(Note to reader: Four days away from the computer, I jotted notes in a little notebook to chronicle the epic hike to Machu Picchu. Now in Cuzco, I've put it all together in one long Blog entry. Tried to include photos as well, but they take too long to upload. Perhaps in a separate posting. Enjoy!)
Day 1: Getting Started
“Tomorrow I take this old bag of bones on the Inca Trail for four days to Machu Picchu. Wish me luck!” I wrote on my Facebook status and to my surprise, people did. 23, to be exact, many giving me advice about how to survive the strenuous hike. I had actually written it a bit tongue-in-cheek, but now I was starting to feel a little nervous at 5:20 in the morning as I boarded the bus with 16 other travelers. We had first come together at an orientation meeting the night before, where we met Hilbert and Elvis, our two guides and went through the numerous details of what the trip entailed—what to pack, what to expect and so on.
The way the mind works, it starts to worry beforehand about all that might go wrong. And in this case, a lot! Consider. I’m 61 years old and am generally in decent shape and good health. But I did have a hernia surgery just four months earlier, have had chronic back issues, occasional minor knee problems, a severe sprained ankle a long time ago that bothered me for three years. I’ve been going through major dental re-working, including a temporary front tooth that I just hope will hold up. I’m about to go up and down a rigorous trail with 6,000 feet in elevation change (little did I know how much up and down and just how rigorous) for some 26 miles far away from any ambulance or helicopter. When I finally got the courage to ask what happened if someone fell and broke a bone or any number of possible accidents, the answer was “a porter will take you out on piggyback.” I signed no insurance waiver and there was no discussion about back-up emergency plans. The Risk Committee at my school would be having heart failure by now and though I’m advocating for less fear and more lilies-of-the-field trusting, it did make me pause for a moment.
Then there’s the weather. It’s the rainy season and it could just very well rain the entire time, as it apparently did the trip before. It could also be quite cold at night or blazing hot during the day. Who knows? It’s weather, after all.
Finally, there’s the group. It’s a huge risk to sign on with 13 strangers (besides my wife Karen, daughter Talia and her friend Zoe) and hope that they’ll be good people to be with. One obnoxious person or abrasive personality can bring the whole thing down. The guides themselves are key players and we were off to a weird start with Hilbert, whose sentences ran something like this: “Okay, guys, I’m Hilbert, guys and I’ll be your guide, guys. Guys, we’re going to meet tomorrow, guys, just here, guys, at 5:30 am guys, and bring your passport, guys and we’ll give out the poles, guys…” Really hard to capture in print and even harder to listen to for too long.
So though this was a well-organized trip far from the old explorer spirit of just taking off in the unknown of the wilderness, one with porters carrying up to nine kilos of your clothes, necessities, sleeping bag and insulate pad while you carried your day pack, with high-quality truly rainproof tents, with cooked meals (little did we know how incredible that was to turn out to be), experienced guides who had done the trip many, many times, it still promised to be an adventure with more than its share of risky and exciting unknowns. No guarantees that our bodies would be up for the challenge, the weather would cooperate, the people would be pleasant. In short, real life.
So after my growing anxiety to just get the thing going, there we finally were, ready to go. We got our passports and permits checked, crossed the bridge to the trailhead, posed for the “before” group photo and off we went. Within a mile, the sun came out and we start peeling. And so we walked for six hours with a break for a most delicious cooked lunch with soup, trout, vegetables and more delights that were to become a daily six-course feast. The ups and downs were gradual, the weather lovely and everyone in good spirits as our anxieties were soothed. The prevailing sentiment was, “This is going to be easy and fun!”
Little did we know.
Day 2: Stairway to Hell
The trouble began in the middle of the night. 12:30 am to be exact. I went out of my tent to pee and when I crawled back in my sleeping bag, noticed my stomach was upset. Some kind of acid indigestion, that vague discomfort and mild pain that just sits there, not exiting either above or below. It bothered me enough that I couldn’t get back to sleep and once I had trouble sleeping, I grew anxious that I wasn’t sleeping. The curse of the insomniac, something I’ve never had and it was hell. Today was the “challenge hike,” nine to twelve hours of hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass at almost 14,000 feet and I would need some sleep.
