such a lesson.