I lay there awake for some three and a half hours and finally fell asleep for a half hour before being awakened officially at 5 am. The porters left hot water in a bucket for washing and a cup of coca tea. I took one sip of tea, felt a chill and a shudder and rushed to the camp bathroom, a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Came to breakfast and nibbled at a banana and part of a pancake, my appetite gone. Not an auspicious beginning.
Off we went in the rain and began ascending the stone steps. It didn’t take long for Karen and I to find ourselves at the end. Most people were in their twenties and thirties, one group of three in their forties and then us. I’m usually a front-of-the-line kind of guy, but I was fine accepting that the end of the line was to be my new place on this trip. Hilbert, our guide, had a cute expression: “Hold your llamas,” reminding us to go at our own pace and not to worry. And so I did. And it was fine except that when I arrived at the place where the group had been resting for 20 minutes, I got three minutes of rest before everyone was ready to go off again. A bit of a flaw in the “Hold your llama” practice.
By the time we got to a snack stop, with the rain continuing, I was exhausted. My stomach still hurt, I was suffering from my short four-hour sleep and I had eaten very little and didn’t have the appetite for much more. I got an electrolyte chewable from my marathon-running daughter and when I had rested for a too-short five minutes, off we went again for the final ascent to the pass.
It was here that I began composing the sequel to Led Zeppelin’s old hit with my new version: Stairway to Hell. From Jacob’s ladder to the Hindu chakras on the spine, spiritual achievement is associated with ascent. Up to the spiritual world away from the mud and blood and sweat and tears and swamp of the earth to the purer air up high and climbing those stairs or ladder means you are making an effort, going against gravity to rise above your baser self. You feel that climbing a mountain and getting a larger overview than is possible when you’re down in the thick of things. And so some cultures envision heaven above and that’s where the stairs go. But my heaven was down at the base of the stairs, my hell getting to the top.
I mean, here I was, the tireless advocate of first-hand experience, of effort, of pushing beyond your comfort level, noticing the conversation going on in my head. I was ready to nominate myself for the President of the Armchair Travel Association. I was eager to be the first in line at the Machu Picchu I-Max Movie Experience. I was thinking of the Little Engine That Could chugging along chanting “I think I can, I think I can” but the louder shout of “No puedo mas!!” was ringing in my ears. Step by weary step, I pulled myself up with my two hiking poles and felt like the folks in their walkers who I visit at the Old Age Home. Except at my pace, they would have been speeding by me in their Ferrari walkers. Besides the lack of sleep and bad stomach and 61 years laughing at me “Hah! You thought it was enough just to feel young!” there was the question of the air as we approached 14,000 feet. Not much of it for these sea level lungs to breathe. And every time I came around a bend thinking the the top would be in site or there would be a stretch of level ground, there they were, 200 more steep, stone stairs.
Nothing helped. I started praying to every god I knew— Pachamama, Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, Thor, Zeus, Kuanyin, Shango. I wasn’t particular. The phones were ringing, but no one was answering. I briefly followed a llama who had a good sense of zig-zagging around the stairs and resting every twenty yards, but lost him when I stopped to re-tie my boots. Porters were whizzing by in sandals with 25 pounds on their back, the 14-year old on our trip was two miles ahead, the top seemed to keep receding every time I looked at it. The biggest encouragement I got was from three yellow daisies on the side of the trail and later, a little bloom of lupine.
I started counting the steps, a little mediation exercise I sometimes do and got to 500 at least twice before stopping that little ploy. (I later found out that there were some 4,500 steps! Probably best that I didn’t know ahead of time.) I tried to write a song in my head “One step at a time.” Never had that cliché rung so true. But who can create something when every ounce of your energy is talking to your feet, “Move!”
In the thick of your doubt, you lose faith. But math is inevitable, the steps added up and there I was at the summit. It looked like there would be no need to re-name it—Dead Woman—plus one man—‘s Pass. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
But my exhiliration was short-lived. For now, we had to descend for the next few miles, something easier on the lungs, but harder on the legs. And once more I found myself whining like a kid in the back seat of a car “When are we gonna get there?!!!” Only no one was around to hear it, because most of them were there. The lunch spot that is. Hungry. And waiting for me.
I finally joined them and found my appetite was still wanting. And then our guide announced, “Okay, guys, we just have to go up over this other pass and then down for another three hours.” I was plotting how to fake a broken leg to see if a porter would carry me. But I trudged on, weary step by weary step and finally reached a quite lovely campsite. Spirits reviving, I went to the popcorn and hot chocolate happy hour followed by another remarkable dinner (though my appetite still tenuous) and crawled into the tent hoping for a good night sleep and a happier day three.
And indeed, it came to pass.
Day 3: Peeling Back the Layers
I slept the whole night through, my stomach felt better and the rain had slowed to heavy mist. Things were looking up. After breakfast, we had a formal introduction to the porters. Most are farmers with families who do portering opposite the planting season. It seemed odd to have waited until day three to introduce them, but better late than never and very sweet as each one stepped forth and told us his name and where he was from and then we did the same. And remember me wondering about our group back on Day One? They turned out to be all lovely people with good values, appreciative of the porters and the cooks and our guides and each other.
We found out a little history of the unionization of the porters some seven years ago, some strict limits on what they’re expected to carry, better working conditions and such. One of us, the Little Miss Sunshine member of our group, was determined to break down the barriers and invite the porters in for Happy Hour to “party with us.” They seemed alternately confused and amused by it. I happened to be reading the book The Help on this trip and the whole question about where the lines are between cultures and service and what they mean came up in this little encounter. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the service arrangement and want everyone to be our friends, but that’s a weird notion in cultures that are accustomed to it. And in my experience, that’s most of South America, Asia and a lot of Europe as well. But I’ll save that for another blog— I have a day of hiking ahead of me.
With a good night’s sleep and breakfast behind me, I hit my hiking stride and move to the middle of the group, not from any macho need to prove myself, but just in response to my natural pace. I feel strong, I feel happy, I start to notice all the things closed to me when I was in survival mode. The waterfall racing on both sides of the lupine. The bromeliads attached to the trees. Wildlife is still sparse and bird song as well, but sometimes the flowers and plants look as familiar as a hike in the Bay Area.
I haven’t showered, shaved or looked in a mirror in almost three days. I haven't stepped on a bathroom scale, not measured myself next to the better-looking guy in the magazine or hotter piano player on the CD. My sense of self is that bag of flesh and bones inside a thin blue poncho, feet planted firmly on the solid earth, breath rising and falling, mind clearing like the sun breaking through the wisps of mountain fog. I can feel all the layers of self peeling back, the thick walls of ego softening, the heavy clothing of civilization, politeness and good citizenship shedding, the multitude of selves needed to negotiate the modern world falling away to reveal the core at the center of it all, that breathing entity inside the blue poncho.
When we stop to rest at an overlook with some resident llamas, the clouds clear and good humor and convivial conversation bubbles up. The stories of who we are and where we’re from and what we do replaced by the playful banter of people at ease. Yesterday’s ordeal seems like a distant story, the world is re-born and all of us with it.
It feels good. Like Huck Finn, makes me feel that I’ve been too damn civilized for my own good. A man’s got to get out of town and live and breathe the rhythms of this natural earth, even if only for four days. And a woman too. And sometimes they can all do it together.
On to Day 4.
Day 4: Singin’ in the Rain
We awoke to the morning birds and the distant song of the quena flute. Stepped out from our tents into the welcoming warm air of the high jungle and savored our last breakfast together of pancakes, quinoa porridge, coca tea or coffee. It was the long-awaited day— we were going to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu City.
By now, day packs expertly packed, ponchos ready for the morning mist, a song in our hearts and a lightness in our steps, we began the gentle descent. Hearts humming, spirits thrumming, the sound of our worn boots on the path while condors flew overhead. An hour of silent walking, each wrapped in their own private thoughts, the steep mountains wrapped in swirling fog peeking in through the trees. And then around the corner and a collective intake of breath. Like an explorer discovering Shangri-la in the Himalayas, Moses seeing the Promised Land, a lost ship sighting land, we stopped in our tracks. No postcard had adequately prepared us for what lay before our astonished eyes as we arrived at the Sun Gate.
There below us, the last wisps of morning mist circling the temples as the sun broke through the distant fog, a double rainbow framing the whole scene, was Machu Picchu in all its splendor. I don’t know what music sounded in my companions’ minds, but I’m sure it included trumpets, swelling strings and angelic harps. It was still early enough that the tourists had not yet arrived and we descended to the stone buildings half a millinium old and wandered around the ruins like lovers in a trance. The sun warmed our bones as our guide expertly explained some of the details of the ceremonial sites, evoking a peaceful and harmonious civilization in tune with Pachamama, our Mother Earth. Standing there in the silence of that mystical, magical place,you could feel it down to your bones, The surrounding steep mountains cradled the site, the big sky above and flowing river far below, the llamas wandering peacefully amongst the green-grassed plazas. We stood in a circle in one of the plazas, held hands and sang a simple, ancient Quechua song our guide taught us and felt like we, too, were now part of the community of Ancestors who followed the Inca path of Love and Work. It was the moment of a lifetime.
So was my fantasy of how it would be. But nothing in the above story was true except the pancakes, coffee and coca tea. Here’s the real story of what happened.
We were awakened at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. by the shouts of the porters. It had rained relentlessly all night and no relief as we stepped bleary-eyed out of our tents in the dark. We dragged ourselves to breakfast, dressed in the same wet and dirty clothes and assembled on the path in the rain with our flashlights. Down the steep, slippery stones we went, hiking in the dark, trying to get into our hiking rhythm when we stopped. We had walked for exactly five minutes before we stopped at a building for our last passport-control check. Backs pressed to the wall, the unsavory smell of the nearby bathroom, we sank down to sit on the concrete floor as our guide proclaimed, “One hour, guys!” Apparently, the early awakening was simply to beat the rush and be the first in line.
By the time we started walking again, the day had grown lighter, but the rain had not let up. Everyone was doing their own personal prayers for it to stop, but apparently to no avail. When we arrived at the famous Sun Gate where the postcard picture is taken, we were treated to the sight of…rain and fog. Couldn’t see a thing as our guide pointed down and said, “It’s down there somewhere.” We descended to the next viewpoint where fragments of building could be seen and all the hikers were converging like lemmings swarming to the sea. Down to the next level and one short moment of “There it is!”, the sight long awaited already filled with colorful ponchos of the tourists arriving by early morning buses.
“Okay, guys, follow me!” and down we go outside the gates by the souvenir stores and we’re in Disneyland on a rainy day. Packed with tourists, people smoking, a bathroom that you had to pay money to use (Money? What’s that?). Then stand in line to re-enter the site and get our passports stamped and re-gather to begin the official tour. Our guide, bless his lovable heart, a good person, but someone who could stand a little teacher-training, started off for the 25th time, “Okay, guys. In 1911 when Mr. Hiram Bingham first discovered Machu Picchu City, it was overgrown in the jungle. There were two families living here and farming. So when Mr. Hiram Bingham in 1811 (he kept confusing these dates) came here to Machu Picchu City, it didn’t yet look like this.” And on he went while we stood in our torn ponchos with the rain picking up and slight shivering from the cold and no body heat from hiking. “Any questions, guys?!” and you didn’t have to be a psychic to know that every one was thinking, “If any one asks a question, I will personally strangle them with my bare hands.”
On we trudged with the growing mob of fellow tourists, walking to the next set of buildings and stopped while our guide continued, “So, guys, when Mr. Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu City in 1911…” A more ragged, discouraged group of poncho-clad shivering people than us would be hard to find. I actually had made peace with life in the rain and was trying to picture Gene Kelly singing in the rain amidst the ancient buildings, undaunted by the weather. It worked for a minute and then became annoying to have this soundtrack from an American musical playing in my head in the land of the ancient Incas.
At the end of the formal tour we were free to explore on our own. Some of us took refuge under the thatched roof of one of the reconstructed buildings and miraculously, the rain started to let up. We walked back up to some of the higher viewpoints and snapped pictures like mad. And before we left a couple of hours later, the sun did break through. For about six seconds, I believe.
Despite everything, some of the magic indeed had seeped in our spirits like the morning rain. It is a place worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and I’m grateful beyond measure that I was privileged to be there.
But still, I wouldn’t have minded Scenario One.
Epilogue: Bliss-Bestowing Hands
It was an old familiar feeling. Coming down from the mountains, dirty-clothed and beard-grizzled, into the hustle and bustle of the town. Time away, spent with a small group of people on the top of the world, and then down into the marketplace. In the Zen tradition, the seeker goes on retreat up in the clouds and comes back to the workaday world with “bliss-bestowing hands.”
And so we 17 bedraggled hearty hikers got on the bus at Machu Picchu and began our descent. First step was Agua Calientes, a roaring brown river churning it’s way through the town like chocolate at a furious boil and people, people, people, stores, stores, stores, the buying and selling and coaxing and begging and enticing, the first TV’s in four days blinking their rapid images to trick our ancient hunter’s brains into paying attention, the music blaring, the sexy curves that had been hidden under rainpants and ponchos out on display. Quite a contrast to the serene peaks and undulating hills and unpeopled Inca ruins who speak in whispers, “Pay attention if you like, but if not, we’ll go on manifesting our nature as we have for hundred or thousands of years.”
Despite my college fantasies that I would live in the country, I’ve been an urban guy for most of my adult life. So all of this was familiar and in a short time, walking on the roof of the world seemed like a distant dream. We had our farewell lunch, attempted to say some formal goodbyes to our guides in a challenging situation with other trekkers in the same restaurant, walked to the train station past the Christmas tree in the plaza made from green plastic soda bottles. We were back in civilization, such as it is.
Four of the seventeen were staying in Agua Calientes, three were wandering the market and the remaining ten sat in a circle outside the train station on our rice sacks filled with dirty clothes. My wife and I were the oldest times two, but still we enjoyed the group of young folks that had clearly bonded deeper by their arduous and thrilling four days together. Our train was delayed by two hours and we were in that traveler’s “wherever you go, there you are” mode, so it was just fine to hang out longer. We finally boarded the train, continued the conversations to the last stop at Ollantaytambo, switched over to the bus. By now, it was 8:30 and we had been awake since 3:30 that morning. Conversation went from a boil to a simmer to still water as we dozed off. Me, too, but when I woke up an hour and a half later, we still had not arrived in Cuzco.
The bus seems to be going about 25 miles an hour, with speed bumps every few hundred yards on the road. Finally, the lights of Cuzco appeared below and at one point, my wife spotted a circle of blue light at the base of the White Christ statue we had climbed to five days earlier. “I’ve never been happier to see Jesus,” I told her, knowing we were almost there. At 11 at night, we disembarked, made a small circle on the sidewalk with a hands-in-the-center “Here’s to Hiram Bingham in 1911!” and hugged each other farewell and then broke off to our various hostals. My group walked past the bustling Plaza de Armas with rice sacks of dirty laundry on our back like Santa Claus (the Western Zen monk come down bestowing gifts), anxious to get to the hotel and our first shower in four days. I even passed the Samba band out in the Plaza without taking one step in their direction, passed the Cuban salsa band, through the electric night streets of this now familiar city with one goal firmly in mind—shower and shave!
And here was a surprising moment. I had no desire whatsoever to check my e-mail. I had disconnected from that world and found it supremely refreshing. I imagined the world had gone on just fine without me and I knew down to my newly-muscled revived body and spirit that I had touched an old familiar self that is worthy to remember and habitually visit. I know I’ll be pulled into it all again tomorrow and it will be okay, but hereby make this public vow to periodically withdraw, be it a Zen retreat, a backpack trip or just the decision to unplug and read and play piano for four days. Sometimes you just need to get your hands off of the e-mail keyboard to feel bliss on your fingertips again.
Gratitude to my wife and daughter for pulling me out of work mode onto the trail, to the guides, porters and fellow hikers, to the maker of my boots and the inventor of plastic (at least in the rainy season), to the genius and beauty of the ancient Inca civilization (we’ll skip the brutality and terror for now). And of course, to “Hiram Bingham, who in 1911, discovered Machu Picchu City and…”